In 1890, the United States government reported that the average workweek was 100 hours. In 1940, it was down to 40 hours. The 40-hour work week became standard in the western world thanks to a combination of business tycoons like Henry Ford competing for top talent, the rise of unions, and the creation legislation that protected workers and guaranteed their rights.
Today, the myth of the 40-hour work week remains, but the reality has eroded alongside advances in technology. In a global EY survey of nearly 10,000 workers, approximately half reported working more than 40 hours per week. Much of that time was spent on email at the office, in transit, and ‘after-hours’ at home, and one-third of those surveyed reported that it is increasingly difficult to balance work and life. Just as technology has made us more accessible, it has also blurred the lines between where the workday ends and our non-work lives begin. Whereas a regulated work schedule was a symbol of pride in the mid-20th century, long hours have become a status symbol of the early-21st.
There is, however, a counter to the trend. In 2007, Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek popularized the idea that working less could make you more money. What if instead of working 40+ hours per week, Ferriss asked, you could work just four? The book became a foundational text for those looking to escape the grind.
Despite the hyperbole of the title and the near impossibility of the premise, Ferriss does have a point. You shouldn’t have to work 80-hour weeks, or even 40-hour weeks depending on your line of work, to build a successful business. So, the question is: How can we cut down on work hours in the short-term, while also setting ourselves, and those we work with, up for long-term success?
MAP YOUR HOURS
One key to greater productivity is to figure out how you are actually spending your time. Chances are that there is a difference between the number of hours ‘worked’ and the number that are actually productive.
For one week, use a stopwatch to time when you’re being productive. Are you working in 20 minutes bursts with short social media breaks between? Or are you powering through for three hours before taking an equally long lunch break? Identifying your work patterns will help you in building a schedule that works with them, rather than causing friction. Knowing how you work best, and building your day around it, will decrease the amount of time that you have to be “on the clock.”
IDENTIFY WHAT CAN BE OUTSOURCED
In addition to tracking the time spent focused on work, jot down what you’re working on during that time. With the average manager spending hours on email, it may be shocking to see how ‘real work’ is getting squeezed out by an overflowing inbox. Other things that may be ripe for reevaluation include the time spent scheduling meetings, or on micromanaging employees who could do just as well (or maybe even better) with less-frequent check-ins.
If email is your problem, try batching your emails into groups and addressing them at set times of the day. Emails from non-clients, for example, could be addressed at 11 am and 4 pm and client emails could be addressed at 9 am and 3 pm. By taking control of the deluge, you’ll free up mental space. If you’re spending too much time on scheduling, consider using a virtual assistant, and if you’re a victim of your own micro-management, proactively schedule bi-weekly check-ins with employees. Being an effective leader means being an efficient leader
DON'T FORGET ABOUT THE TEAM
In your quest for shorter work hours, don’t forget that you’re not the only one looking to be more efficient. Whether you’re a one-man show with a few part-time helpers, or a woman leading dozens, it isn’t just about you. Research shows that employees that are happy are 12% more productive than their neutral peers, and 22% more productive than unhappy workers.
Nurturing a team atmosphere isn’t just fluff, it can actually help your bottom line and get you out of the office faster. An easy way to encourage happiness at work is to regularly check-in with employees outside of the context of a specific project. Setting aside time to listen will build the camaraderie necessary for long-term success.
For more immediate results, take a look at how you communicate with your employees. Use full sentences in emails, express gratitude for work well-done, and don’t frame requests as demands. By supporting your team and boosting their morale, you’ll get more done in less time without undermining long-term success.
REMEMBER THE BASICS & DO WHAT FEELS RIGHT
According to Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money and the recently released Divine Time Management, learning how to say no is one of the best ways to overhaul the way you work. No one has time for everything, and your weekly schedule may be getting clogged up with things you said yes to that don’t push your business forward or fulfill you personally. By unclogging your calendar, you’re creating space for your real priorities.
In the end, you get out what you put in, but the relationship between hours and outcomes isn’t 1:1. Expecting to get a successful business with just four hours of work per week is unreasonable, but working more hours doesn’t mean you’re putting more in the bank. Instead, it’s all about allocating your time well, prioritizing what matters, and fostering an environment that encourages others to do the same.