Productivity: Is it about working hours or is it about performance?

Dr Cath Bishop says you need to figure out your goals before working out how to be more productive.

Reading time: 3 min.

In high performance sport, the goal is performance, not counting gruelling hours spent at the gym. The same approach could be translated into the workplace, where again the goal should be performance, not hours or days worked. This approach fits the increasing number of examples of companies raising productivity by moving to four-day weeks or working days finishing at 3pm.  

These experiments need to move beyond detailing what the optimum number of hours should be. The point here isn’t to determine the best number of work days per week, the point is to determine the performance you are trying to achieve and then do what is required to deliver that. 

Let’s not get fixed on whether four days is the right number or not. Let’s focus instead on developing a culture that values what you are trying to achieve and explores how best to achieve that. When you’re clear on your goals, your purpose and the difference you want to make, then you can get on with delivering that, rather than counting hours at work.

This further mindset shift doesn’t just challenge what the traditional working week looks like, it defines the working week in terms of performance ingredients – what are all the things you need to do to ‘make the boat go faster’ – not hours clocked. That requires a change in language and perspective from leaders and their teams.  

Let’s not get fixed on whether four days is the right number or not. Let’s focus instead on developing a culture that values what you are trying to achieve and explores how best to achieve that.

If we look at the world of high performance sport, it’s rare for an Olympic athlete to evaluate their week in terms of hours or days. Instead, they’d focus on what they’ve accomplished in their training each week, PBs achieved, great training sessions in the gym, new technical advances made and new crewmates integrated into the team. 

That’s the performance language that helps companies raise their game – where a review of the week recognises what’s been done better than last week, what new ideas have been tried out, what new ways of working have driven forward the team performance, what were the standout moments of the week. 

Athletes don’t measure performance in terms of hours spent at the gym or on the rowing lake. Olympians don’t just train longer hours to go faster – we can’t, we’re already at the maximum point in terms of how many hours we can physically train. 

An Olympic rower typically trains three sessions a day – that’s about six hours a day of actual training; then there’s also the importance of eating well, resting well, stretching and relaxing, that’s all part of the daily performance schedule too. 

Every year, British rowers know they need to go faster, but they don’t just say they’ll spend another hour training, that would be madness and end up in injury, burnout and going a lot slower.  And as we can’t just train harder to go faster, so we have to be smarter in how we think, how we train, how we prepare and how we recover.

When Ben Hunt-Davis’s Olympic rowing 8+ decided to change its run of finishing 6-9th in the world and get to the top of the Olympic podium in Sydney, they certainly didn’t just train harder and longer. 

High performance sport constantly searches for new ways to make the next marginal gains in performance, and has long moved away from ‘training harder and longer’ as the way forward. That’s a great way of working to translate into the workplace.

About the author

Dr Cath Bishop is a senior consultant, facilitator and speaker for ‘Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?’



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