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Work Less: Get More Done

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Jul 22, 2014

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We’ve discussed in a previous article how a 4-day workweek could result in increased productivity and healthier, happier workers suffering less from the effects of stress.

Many salaried workers would jump for joy at the idea of a 3-day weekend, but what about freelancers and contractors, who work irregular schedules? And what about those people who are really passionate about their jobs? Not everyone works only for the weekend.

In fact a lot of productivity advice goes against this idea of taking an extended break from work. Habit is a powerful tool when it comes to being productive and avoiding procrastination, and the best way to develop a habit is to do something every day. Whatever habit you are trying to develop, you’ll find that most experts recommend that you take no more than one day off a week.

This seems to be particularly true of writing and many prolific and successful writers claim to write every day, with very few days off. Bestselling author, Stephen King, in his memoir and writing guide, On Writing, notes how he writes every single day, aiming for around 2,000 words. No doubt if King were to write only 4 days out of every 7, he would be significantly less productive.

So if you’re interested in utilizing the power of habit but don’t want to burn out, or become a workaholic, what is the answer?

Parkinson’s law and the power of deadlines

Parkinson’s law was first published in the Economist in 1955 and states that work expands to fill the time available for completion.

We’ve all experienced this phenomenon when we’re coming up to a deadline for school or work. As the deadline approaches, we work faster and become miraculously more productive, sometimes fitting several weeks’ worth of work into a few days.

Working longer hours may seem like the obvious way to get more done but as we previously pointed out, the longer you work, the more tired and less efficient you become.

The best way to prevent work from dragging on unnecessarily is to make sure you have a deadline. Without deadlines we are tempted to either put the work off until later or keep working, trying to silence our internal perfectionist, with no real end in sight.

The optimal number of working hours for productivity

The 8-hour workday seems to be today’s standard for most full-time workers. The United States Department of Labor reported that the average American, aged 25-54 with children, spent 8.8 hours a day working, traveling to and from work, and doing other work-related activities in 2011.

One of the first businesses to implement an 8-hour day was the Ford motor company in 1914. Before this, the average working day was between 10 and 16 hours. After cutting the working day, Ford found that the productivity of workers increased so much that their profits doubled within a 2-year period.

Other companies, impressed with the success Ford enjoyed, also adopted the 8-hour day, and it has continued with little experimentation into different workday lengths since.

The 8-hour day was optimized for industrial workers, but as we have previously discussed, it has little relevance to the knowledge workers of today.

A survey of more than 38,000 people by Microsoft in 2005 — the Microsoft Personal Productivity Challenge — found that while on average office workers worked 45 hours a week, they felt they were only productive for about 28 of those hours. In a 5-day week that equates to less than just over 5.5 hours a day.

In an office setting, it makes sense that knowledge workers only do 5 or 6 hours of productive work per day. The remaining 2 or 3 hours from the standard 8-hour day can easily be made up by attending meetings, making phone calls, replying to emails and other non-critical tasks.

But for people who work at home or who run their own businesses, many of these activities can either be eliminated completely or optimized so they take up only a small amount of time each day. By reducing the working day and fitting more work into a shorter time frame, more hours each day are available for leisure and family time.

Experimenting with a shorter work day

I am one of those people who work better if I do a little work every day, rather than taking set days off. I believe that the answer to increased productivity for me lies in working every day but reducing the length of each working day.

As 4 seems to be the magic number when it comes to productivity (see our previous discussion on 4-day workweeks and the famous book by Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Workweek), I decided to experiment with limiting my working day to 4 hours.

From tracking my time throughout the day I have found that while I may be sitting at my computer for most of the day, the actual amount of real work done is surprisingly low – often around the 4-hour mark.

The concept behind this experiment was to see if I could optimize my productivity by concentrating my working hours into a smaller period of time and eliminating distractions and wasted time as much as possible.

It takes a lot of willpower to stay focused and work solidly for 4 hours (with regular short breaks) without getting carried away on Facebook or distracted with emails – a skill I am still mastering. However so far, the results of my experiment seem to be encouraging.

On the days when I am successful with this new schedule, I  get more done in a shorter space of time. My hope is that by refining and perfecting this work schedule, I can get a whole day’s work done in the first few hours of the day, leaving the afternoons and evenings free to enjoy time as I wish.

Is a shorter workday the future?

A paper published by the new economic forum in the UK calls for a radical change to the working week by reducing it from an average of 40 hours per week to 21 – just over 4 hours per day in a traditional 5-day week.

The idea behind this reduced working day is that as well as eliminating the health and social problems caused by overwork, unemployment, carbon emissions, and other negative environmental impacts would be reduced as well.

If you work set hours for somebody else, your chances of cutting your working day in half may not be very good (although you could try for a 4-day workweek or showing your manager some of the problems associated with a traditional 9-5 work schedule)

However freelancers and those who work for ourselves may well benefit from a shorter working day, and it’s within their power to put it into practice.

Why not give it a try? We’d love to hear about your own experiments into working hours and how they have affected your productivity. Let us know how you get on in the comments.

Image credit: http://smallbiztrends.com/, retrieved on 22 July 2014 from http://smallbiztrends.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/work-harder-cartoon-business.jpg/; no modifications made, Licence: CC BY-ND (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/legalcode)

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