Forget the 4-day workweek. How about the 5-hour work day?

By Elizabeth Grace Saunders

March 01, 2021

As a time management coach, I’ve come to see that more is not always more when it comes to the number of hours that you put into your job. And that if you want to reduce your hours or encourage those around you to work less, you need to make some strategic changes in how everyone works to make the shift possible. Here’s what it takes to get more done in less time.

Clarify your hours

If you’re going to try to work less, you’ll need to get exceptionally clear on when you’re working and when you’re not working. That doesn’t mean that you need to work the exact same hours each day, but it does mean that you need to have clarity on when you’re fully focused on your job and when your attention is on life outside of work.

Laser focused on work from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. has a very different feel than six hours strewn over a 12-hour period. I’ve found that for even the most productive individuals—the max amount of time they can be consistently productive is about eight to nine hours per day, and sometimes an additional 60 to 90 minutes of work in the evening. Some work a few hours on one weekend day, and then everyone does best with at least one day fully off of work.

This sort of schedule is something that can be sustained long-term over months or years. Any more than that can last for a short time during a crunch project or a consulting gig, but will lead to burnout if it’s a perpetual lifestyle.

If you’re already working much longer hours than what is sustainable, make your starting point looking to limit your evening hours and then gradually pare down from there. If you’re currently working 40 to 45 hours but want to put even less time on the job, define the schedule that works for you such as 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and start to see how you can maximize your productivity within that time frame.

Reduce your meetings

For my clients in pursuit of shorter hours, the fastest route to that aim tends to be meeting management. That means scheduling fewer meetings, attending fewer meetings, and being very conscious of the length and frequency of meetings. For example, some individuals change their default meeting time to 30 minutes. And some weekly meetings can be reduced to biweekly or even monthly.

If you plan to decrease your hours, you’ll need to block off the time as unavailable outside of the times where you want to be “on.” You’ll also need to bock some time during your work hours for responding to email and getting tasks done. This will force the daily percentage of time you spend in meetings to decrease.

This change alone has allowed some of my clients to reclaim 10 or more hours a week that can then be reallocated toward getting projects done or more time off the clock.

Communicate less

If every time an email pops up, you respond to it or even look at it, you’re interrupting yourself hundreds of times per day. This could turn 15-minute tasks into 30- or 45-minute tasks because you’re never giving yourself time to focus.

If at all possible, turn off your notifications, and then answer messages when it works for you. That could be at the beginning of the day, middle of the day, and then before you’re wrapping up at the end of the day. Or if most of the messages you receive are not super urgent, you could even limit yourself to a daily time to process, purge, and reply to your email.

The same is true with communication methods like Slack or chat applications. You may need to respond more frequently than to email. But put up your away message when you need to focus. This will give you the ability to meet your deadlines and wrap up the day earlier. One of the keys to less working is fewer interruptions.

Delegate more 

If you manage other people, there could be opportunities to delegate more. If you have an assistant, that could look like having them schedule meetings, do follow ups, sort emails, or take care of booking trips. If you have individuals reporting to you, that could look like having them attend meetings or training them to do certain tasks. Or if you don’t have direct responsibility over anyone but find yourself often taking on tasks that aren’t specifically within your job description, you could direct people toward the proper department such as IT support or accounting.

If the goal is to reduce your hours and you’re doing that through delegating, just make sure that you’re not delegating so much that you’re then causing your colleagues to work 10–12 hour days. The overall goal is better hours, efficiency, and effectiveness for all.

Get serious about distractions

If you want to put less hours in at work, you need to ensure that you’re actually working during that time period. One widely-cited survey conducted by Vouchercloud, a UK-based price-savings company, asked nearly 2,000 workers the average length of their productivity. The group self-reported the average number of hours they were productive, in a full day, was about three hours.

Distractions included things like reading news sites and social media, and now that many work from home those diversions could include everything from folding laundry to talking to your kids.

You’ll never feel satisfied with your output, especially if you’re working fewer than eight hours a day, if you’re filling your time with lots of fluff. Get extremely clear on what you can and can’t do during your work time. For example in my life, off limits work-time activities include cleaning, personal calls, long text conversations, and errands. Then be really productive when you are doing your job. Finish early and then use the extra time when you’re not working to do the other tasks, guilt free.

In your work, it can make sense that you experiment with working less, especially if you have increased out-of-work responsibilities. But to make that possible, you need to get exact on expectations in terms of your work as an individual and as part of a team.

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