Proof Americans Are Overworked, and Somehow Underproductive

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Americans work their collective asses off. For all of the discussion around how lazy or unmotivated the American workforce may be, the truth is that we work longer hours and are generally more productive than most others in the industrialized world. And yet, even after logging all of those hours, many of us still aren’t even getting through our daily to-do lists. It’s no wonder so many of us are actively on the job hunt. We’re overworked, not as productive as we (or our employers) would like to be, and increasingly becoming fed up with our stations in life.

And a batch of new research only reinforces it — numbers from a joint project between virtual assistant service Time, etc. and YouGov show that a full 43% of American workers are unable to get through their daily to-do lists. As a result, workers are suffering in that they ultimately are unable to see the fruits of their unfinished labors prosper and commit more time to career development and growth.

It’s not that people are lazy, as some might be thinking. The research seems to point to various culprits when trying to figure out why so many workers can’t complete their daily slate of tasks. The primary reasons? Dedicating huge chunks of time to scheduling or attending meetings — something that we know eats up lots of otherwise productive resources — and even more time on the phone, or responding to email. As a result, “54 percent dedicate 25 percent or less of their day to important, deadline-oriented assignments.”

“American employees are inundated with work. Not only are they responsible for tasks that are vital to business development, but they’re constantly scheduling meetings, taking calls and catching up on emails and admin,” said Barnaby Lashbrooke, Time etc. CEO. “This can result in lengthy to-do lists, filled with assignments that keep workers after hours, despite not always being related to the employee’s professional goals.”

In terms of after-hours work, Lashbrooke (who The Cheat Sheet has chatted with previously) wasn’t kidding. About 59% of the surveyed workers said that they stay later, after working hours, to slog through more tasks. That’s a signal of some serious inefficiency, and a great way to breed resentment toward an employer. Perhaps the most striking element here is the fact that people are spending so much time doing nothing particularly productive — it’s all maintenance and scheduling.

Lashbrooke’s company is looking to fill that void with an army of virtual assistants, but for the time being, it appears that many workers are still stuck sorting out their own messes. There are potentially billions of dollars to be freed up by taking some of the less-productive and menial tasks off of workers’ plates, and if that were to happen, we could look at other cost-saving measures for employers, like shortened workdays.

The other thing to address, on a personal level, is how to actually find a way to knock out the entire to-do list. Some of us might be S.O.L., with completely unrealistic expectations being thrust on us from superiors. The best you can do, in that case, is to put your head down and do the best you can. Of course, you should bring your concerns to management — but often they’ll fall on deaf ears.

If you’re simply having trouble slogging through the daily muck, there are some things you can try. One way, which we recently covered, is to refocus your approach to work — to change your mindset to allow for maximum productivity. Instead of looking at your workday as one giant gauntlet, break each and every task into smaller bits, and knock them out methodically and rapidly. This helps you build momentum and put together a string of small victories. That will eventually become a stretch that you won’t want to break.

Of course, you’re going to hit some resistance at some point, and actually physically fatigue. There are a number of measures you can take to counter that, as well. Turn to some physical and mental exercises to give yourself a short break before setting your sights back on your agenda. This is another way to keep momentum on your side and work more efficiently.

Of course, the main issue of being chronically overworked is something that will need to be addressed on a society-wide scale. The answer may be handing over the menial tasks to others, as Time, etc.’s model would allow, or by working on higher efficiency standards. All you can really do, as Theodore Roosevelt once quipped, is to “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

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