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The Secrets To German Efficiency

Germans have the most powerful economy in the EU, but they work fewer hours than nearly any other nation. It's not a mystery, and we'll tell you all about it.
by Sandra Wu | Jan 1 2017

Work hard, play hard.

Wherever you’re from, there are probably two things you know for sure about Germans: one, they make great cars, and two, they get a whole lot done. In fact, Germans have one of the most robust economies out there—and yet they log fewer in-office hours than most of their fellow EU members. On average, Germans clock 35 hours a week and go on vacation for 5 weeks a year. Somehow, they still get 70% more work done than the Greeks.

You might be astonished by that last figure—at first, I was, too. But then I started working at Blinkist.

Just to get you up to speed, Blinkist is an app that transforms great nonfiction books into quick, easy-to-understand highlights, filling in the gap that so many people feel between what they want to learn and what they actually have time for. All of this is to say that efficiency is baked into Blinkist’s culture. My culture is Canadian, but our team is made up of people from more than 14 different countries. In our time here, we’ve all started to get the hang of an important aspect of our work culture: how to get things done like a German. In the past year, I’ve observed how my amazingly efficient German colleagues treat their workdays. Here are some of their secrets:

1. Only work when you’re productive

If you ever come to work with a stuffy nose, you will be sent home within the hour. Non-Germans tend to feel bad for taking sick leave, but Germans look at it differently – if you’re working when you shouldn’t be, it takes you longer to recover, and you’re also endangering the health of your colleagues. Similarly, if you’re no longer productive at work, you’re better off getting recharged for the next day than to work overtime. This philosophy was brilliantly explained in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Imagine yourself as a saw: if you spend all day sawing away without a break, your work will get sloppy. You must sharpen the saw regularly by leaving the office on time, taking sick leave when needed, and going on vacation.

2. Don’t get caught up in failures

Have you ever made a mistake at work that sets you back for days? You probably lost time on damage control and also had to explain yourself to your superiors, leaving you doubt your own abilities as a result. A philosophy in action I’ve noticed on the part of my German colleagues is that they don’t waste time on things out of their control. Our CEO Holger Seim is famous for this: you will never hear him utter the words “mistake” or “failure;” instead, he calls them “learnings.” A great book to read on having a productive attitude in the face of difficult is the 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin.

3. Work to live rather than living to work

North Americans often get made fun of for taking up high-paying jobs that they dislike, just to pay off their fancy car and condo. Germans are polar opposites and tend to live leaner lifestyles. Less than 20% of the population own property, compared to over 80% of the Spanish. Their philosophy is, “Why compromise your freedom for something that you can’t pay off ’til you retire” As a result, they have fewer bills, and can clock out and live their lives at the end of the (reasonably timed) workday. In turn, this makes them much more productive. To avoid falling into the rat race of slaving for a lifestyle that you can’t afford, read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill.

4. Process is everything

It’s true: Germans do tend to love processes. This is also very true in our German startup: Asana and Excel are our best friends. Before we start a new project at Blinkist, we set up timelines, documentation, metrics and contingency plans. To those who are more pragmatic, this might seem pointless. However, setting up with a strong process will make your life much easier when you need to report on progress, analyze data, backtrack, or bring on another team member. By taking an extra few hours to set things up right in the beginning, you’ll save yourself a lot of headache for the months to come. For great advice on getting organized, read Blinkist’s favorite productivity bible: David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

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