Shorter Work Weeks, Offices and Productivity

I came across an article via Lifehacker about historical figures and productivity. I wasn’t surprised to see number one on the list is don’t work long hours.

Too often in the corporate world long hours are used as an indicator of productivity, which is totally artificial. Someone could sit here for twelve hours and do nothing, what is that really telling you?

When I started my new job I saw people were running off to the gym all throughout the day. I asked if they stayed late or came in early to offset their workout time, and they said not as long as the work is done. I asked my manager if it was acceptable for me to visit the gym on work time, and her response was basically the same, go whenever you want, as long as your work is done we don’t care. So I’m essentially working a 35 hour week, and I’ve never been more productive. Imagine what I could do in a 30 hour week?

The problem is if you’re allocated a certain amount of time to complete a task, you will fill all of that time and probably even require more. 37signals found when they reduced their work week to 4 days, the same amount of work would get done but the employees were a lot happier. The quality of that work was probably improved. Alana, my girlfriend, has switched to a 4 day week with her new shop, and is making as much as (or more) money than she was before and is doing her best work ever.

I’ve learned to manage my time really well without micromanaging. I have my morning routine where I eat some semblance of breakfast, check emails, follow up with people, schedule appointments and meetings, and make a loose outline of what I’d like to accomplish for the day. Then the rest of the day (excluding interruptions from meetings) is left to just working. I cut out to the gym at 4, and I’m left with that last hour just to reflect. It seems like a small change (not to mention what 40 hour work week person doesn’t actually work 45-50?) but it has had significant impact on how well I work, and how much I am able to accomplish in my day. I’m rested and have more energy at the start of the next day. I’ve had time to think, and ultimately thinking is really what I am paid to do. Producing is only a side effect of thinking.

So naturally, I’m at my most productive when I’m not at work at all. My Saturdays are reserved both for relaxing, errands, preparing for class and freelance work. On average, I do actual work (including preparing for class) for 4-5 hours every Saturday. I’m able to do more work in those 5 hours than I can do every week night combined.

I sleep in until 9, take the dogs for a walk, get my groceries from the market, have brunch there and then finish any errands I have left. I come home and walk the dogs again, put the groceries away, straighten up the house, and maybe put in a load of laundry. Then I take a very leisurely nap for several hours. (I should note the article’s number two and three suggestions were take breaks and take longer breaks.) When I wake up I feel great, all the crap I need to take care of is done and I’m relaxed. Without those distractions I’m able to spend the next few hours focusing only on work, and end up “in the zone” the entire time.

Not everyone works so well at home, but I think most responsible people can. Obviously there are times where being at the office is critical, but I think even at a large company most designer/developers could be offsite at least 3 days a week, and the quality of work would be higher. As Dan Benjamin notes, all the distractions of the office make it difficult to get in (and stay in) “the zone.”

My desk is right by a door, so there’s a steady stampede of loud talkers passing back and forth all day. Our cubicle walls were lowered 6 inches so we stare at the back of each other’s heads and are practically inserted into every conversation or conference call that happens in this space. The designated “food cubicle” is right next to mine so I have people lingering and chatting all day. Ironically, the lowered walls were meant to foster collaboration but instead provide distraction. Most of the people we need to collaborate with are outside of a group in other buildings and floors anyhow. Even with headphones it’s nearly impossible to ignore all these distractions. I suppose at least now I have a view of the windows.


  1. Safety Anchors

    Take a single day as an example. You work 8 straight hours, or you work 3.5 hours, take an hour off to the park and have some lunch, then return to work 3.5 hours more. During your hour off, you lie down, rest your eyes, talk with your colleagues about non-work related things - generally relax. I guarantee the latter is far more productive as you are happier, more relaxed and less bored - even though you work one hour less. The former way (8 straight hours) is ridiculous and you can bet the last 3 or 4 hours you’re truly losing productivity.

  2. The Kooks Fan

    I work from home - have done for the last 4 years. People keep telling me how I get the motivation to work, but I *enjoy* my work. I work when I like, wear what I like, take a break when I like.

    I wonder how people get the motivation to crawl through an hour of traffic, small talk to people they don’t want to, do work they don’t enjoy, then crawl through an hour of traffic to get home - all the time wearing a shirt and tie!

  3. Pashmina Fanboy

    People often overwork because they don’t know what to do with their time, or want to escape the wife/family. It’s not all about wanting to get more done. Overwork is a bad symptom - something is wrong somewhere - either your job is too demanding, or you’re hiding out from something else in your life. If you overwork, you need to ask yourself why.

  4. Mother of Pearl Pendant

    Agree that overwork is often a symptom of not knowing how to fill your time, or avoiding the family. It’s a kind of refuge or comfort zone for some. For others who believe they can achieve more by working longer, it’s a temptation to work all the hours God sends, but you will eventually run out of steam either mentally, physically or both. I think it’s better to go to bed looking forward to tomorrow’s work than trying to fit one hour of tomorrow’s work into this evening. One day at a time.

  5. Chonburi Jobs

    Overwork is typical for business owners and the self-employed. The harder you work, the more money you make (that’s the theory). It can become a bad habit, as you fill your time up, other non-work activities are abandoned - and a viscious circle ensues: you no longer know what to do with your spare time….so you fill it with more work.

  6. Craft Directory

    The great fallacy of life is that the harder you work, the more you achieve.

  7. H2O Audio

    People who over-work tend to be procrastinators - they take 8 hours to do 4 hours of work since they were surfing news / social websites for 3 of those 8 hours. The other lost hour is just “transitional” time. These people end up working 100 hours a week when they could have done the work in 40 hours.

  8. Anna E Commerce

    I once worked for a company who had flexible hours (not as good as it sounds) if the work volume was low we would work less hours, great! If the work volume was high they would up our hours to as many as 45 a week, at no extra pay, sounds good in theory (for the employers) but by the last hour of each day i was so disillusioned, tired and bored that i rarely got more done than on a 37 hour week. It shows that it is important to inspire workers and reword them for there efforts, not just treat them as drones who are guaranteed to put out the same amount of work continuously. People are not robots.

  9. Rabbit Island

    Anna, I agree. It’s about productivity, not hours.

  10. Dave @ Home and Garden Directory

    I’ve worked for 3 years in Japan, and ironically it’s about hours, not productivity. As illogical as that sounds, the more hours you put in, the more “loyal” you are to the company. Many companies are extremely NON-competitive in Japan as they are part of a “keiretsu” (like a fixed network) so they don’t need to win over customers or improve services beyond anything but acceptable as there’s little to no competition to be afraid of.

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