Updated: Apr 22
The eight-hour workday harkens back to 19-century socialism. When there was no upper limit to the hours that organizations could demand of factory workers, and the industrial revolution saw children as young as six-years-old working the coal mines, American labor unions fought hard to instill a 40-hour work week, eventually ratifying it as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
So much has changed since then. The internet fundamentally changed the way we live, work, and play, and the nature of work itself has transitioned in large part from algorithmic tasks to heuristic ones that require critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.
Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, says that “the more complex and creative jobs are, the less it makes sense to pay attention to hours at all.” Yet despite all of this, the eight-hour workday still reigns supreme. “Like most humans,” Grant says, “leaders are remarkably good at anchoring on the past even when it’s irrelevant to the present.”
Heuristic work requires people to get into the physiological state of flow, coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. Flow refers to the state of full immersion in an activity, and you might know it best as “the zone.” A 10-year McKinsey study on flow found that top executives are up to 500% more productive when they’re in a state of flow. A study by scientists at Advanced Brain Monitoring also found that being in flow cut the time it took to train novice marksmen up to an expert level in half.
The Modern Organization Sabotages Productivity
Many of today’s organizations sabotage flow by setting counter-productive expectations on availability, responsiveness, and meeting attendance, with research by Adobe finding that employees spend an average of six hours per day on email. Another study found that the average employee checks email 74 times a day, while people touch their smartphones 2,617 times a day. Employees are in a constant state of distraction and hyper-responsiveness.
Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp and author of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, said on my podcast, Future Squared, that for creative jobs such as programming and writing, people need time to truly think about the work that they’re doing. “If you asked them when the last time they had a chance to really think at work was, most people would tell you they haven’t had a chance to think in quite a long time, which is really unfortunate.”
The typical employee day is characterized by:
Hour-long meetings, by default, to discuss matters that can usually be handled virtually in one’s own time
Unplanned interruptions, helped in no small part by open-plan offices, instant messaging platforms, and the “ding” of desktop and smartphone notifications
Unnecessary consensus-seeking for reversible, non-consequential decisions
The relentless pursuit of “inbox zero,” a badge of honor in most workplaces, but a symbol of proficiency at putting other people’s goals ahead of one’s own
Traveling, often long-distance, to meet people face-to-face, when a phone call would suffice
Switching between tasks constantly, and suffering the dreaded cognitive switching penalty as a result, leaving one feeling exhausted with little to show for it
Wasting time on a specific task long after most of the value has been delivered
Rudimentary and administrative tasks
“People waste a lot of time at work,” according to Grant. “I’d be willing to bet that in most jobs, people would get more done in six focused hours than eight unfocused hours.”
Cal Newport, best-selling author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, echoes Grant’s sentiments, saying that “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”
Fried agreed, saying that he gets into flow for about half the day. “If you don’t get a good four hours of flow to yourself a day, putting more hours in isn’t going to make up for it. It’s just not true that if you stay at the office longer you get more work done.”
Despite advances in technology, and perhaps in large part because of it, many find themselves working well beyond 5 PM just to keep up with their workloads, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
How to Foster a Shorter, More Productive Workday
I conducted a two-week, six-hour workday experiment with my team at Collective Campus, an innovation accelerator based in Melbourne, Australia. The shorter workday forced the team to prioritize effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day. The team maintained, and in some cases increased, its quantity and quality of work, with people reporting an improved mental state, and that they had more time for rest, family, friends, and other endeavors.
When I announced the experiment on LinkedIn, a connection responded with: “It’s nice in theory, but I can’t finish all of my tasks in six hours!” — as if all tasks were created equally. The law of nature that is the Pareto principle stipulates that about 20% of your tasks will create about 80% of the value, so it’s about focusing on those high-value tasks.
If you’re the manager of a small team with limited resources, take a moment to reflect on the following productivity techniques and remember that your job as a leader is to facilitate outcomes, not just the illusion of them.
Prioritize: Channel Pareto and focus on high-value tasks, aligned with both employee strengths and the team’s goals. Cut: Reduce or eliminate tasks that don’t add value. Cutting your default meeting time from 60 minutes to 30 minutes, turning off notifications, and batch checking your email are all incredibly effective places to start. Automate: If it’s a step-by-step process-oriented task, it can probably be automated, saving you from doing it yourself. Outsource: If it can’t be automated, it can probably be delegated or outsourced. You’re probably not being paid to work on $10-an-hour tasks. Test: A lot of time is wasted in paralysis analysis and on over-investing in the wrong things. Managers can avoid both through effective experimentation, measurement, and adapting accordingly. Start: Do whatever it takes to start your engine. Block out time in your calendar, work on one thing at a time, do the hardest thing first, try listening to binaural beats or use the Pomodoro technique, a time management method that uses a timer to break work down into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.
Set Realistic Expectations
Make it okay for employees to not be in a hyper-responsive state and schedule uninterrupted time to get into a state of flow. Similarly, make it not okay to be interrupting people on a whim. My team has a simple rule; if a team member has their headphones in, you are not to disturb them unless it absolutely, positively can’t wait (which is hardly ever, by the way). Doing so has been shown to decrease workplace stress, according to research by Gloria Mark at the University of California, which found that stress levels declined when email was taken away from U.S. Army civilian employees for five days, because they felt more in control of their working lives.
Some Things Are Worth Fighting For
By cultivating a flow-friendly workplace and introducing a shorter workday, you’re setting the scene not only for higher productivity and better outcomes, but for more motivated and less-stressed employees, improved rates of employee acquisition and retention, and more time for all that fun stuff that goes on outside of office walls, otherwise known as life.
Organizations are spending big money on digital transformation, but they could reap an immediate, and far more cost-effective transformational benefit just by changing the way they work, instead of what they use to work. Sure, it would be easy to pull out the “some great sentiments here, but it would never work in our organization” card, but some things are worth fighting for; ensuring that our people do their best work and live their best lives are certainly worth it.