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.