The 4-hour workday is not a crazy idea

The 4-hour workday is not a crazy idea
Image: Jopwell
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The case for the four-hour workday is grossly misunderstood.

It’s often confused with Tim Ferriss’ four-hour work week: Simply drop ship some bizarro electronics to your swanky Shopify store, and voila! you can kick back for the rest of the week, in your underwear.

But that’s not what the four-hour workday is about at all. The four-hour workday is about hard science and the limits to our cognition. Even for the most accomplished experts, deliberate practice of any kind is best capped at four hours a day. A shorter workday gives knowledge workers more energy (and yes, time) for what really matters. It also could provide better work to more people.

Cognitive overload

Getting the mind primed for creativity can be a tricky affair. But the key to fueling your creative output is “empty time.“  It’s in these wonderful voids where you can let your mind wander and give your subconscious a chance to get dirty. That problem that’s been nagging at you may soon feel like it’s starting to solve itself.

Unless you’re micro-dosing (and even then) — chances are you can’t squeeze more than four or five hours of deep work into a day. This is the kind of work that stretches your brain, and after an hour or so, a mental fuzz tells you it’s time to stop. The rest of the workday demands a fraction of the focus and is really just filler, commonly known as email. Forcing yourself to sit in front of a screen for hours on end is not just bad for your brain, it’s also not a sustainable strategy for the future.

Setting the right conditions to do your best work requires both scheduled bursts and planned breaks. It might seem counter to the “time is money” injunction, but it’s “time off”  that affords you the breakthroughs to leap ahead.

Working more, in other words, is rarely the answer to increasing your productivity. Which is precisely why famed philosopher Bertrand Russell — in a 1932 essay for Harper’s — advocated for the four-hour work day.

Energy upkeep

We’ve become so enamored with productivity that we have forgotten how to slow down. We’ve made busyness a bragging right and ‘“I haven’t got the time” our collective mantra. Those poor souls with excess time on their hands — well they must simply not have enough to do! But the goal of a more deliberate workday, peppered with bouts of deep focus rather than perpetual flailing, is all about managing your energy.

Instead of looking at how we spend our time, we should be aware of how we’re funneling our working spirit. Startup entrepreneurs, coding marathoners, workaholics, struggle pornographers, and many may balk at this. Their “always-on” badges are worn with pride. But ask yourself: Would you want your nurse taking care of you at the end of a 12-hour shift or at the beginning of a four-hour one? (Your answer is why a pioneering Dutch healthcare company actually does offer four-hour shifts.)

Spreading work around

The hoopla around the four-hour work day is about giving control to workers to do the work they need to do in their own time and in their own way. It’s trading in the bulky industrial overcoat for a luminous information cape. If we get our act together quickly, these changes could mean a new age of good work and a better way of life.

Artificial intelligence may be key to realizing a shorter work day. AI’s predictive capabilities will help us make faster and better decisions. The richer the data set we feed our personal productivity pals, the better they’ll counsel us on the optimal way to expend our energy. With the automation of low-level and mind-numbing tasks, ideally we are freed up to focus on our deep work sessions. Of course we may find that instead of working smarter, that we squander our new found time. Having pointless tasks automated won’t suddenly make them worthwhile. It will force us to consider not just how much we work but to rethink how we find meaning in it.

The benefits are no longer in dispute: fewer sick days, cost savings, and better work/life integration. And with an enhanced sense of well-being and self-respect, workers tend to be more creative, productive, committed, and collaborative. A shorter work week could also mean companies save on salaries and can reinvest those resources in the training and development of their people. It could also mean more jobs for the unemployed.

New Zealand, Sweden, and Britain are all fans of the shorter workweek. “I believe that in this century, we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone,” Frances O’Grady, the head of the Trades Union Congress in England, recently remarked. The majority of people in the country agrees—61% of UK workers think a four-day working week would make them more productive. And in the United States, software company Basecamp has been experimenting with a shorter workweek for more than a decade. So too has the State of Utah.

The practice of working long hours unnecessarily will stop sooner rather than later. Someday we might even value all the work we do that isn’t waged. This revised view of work would look to quality, not quantity — and could finally put to rest that nasty habit of lunching at one’s desk.