Gabazira's blog

The Effectiveness-Lab

Burning the midnight oil doesn’t make you more smart or effective

All hours aren’t equal and working long hours does not necessarily mean greater productivity – New Zealand

We all stay up late at night to complete a piece of work. And the next morning, many of you feel happy and eager to share with family, friends, and colleagues how great you are for burning the midnight oil.

When employees are not embarrassed to announce to the others that they burnt the midnight oil, it’s affirmation that the institution they work for encourages such a culture and likely rewards it. Organisations reinforce habits they consider positive and dis-incentivize those they consider harmful and would rather not see in the institution.

So – it’s not uncommon for companies not to promote those that do not burn the midnight oil. They may even be rated unsatisfactory at the annual performance appraisal. It becomes a real problem for employees to leave work at the stipulated time. Such employees have been tagged the ‘8 to 5’ type and have had their commitment questioned. Organisations disdain the ‘8 to 5’ type and exhilarate those that burn the midnight oil.

Well, before blowing their trumpets and touting that they stay up late to accomplish tasks, it may be worth noting that chronic late workers may not be as smart as they believe. To the contrary, they are usually inefficient and ineffective and likely cost the organization money.

Work smarter and not harder

Working fewer hours makes you more efficient.  Companies forget that stretching workers has its limits – the time comes when stretching can happen no more. Workers are human and the human body, in this case: brain-capacity, has its limits. It can’t be stretched endlessly and when we do so – human productivity is compromised, and employers get diminishing productivity returns

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company, conducted an experiment related to the work week and productivity. The company granted its 200 employees an extra day off each week and kept pay and employment terms the same. Despite the reduction in work hours, workers were 20% more productive and happier. Job satisfaction increased both at home and work.

On the other hand, South Korea employees work very long hours, but the country is near bottom amongst the OECD countries for labor productivity. In the EU, where education is designed to imbue efficiency and effectiveness traits in the brains of the educated, Greece is bottom in OECD measure of GDP per hour worked but has the longest working week

Japan – long admired for its employee commitment to the brands they work for, is reducing the number of hours worked by its labor force. Japan has realized that working long hours doesn’t necessarily increase worker productivity. To stem the culture of burning the midnight oil, Japan has resorted to measures like turning the lights out at the end of the working day.

In East Africa – it has been said that Uganda’s workers are the least productive at work and Kenya’s workers the most productive. We aren’t sure how long they work – but the principles above are equally applicable in the East Africa context. Human productivity is driven by hard factors like technology, but even more important soft issues like the human brain, heart, and soul. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world; all workers have the same human elements

Lessons for those that burn the midnight oil

  • You are more productive when you work the ‘8 to 5’ routine. Productivity diminishes as work hours accumulate.
  • Of course, we know that some people prefer working in the a.m – others p.m. and others very early a.m., i.e., from midnight to dawn. Irrespective of what your most productive window is, you can only do so much before you see diminishing productivity returns. For example, the ‘very early to dawn’ worker-type, become more unproductive outside their ideal work-window and primarily when the hours worked are stretched beyond the ideal
  • If a firm is considering reducing the number of hours worked – it should involve employees in the productivity-innovation design process. In the New Zealand study, employees were involved in the design of the program and voluntarily agreed to eliminate non-work related internet usage during office time. Employees and not employers best implement this kind of decision. It’s better bottom-up than top-down
  • Organisations should encourage flex-hour programs at work – to allow employees to work when they are most productive. The industrial age diktat of collecting workers in boxed spaces called offices, all at the same time, is untenable in this digital age. Instead – employers should pay more attention to processes that define individual employee tasks as well as a task-accomplishment clearinghouse. You don’t need to be physically at work, moreover at the same time, to attain quality work outcomes. Of course, this requires proper task coordination and clearing hubs + mindset change

Parkinson’s productivity law

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion – Cyril Parkinson. Parkinson worked for the British Civil Service and saw first hand how bureaucratic machines undermine their worker productivity, moreover, without ever recognizing that organisationally, they are dying on their feet.

According to Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So, if you give yourself a full day to conclude a one hour task, psychologically, this simple and straightforward task will become complicated and daunting so that it can fill a full workday. According to lifehack, it may not even fill the extra time with more work, but just stress and tension about having to get it done.

Please – note that by working smarter and faster, you will gain more time and an overwhelming task becomes normal and doable without the stress of burning the midnight oil.

We know that bureaucracies encourage employees to work harder and not smarter and faster. It’s a culture – and culture isn’t changed overnight. Many choose to avoid culture-change battles.

Help change the culture of burning the midnight oil and ensure that instead, you work smarter and faster.


11 responses to “Burning the midnight oil doesn’t make you more smart or effective”

  1. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading 👏🏿👏🏿


  2. “Productivity diminishes as work hours accumulate” This is very true and work quality get worse as work accumulates. Most of the employers preach work life balance but it is hard to see it practiced.

    It is high time for leaders to understand the basics of Emotional Intelligence Vs Performance etc

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JS – yes, this is a leadership issue and if the top honchos aren’t on the bandwagon – then you can’t change culture


  3. Super – thanks for pointing out these naked realities. I believe in working smart and not hard.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Enoka – exactly; you will also enjoy a much more healthier and effective life


  4. Very interesting AG, thank you for sharing this

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks JN for reading the blog… hope you are well


  5. Great Ssebbo. So you as Gabazira Apollo where do you belong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Muuna, getting better every day!!!!!


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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