Yesterday, I talked a little about balancing short and long-term effort at a startup. Today, I want to discuss “cranking,” which I’ll define as a short-run effort to achieve an extremely important short-term goal.
How hard can people possibly crank? For a sufficiently motivating goal, people can work well in excess of 70 hours per week for months. With occasional short “vacations” that normal people would call a “weekend,” this level of effort can be productively sustained for much longer, although not indefinitely. I know this for a fact because I’ve done it, and I’ve seen it done.
Just because this is possible does not imply it is the best course of action in many (or, in fact any) cases. We ought not to plan on effort levels greater than what we are likely to be able to achieve. Planning on working 160 hours per week for even one week is nothing but foolish bravado.
I’m going to use a personal story to illustrate my point. This isn’t a typical startup, but it exemplifies maximum short-term effort. Moreover, I happen to have good contemporaneous estimates of my and other people’s effort, that are well documented in government reports and this article from Wired magazine.
In 1994, I worked as a programmer for the South African election commission during that county’s historic elections. I was one of the last people added to the organization, 20 days before the election. In the following 25 days, I worked approximately 400 hours (an average of 16 hours a day). This level of effort was not universal, but it was typical in many departments. Some people had been working at this level of effort with brief 2- or 3-day breaks for several months. The organization was only five months old, and a few people had been working pretty fiercely that whole time.
The hours were not just long, they were hard. To illustrate, consider my diet. I ate three big meals a day, and consumed an additional 1000 calories a day in soft drinks and snacks. Over the course of the project, I still managed to lose five pounds. The only explanation I have is that I was thinking that hard. I was also consuming about half a gram a day of caffeine, which significantly increases the brain’s metabolic efficiency. I twisted my ankle running early in the trip and thereafter got little exercise beyond my short walk to work. Paul Erdos famously said a mathematician is a machine for turning caffeine into theorems; I became a machine for turning caffeine and high-fructose corn syrup into code, and I was hardly alone.
Our motivation to work hard was very simple: succeed or die. Those of us who were foreigners had some chance of escaping the country should it slide into civil war, but most of the people there were South Africans, and legitimately felt they were working to save millions of lives and quite possibly their own. The country was looking to us to orchestrate a peaceful transfer of power. While there were many means by which peace might fail, we were informed that our failure would all but assure a civil war costing an estimated 10 million lives. It would be difficult to imagine a startup with a stronger sense of purpose than the people I worked with.
The environment facilitated hard work as well. Most of us were away from home and family, in an unfamiliar city with few amenities. We lived in hotels and ate prepared food, so we had no household responsibilities. Perhaps most of all, we had the mother of all hard deadlines: the election date was set in the interim South African constitution and was absolutely unmovable.
But this effort level was not sustainable. Physical and mental breakdown under the strain of this effort was fairly obvious in me and my coworkers. Wounds healed slowly. Colds and minor illnesses were common. We all became irritable, histrionic, and more than a little paranoid. In the last days of the project, the organization began to disintegrate. Worse, we were far more impaired than we realized, as many studies of fatigue have shown, including a notable one by author John Caldwell.
Also, we made mistakes, many of which would have been avoided by people with more sleep and perspective. These mistakes added to our workload, of course. We also had a lot of near-misses. For example, I ended up in charge of the Administration Directorate operations center the first night of counting. We had to drop our connection to the outside world to reboot a crucial server, or else endure deteriorating performance. A noticeable outage would have fueled rumors of malfeasance. I had to make the decision. It was a completely freaky situation, and I was glad I’d had a decent night’s sleep about 16 hours earlier.
We were strongly motivated both by desire to succeed and fear of failure. Did fear for our own well-being reduce the number of hours we worked? Hardly. Work was the easiest way to ignore the anxiety caused by the literal anarchy and acts of terrorism around us. But while fear did not limit our work hours, it likely made those hours less productive than they otherwise would have been.
We met our deadline, of course, at the cost of an organization depleted of intellectual, emotional, and physical reserves. The organization continued to function, performing winding-up operations and finalization of results, but any bad surprise at that point could easily have precipitated complete organizational collapse. In any case, many of us exhibited signs of mild post-traumatic stress, and there were some full-on nervous breakdowns.
That’s about how hard it is possible to crank: a bit over 400 reasonably high-quality hours of effort per month. The price is significant risk to the individual’s well-being and drastic destruction of organizational capability. Frankly, you can’t sacrifice that much to a short-term goal if you have any long-term goals at all.
My experience suggests that there is always a balance between shorter-term goals and longer-term goals. You balance dinner with your family tonight against risk of a schedule slip costing you your board’s confidence. You balance working all night to hit a deadline against days of fuzzy thinking. In the end, you balance what you want out of life this very instant against what you want for the rest of your life and what you want your family and community to have after you’re gone.
Rarely, those things all come down on the same side, and you work in a state of peace and flow. Mostly, we struggle to reach receding poles. The only balance we can have is to allow these things to stretch us without pulling us apart.
By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.