Final update 4.5 hour workday experiment

26 Mar

Last week I carried out a little work-efficiency experiment. Following the suggestion of a New York Times article (and after some encouragement from friend and life coach Saskia Stehouwer), I decided to work only 4.5 hours per day for one week. Here are my conclusions:

1. My main conclusion is that it is possible to get a decent amount of work done in 4.5 hours per day, but it requires effort and discipline. In order to be efficient in 4.5 hours per day, all distractions need to be removed (telephone, email, Facebook, etc.) during work hours. In my one-week experiment, I got a lot of work done, while spending less time on the internet and more time outside. Whether I got more or less done than in a normal week, I am not sure.

2. In order to be highly efficient in 4.5 hours per day, it is necessary to take breaks very seriously. A real break means leaving your computer and your office for at least half an hour. It doesn’t mean trying to read a paper while sipping a coffee. It also doesn’t mean checking if there are new updates on Facebook or being distracted by a colleague for a short conversation.

I found it quite hard to take such real breaks consistently, and I think I am not the only one. For example, someone wrote the following comment on my website: “I have to check that article (in my next break … or actually after I get my first thing done for the day).” I understood immediately how the commenter felt. The commenter and I, we feel that we only deserve a break when we have accomplished something. But what if we need to take a break in order to accomplish something?

If breaks are needed so that we’ll accomplish something after the break, then our intuition of taking a break (weekend, holidays) only after we’ve accomplished something is entirely counterproductive. But to allow ourselves to take a break before anything important is accomplished, we need to have great trust in our future self. We need to feel confident that we will finish the task, we will see the solution or find the bug later this day or week. We need to let go of the task, let our brain relax while we’re at the gym or enjoying a stroll, and come back to the task at a later stage, when we are fresh and concentrated again.

Unfortunately, the approach of taking breaks even if we haven’t yet “accomplished anything”, can only work only if we give ourselves enough time for our tasks. If I am working against a deadline (as I was a few weeks ago), I may have no choice but to work as many hours as I can in order to finish the task in time. So, if we want to work fewer hours and be highly efficient, we should start our tasks early enough before their deadline.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t feel guilty for working few hours. Every time we take a real break and every minute away from the computer is an investment in the discoveries we’ll make tomorrow.

I don’t think I’ll stick with exactly 4.5 hours a day, but I will try to take my breaks as seriously as I take my work.

One Response to “Final update 4.5 hour workday experiment”

  1. Thalia March 5, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    I like this idea, and the idea itself makes a whole lot of sense. I’ve read up on many articles emphasizing the need to be able to get up and away from your work, like really away — no reading, no social media, etc. as you had mentioned. But sometimes, when I have so much work stacked up, it becomes difficult for me truly take a break. I’m constantly looking at my agenda and to-do list, worrying about deadlines and what I could be doing with the time spent on “break.” But I also agree with you that discipline is a must — so I think I’ll give this a try. Thanks for writing about your experience with the 4.5-hour work day!

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