How to work less - and still be a success

The CBI is urging us to "work smarter, not longer". But is it possible to stick to the nine-to-five and still be a successful professional? Four high-flyers test the theory, while entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox offers her tips to beat executive stress
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The Independent Online

Early in my career, I worked for Samsung in a basement in Korea. Everyone had to be in the office by 6.30am, when we sang the company song. After that, the feet went on the desk and everyone slept or relaxed for the next 10 hours. We all went home at 8.30pm having achieved very little. It was easily the least efficient environment I have ever experienced.

But sometimes, putting in the hours can be really fruitful. If you are working long days because you're passionate about what you do, and it's exciting, and you see progress, then good on you. The early days of lastminute.com were very hard: we arrived early in the morning and stayed until late at night. When you start your own business, the hours become irrelevant. If you have stuff to do, then you have to do it, otherwise nothing will happen.

The thing to remember, though, is that time spent at your desk is no guarantee of efficiency. I will admit to some bad practice, even in those early days. There is a wonderful website called net-a-porter.com, which will deliver fabulous shoes and handbags right to your desk, and I used to occasionally give myself an hour on that. My business partner, Brent, thought I was being virtuous staying in the office so late. Most office workers would be horrified to know how much time they waste browsing online.

There are some mistakes that people frequently fall into, and for which there are easy solutions. Something that used to drive me mad when we started lastminute.com were meetings for meetings' sake. I'm very decision- and action-based, so having endless meetings with no fixed agenda was infuriating. To stop this happening, everybody has to prepare thoroughly and there needs to be a specific goal. What are you trying to do with this chunk of time? If you make the objective clear, it is less likely to degenerate into a series of unrelated discussions. Meetings must be decision-focused, and then those decisions must be followed up with actions afterwards.

Another great time-waster is the habit of e-mailing rather than talking. Even when Brent and I were sitting opposite each other in a tiny office, we used to send each other e-mails. Sometimes it's a non-intrusive way of reminding about a point but often it's completely ridiculous. Sending an e-mail often means: "I've registered this, but I don't need to clarify what I think yet." Talk face to face. That way, you are forced to clarify your thoughts, and everything can happen quicker.

Terri Hall, Managing director of Hall or Nothing Music PR

MONDAY: I arrive at my office at 10am. I live 20 minutes away and usually work a 10- to 12-hour day, but sometimes it is much longer - I worked one 23-hour stint with Oasis this year. In this job, you have to work when you have to work, and I would expect my staff to do the same. I'm already pretty tired as last week I was busy with the Warchild album. Spend this morning updating newspapers on the sales. I do my best to leave early but walk out the door at 7.45pm. There is so much stuff to do.

TUESDAY: Arrive at 9.30am. Leave around midday to go to Kent to meet with new client, Ross Noble. No chance of leaving at 5.30pm since I have another meeting, this time with the band Make Good Your Escape. I make my escape at 9.30pm. I try to see all our new acts, and this isn't really a job I can delegate.

WEDNESDAY: Arrive at 9.30am to check e-mails before a 11am meeting about the Goal! soundtrack album. Again, no chance of leaving at 5.30pm since I have to conduct two interviews with potential new staff. I get away at 8pm.

THURSDAY: Today is the premiere for Goal!. I arrive at 9.15pm, leave the office at 5.30pm, get to the premiere for 7.45pm, and go on to the after-show party. There are loads of business contacts here and I stay until midnight.

FRIDAY: After last night, I get in at 11am. Friday is always busy with client updates. I leave at 5.15pm to attend a gig by our client, Elbow. Chat to journalists before leaving at 8pm. Catch a cab to The Forum in north London, where another client, The Mean Fiddler, is hosting a post-Reading and Leeds festival party for the people who worked at the event. Happy to bow out around 10pm.

VERDICT: C+ Work intersects with life for Hall. Her willingness to see people in person makes her an excellent PR, but doesn't let her score in the Work Smart stakes. But if she'd wanted a good work/life balance she would have chosen another career.

Tim Campbell, apprentice to Sir Alan Sugar at Amstrad

MONDAY: I often leave the house before my little girl has woken up and get home after she's gone to bed, but I took half a day off to take her to school on her first day. This week, I know I'm meant to be doing a 9am-5.30pm day, but with just one week before the launch of my first product, the Integra Face Care System, I need to make sure everything is perfect. I live close to work and get in at 7am. There are many elements to the launch like the website, warehousing and the logistics of the press conference. Despite my best intentions I leave at 8.45pm. I have no choice: the lawyers are in and I can't leave. Everything I have worked for is about to happen, so I must be meticulous.

TUESDAY: Arrive at 9am and immediately wish I'd come in earlier. I usually start at 8am, so my Blackberry is going off from then anyway. I manage to leave on time, but I carry on working at home. Last message is sent at 8.45pm.

WEDNESDAY: I have a meeting with finance at 8.30am, so have to start at 7.45am. Finish at 10.15pm. I have to write my speech for the press conference next week and the pressure is on. Sir Alan has warned me how to deal with journalists and questions from the floor. I'm not a shrinking violet, but I do have butterflies.

THURSDAY: Arrive at 8.45am for a meeting to review our website, www.integra-skincare.com. I can't leave until I know the warehouse is prepared and that all the accounting procedures are in place. Leave the building at 9.30pm.

FRIDAY: One working day until launch so I'm at my desk at 7.30am. I want my speech to be on Sir Alan's desk before he arrives and also want to buy donuts for my team to say thank you. Finish at 5.30pm but know I will be in over the weekend!

VERDICT: B+ There's no doubting Campbell's commitment to try and work hard within normal hours, but he broke curfew with regularity. That said, he did manage to leave the office at 5.30pm twice, but he needs to put the Blackberry away sometimes.

Bill Braithwaite, QC and head of Exchange Chambers, Liverpool

MONDAY: Leave home at 7.30am and am in work at 8.15am, with one work phone call on the way. I then work through to 3.30pm with a 20-minute break to get a sandwich. I am a QC who represents claimants who have suffered catastrophic brain or spinal injury, so I sometimes travel huge distances. My hours have impacted on my family life but I take great satisfaction from my job. It sounds trite to say that one doesn't do something for the money, but I don't. Usually, my claimant's lives have been ruined, and I help them fight for justice. Leave at 3.30pm and get home by 4pm, but work until 10.30pm preparing for the following day.

TUESDAY: Leave home at 7.30am and am driven to Oxford, so I start work at 7.30am. Spend the morning working on a consultation before breaking for lunch for an hour. Spend the afternoon preparing for tomorrow's consultation. Home at 5.30pm and end up working until 10.20pm, with a 45-minute break for dinner.

WEDNESDAY: Leave home at 6.50am for London. Work from 7.30 until 4pm. Once home, I work until 10.45pm preparing for a trial tomorrow in Bristol.

THURSDAY: Travel to Bristol and start work on trial at 9am. In court from 10.30am until 12.55pm. Work with the expert witness through lunch to 2.15pm. Back in court until 4.40pm. Get back to my hotel and work from 6.30 to 7.30pm on a different case. Spend an hour on a clinical negligence claim.

FRIDAY: Up at 7am, work on trial for two hours and back in court until lunchtime. Miss lunch as I am too busy re-reading the defence expert's report. In court until 4pm, have a short consultation with client and then spend three-and-a-half hours working in my car for Monday's consultation. My hours are structured, so there is just enough time to prepare properly, but it is always at the expense of leisure time.

VERDICT: B- Braithwaite works long hours, but as a doing this kind of work, he has to. Hiring a driver is a good move, though, so the travelling is not dead time. He admits to missing bridge with his wife because of the hours.

Sara Weller, managing director of Argos

MONDAY: Every day starts at 5.45am, rousing my daughter at 6am before I leave at 6.15am. I start work when my driver picks me up. My journey takes two hours, and today, I spend the time checking the Sunday sales figures, and preparing for a 9.30am meeting. My day is wall-to-wall meetings but I manage to leave just after 5pm, albeit laden with the usual large "in tray" of post, which I worked through on the way home.

TUESDAY: My day starts "properly" at 8am, preparing for a management meeting. Getting out of the office at 5pm tonight is easier because gaps between meetings mean I can stay on top of what's coming in during the day. I still leave with a huge pile of papers, which I get through before 7pm.

WEDNESDAY: Getting away at 5pm is tough; I cut short a briefing that is scheduled for an hour but could easily have lasted for two. Tonight's " out-tray" isn't big, and I still manage to end the day before 7.30pm, which is just as well as my job for the evening is to make my son's birthday cake for his party on Friday.

THURSDAY: My first meeting is at 8am, with a board meeting at 9am, which lasts until 2pm. I collect the "out-tray", go into London to join a non-executive board meeting. Finishing at 5pm today isn't an option. I have a meeting to chair, which lasts until after 6.30pm. I go home by train, but there are problems and I make it home at 9pm having sat on the floor, collecting e-mails via my Blackberry.

FRIDAY: Today I have store visits in Derbyshire and a session with area managers in the Western region. Visiting stores is a key part of my week, and even if nine-to-five was an outside possibility on other days it wouldn't be on these days. I don't know any senior people in a commercial operation who would want to work nine-to-five: a traditional 40-hour week is just too limiting.

VERDICT: A Top of the class. Weller works hard, but when she says she is going home at 6pm, guess when she's going home? Again, a driver is a definite boon, but it's really Weller's super-efficient preparation that makes her a Work Smart guru.

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