The Four-Hour Workday

I know what you’re thinking. This is not possible. This is just another gimmicky headline, click bait, designed to draw you in and leave you disappointed. But hear me out for a moment.

What is so impossible about a four-hour work day?

Here are the four most common answers:

  1. Excuse me? I work a normal 9-5 day job, there’s no way I can hook off at lunch and call it a day!
  2. My boss would be all over my case.
  3. I am expected to, hired to produce eight-hours of work each day, so that’s what I need to do. That’s the only ethical thing to do.
  4. Hey, it takes me an hour to just get started. There’s no way I can get everything done in four hours.


Or maybe not.

For most of my working life, I’ve held down multiple jobs. Granted, most of these jobs have not required a 9-5 commitment, but they have, together, added up to what most people would consider to be a more than full-time job, maybe even as much as a time and a half workload.

I’ll give you an example. I’m an academic, and there was a period of about five years when I was going to school full-time to get my Ph.D. while still carrying a full university teaching load of five classes each semester. This in addition to raising two kids and all the fun that that entails.

Of course, it wasn’t easy, and I didn’t get it all done perfectly, but when I look back at my life, I realize that what we think of as “full-time” or “two jobs” are just arbitrary designations and that the actual work we do, our actual productivity is something else. Something that sums up to somewhat less than eight hours a day.

Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t people who do actual work for eight hours a day, who produce good stuff for eight hours a day, day after day, week after week, year after year. I’m sure there are. But this article is for the rest of us. You and me. Those of us who have about four good hours in us.

Here’s how we can hack it.

Understand Time:
Work with the natural rhythms of your body, and create a schedule that works for you. For me, that means carving out a solid block of time sometime early in the morning. I’m up around 5:00 a.m. each morning, which is when I’m usually sharpest, so I save this time for my best, most sacred work. This is the time I get all my writing done, all my best thinking. This is the time I carve out to write my blog (or my book when I’m writing one), the time I use to analyze my data, this is the time I reserve for “deep work,” as Cal Newport calls it. I’m usually able to put in a good two hours of concentrated thinking before mental fatigue sets in.

My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t get revved up until the late morning. Once started, though, he can go straight through until 6 or 7 p.m.

When is the best time for you? 11:00 a.m.? 4:00 p.m.? Take a week to notice when you do your best work and when it’s a struggle. This is really important. I’m not asking you to notice when you do your most work; I’m asking when you do your best work.

Most of us just get to the office and dive right in to whatever mess is waiting for us that day. But most of us also have a period during the day (anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours) when we feel the sharpest, the most on.

When is that for you?

Make a mental note of it. This is when you do your best work, so this is when you should do your most challenging work. I have found that when I do my most challenging work when I can concentrate best, I can do the same amount of work in a shorter period of time. I realized, then, that I could “save” time, by only (mostly) working when my mind was sharpest. You can, too.

Work Tasks not Time:
Put parentheses around your work. The way a normal workday is set up, there is a steady stream of to-dos, each one merging into the next with no definite beginning or ending to it. You begin your first to-do at 9 a.m. and finish your last one at 5 p.m. But the work itself–the task, the project–is not well defined. As a result, on days when you have fewer tasks (or a smaller project), you slow down and spread your work out over an eight-hour period. And on days when you have many more tasks (or a bigger project), you find yourself rushing to cram it all in to the same eight-hour period.

You see where I’m going with this?

You are working time; you’re not working tasks.

Imagine, now, that before you leave work for the day, you look at all the projects you have coming down the pipeline the next day. And imagine that there are one or two tasks that are more important than the rest (this can easily be 5 or 6 tasks–your choice, your day). The idea here is to select a few tasks and define them in ways such that you will know when they have been completed. For example, don’t say, “Write a blog;” rather say, “Write a 1000-word blog on time management.” This way you have bracketed out the task–the task will commence with word one and end with word 1000.

By blocking out your work in this way you are not working time, you are working task.

I know what you’re thinking. It’s all very well to talk about writing a blog and yada yada, but I have a real job. I have to write reports, field support calls, write code, meet with clients, purchase supplies . . . . Okay, so your work looks different from mine. But I have every confidence that no matter the kind of work, it can still be bracketed out: I have to write three reports; I have to field twenty support calls; I have to write code to call such and such API; I have to meet with two clients, and so on.

Try it for one week.

Defining your tasks well will help you to block out the appropriate amount of time each day to complete each one. You will also be able to assess which tasks you should do during your ninja period so that you can knock them off more quickly and save time.

Automatize Everything You Can:
This is an oldie but goodie. Over the years, I’ve taken to scheduling emails, saving repetitive responses so that I can just copy and paste, and batching repetitive tasks. This has worked wonders for me not only in shaving off a whole bunch of time, but also in terms of knocking off items on my to-do list, tasks that I find boring (and annoying).

This also gave me something to do in the afternoons (when I did have a traditional 9-5) and my brain was in a semi-vegetative state. Back in the day, before online grading tools like, I had created a cheat sheet for myself of some of the common remarks and suggestions for revision I usually made when grading papers. I would use this cheat sheet to copy and paste comments into my students’ papers (as appropriate), which would save me a whole lot of time (and carpel tunnel syndrome) when trying to get through the hundreds of papers that came in each week.

Look at your own work load. What are some tasks that you can automate? What are some tasks you can reserve for the low-energy time in your day? Relegate these tasks to automation–either technology-assisted automation or manual automation, where you can knock off these tasks with half your brain tied behind your back.

Avoid Distractions:
Maybe even lunch.

Now before you go apeshit on me, let me explain. Lunch, let’s face it, is a distraction. It takes you away from what you are working on. It is designed to do that. And it’s a good thing because breaks (all the research indicates) are good for us. But a lunch break, is a unique kind of break. It usually shows up, inconveniently, at noon, right in the middle of a traditional workday, when we may or may not be hungry, when we may be past hunger because we’ve waited too long to eat, because it wasn’t time yet.

You see where I’m going with this?

Lunch is an externally imposed (enforced?) break in the day that serves the people for whom you work. This way, they can post convenient “closed for lunch from . . . ” signs on the door. They can make themselves unavailable to you because, hey, it’s lunch! Lunch is an excuse for other people, the 8-hour-a-day folks, the ones who browse and flit and sit on a toilet seat, while the hours tick down to a close.

Not you.

Now I’m not saying don’t eat. No. I’m not even saying don’t take a break. Do, by all means! What I am saying is take charge of your own damn lunch and your own damn breaks.

I, for example, like to teach classes back to back from 8:00 a.m. to say 2:00 p.m. The adrenaline keeps me going from one to the other on a natural high. But the minute I take a “break,” I collapse into a heap, and then it’s murder trying to rev up again for the next set of classes.

Then, of course, there’s the food coma situation. “Lunch” to me is a meal. You sit down. You use silverware. You flip open a paper napkin. And have at it. Lunch is something warm that slides down your throat soothingly. Lunch is an event.

But food? Eating? That I can do standing up, walking across campus from classroom to classroom (I’m skilled like that!). Eating does not require a break.

Nor does a break require eating. I take many breaks throughout my work day. Breaks to unstiffen my legs. Breaks to hydrate. Breaks to de-hydrate. Breaks to stretch. To sleep. To read.

I like breaks.

But lunch? Lunch is a distraction. So to the extent that I can, I pack my work hours into a narrow window.

So can you.

My typical (ideal) work day looks something like this.

5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. – Writing, thinking, learning

7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – Walk (See? Break!)

8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. – Work: Teaching, Coaching, Prepping, Grading . . . ish.

No two days are exactly the same. But I work hard and fast and then I call it quits.

So I know you’re keeping score: But, Tina, this is so much more than a four-hour work day. Yes. That’s true. But only because the schedule above is illustrative rather than actual and fixed.

The concept remains. Work hard in concentrated spurts rather than poodling away at something over long periods of time.

And the converse holds, too. Enforce a hard stop. When you’re done, you’re done!

The rest of the day will be yours as it is mine

So there you have it! A four-hour work day!

Okay, so the title begs a “generous” interpretation, I concede, but hopefully you got something out of it anyway.

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Categories: Reflections

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