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The 4 Hour Workday

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How to complete a full workday by noon? Sounds impossible, right? But on many days, by 12 o’clock, I have completed work that should normally take eight hours. And I don’t wake up at 4 a.m. to achieve this.

Actually, finishing everything by noon isn’t too difficult. If you add up all the time you spend procrastinating, distracted, or tired at work, it would probably make up half of your day. If you eliminated this wasted time, ending your day at noon wouldn’t be hard.

The problem, of course, is in the actual elimination of all that wasted time. A lot of productivity advice looks like simplistic dieting advice (“Eat less!”). Unfortunately cutting that wasted time is the tricky part. However, by making a few simple changes in your approach, you can make it far easier to cut the fat.


Don’t Pay Yourself by The Hour

If you view work as something that starts at 9 and ends at 5, you won’t be able to finish everything by noon. When you evaluate yourself for time spent working, rather than work completed, procrastination is often the result.
If you read the headline for this article and thought it was a scam, you probably suffer from this problem. Finishing by noon feels like cheating when you’re supposed to put in an eight hour workday. Unfortunately, it’s that attitude that causes you to procrastinate and stretch work out to keep you occupied until 5pm.

The solution is to stop paying yourself by the hour. Sure, you may continue to bill your clients by the hour. Or, your boss may continue to pay you a wage, and expect you to stay in the office until 5pm. But, that doesn’t mean you need to pay yourself that way. If you reward completion over input time, you will have a lean schedule.

In knowledge work, time input isn’t the point. As a writer, programmer or engineer, your value comes from your output. The end customer doesn’t care how many hours you spend behind your desk on Facebook or Twitter. Ultimately, your output will be what counts for your boss, clients or customers.


If You Work at Home, Never Work 9-5

If you are in a typical office environment (that rewards punctuality over performance), it will be harder to get your workday in before noon. Tim Ferriss – in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek – has some great suggestions for talking your boss into letting you work less, if you are more productive. If corporate policy chains you to your desk until late afternoon, I’d suggest you check out his book.

However, if you work at home, you have no excuse. Scheduling an eight-hour workday is wasting precious hours from your life. If you change how you evaluate your efforts, finishing eight hours of work in 3-4 hours is probable. You might even be able to increase your total output while reducing the amount you work.

Some people, however, don’t get it. I had a friend who owned an online business. He told me he had been working over ten hours each day on a new product. He said this without exaggeration, and I would say he honestly believed he was working at every possible moment.

However, even by judging his online activity, I knew something was wrong. He still had time to write long forum posts online and write lengthy emails. He made the mistake of judging his productivity by the amount of effort he was putting in, instead of results. Although it would have been less sympathetic, if he only worked five ultra-productive hours and rested for the rest of the day, he would have been more successful and less stressed.

How to Pay Yourself for Work Finished

I have a few productivity tricks I use to help remind myself of the “pay for completion” approach. The first I call Weekly/Daily Goals:

Weekly/Daily Goals

This is the core of my productivity system and it’s my key attack method to finish a full day’s work by noon. The idea is simple: at every point in the day, you keep two lists. The first list stores every task you need to complete that day. The second list stores every task you need to complete that week.

When you’ve finished all the tasks on your Daily Goals list, you’re done. If that happens at 11am, then congratulate yourself and go have a beer/coffee/tea/chai/nap. If that happens at 9pm, then put on another pot of coffee and keep working. Your day ends when your work ends.

This sounds obvious, but it is not how most people work. It is far more common to see someone finish at 11am, and then start working on another task. Or, after reaching 6 or 7pm in the evening, they give up and call it a day.

Instead of pay for completion, most people try to fit in eight hours. When they finish early, they add more. When they finish later than planned, they quit. Pay for completion is easy to preach, but pay for time wasted is more frequently practiced.

Keeping a list of daily goals puts only your work between you and relaxation, instead of some arbitrary amount of time for the day. Not a minimum amount of effort, just your most important tasks separate you and the finish line. This creates an incredible amount of motivation to cut distractions and keep the focus.


Why You Can’t Add More Work

If you finish early, the instinct will be to add more work. Unfortunately, you need to resist this urge strongly. The consequence of adding more work is that it defeats your system. The Weekly/Daily Goals system functions because you can’t add more work.

Imagine you are racing in a 400m race. If you pace yourself correctly, you should be completely exhausted by the end of the race. You will run as fast as you can within 400m.

Now imagine you were running a 400m race, but as you crossed the finish line, your coach yelled at you to run another 200m. If your coach did this frequently, you might start pacing your race to leave a bit of extra running energy for the end of your run, just in case you’re asked to run further.

The Weekly/Daily Goals system functions like the 400m race. If you keep adding on 200m whenever you finish quickly, you’re going to defeat the system. Instead of pacing your focus and energy to complete a particular set of tasks, you’re back to infinite to-do lists and ten-hour workdays.


Calibrating Your Weekly/Daily Goals

My productivity tripled when I started setting daily goals. But the disadvantage of this system is the irregularity. Some days will be light, because you accidentally under-scheduled. Other days will be incredibly hard, because you accidentally over-scheduled.

The solution to the irregularities isn’t to give up and go back to an unproductive pay-per-hour system. You simply need to calibrate yourself to the amount of work involved. As with anything else in life, you get better with practice and awareness.


Log Your Current Productivity

If you’re switching systems, the best way to calibrate is by keeping track of the amount of work you accomplish in a day. Quantify this into a metric you can easily use. As a writer, the best metric for me to use is the number of words I write per day, or the number of articles I finish.

Keep a daily log where you record the details of everything you’ve accomplished that day. At the end of the week, group up the different types of tasks and evaluate how much work was accomplished. This is your productivity baseline.

From there, you can set your daily goals to reflect this baseline. As a writer, I know I can typically write 3000-4000 words per day, or less if I combine this with non-writing work. By recording my current output levels, I can set my daily goals to match this amount. And I can make sure my daily goals list has at least 3000-4000 words of writing.

Why Bother Measuring?

If you know what your current productivity is in hard numbers it makes the switch to a new system more convincing. Without the hard numbers, you run the risk of feeling lazy when you finish early and take the afternoon off.

When I knew, from my old to-do lists, that I was accomplishing 2-3x more with this system than I had been previously, the choice to continue was obvious.

You can also use numbers like these to show to your boss. If I was an employer, I’d be happy if a worker could demonstrate, with numbers, how a new system had doubled their productivity, even if it meant they left the office early. And, even if you can’t convince your boss with the numbers, you can convince yourself.


Weekly Goals

The other element of my productivity system is keeping a list of weekly goals. The weekly goals list doesn’t need to remain as strict as the daily goals list. I find that the urge to procrastinate (and the motivation to work) stem mostly from the daily level, not the entire week.

The purpose of weekly goals is to ensure that everything you want to accomplish makes it to your daily goals lists. For years I’ve maintained a set of daily goals. It was only over a year ago that I decided to add a weekly goals list.

When you have just a daily goals list, some tasks are likely to be pushed off until tomorrow. That is, when you are planning your daily goals list, you may not include some tasks that you want to add into the next list. This form of meta-procrastination can be beat by having a separate list of to-do items for the entire week.


Finishing Your Entire Workday by Noon

Finishing everything by noon is just one benefit of using the Weekly/Daily Goals system. My goal isn’t to complete everything by noon. I use the system to get the maximum amount of work out of each day, so I can reach the goals I’ve set for my business. I love my work, so I use the Weekly/Daily Goals system to get more of it.

But I’ve also used the system to minimize the work I hate. If I’m doing work because I have to, not just because I want to, the Weekly/Daily Goals system works well. It allows me to finish work I would otherwise avoid or procrastinate indefinitely.

In some ways, the productivity difference is even more noticeable with work you dislike. If you enjoy work, it is easier to focus on it without distractions or procrastination. The power of the Weekly/Daily Goals system is that it forces you to get work done that you don’t want to do.

* What is your workday like? What can you do to make it more productive? Share your story and thoughts with us in the comment section. See you there!

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120 thoughts on The 4 Hour Workday

  1. Scott,

    Outstanding Article. As a website publisher working on my own time it is definitely helpful to hear about your thoughts on measured results on a daily/weekly basis vs. hours spent being busy but accomplishing little.
    I will be implementing some of your ideas and testing them for myself.

    Thanks again for the great article.

  2. Working hard is a good thing, but it should never be to the point where your burnt out. Success come from a balance. Having the ability to do get a full balance out of life, with out jeopardizing your life.
    Great post

  3. Really great article. This is my second time reading this because I needed a refresher. I was doing the system for a while (at least the daily goals) and it was definitely working. I was able to get more done than I normally do.

    I really agree with the idea that it is not about getting it done in 4-hours but it is the idea of getting more done than you normally would. Recently I have noticed I have been starting one thing and then thinking of 5 other things that need to be done. This system helps me focus on the task at hand so I can cross it off my daily goals list. This time around I am going to combine the daily with the weekly goals and see how it goes.

    Thanks for putting this together!

  4. This was a great article. So good, that I’m going to click on all of your ads. Value for value ;)

  5. Great post. One of the hardest things (for non writers) in implementing your approach is finding a reasonable metric for one’s type of work. As an IT consultant, I do a wide range of very different activities. Most of them come only with very soft metrics, such as meeting results or slides per hours ;-). Still even subjective numbers help to assess one’s productivity and get a glimpse of the 4-hour work day.

  6. I have only recently been able to enjoy a 4-5 hour work week. I had some trouble getting things organized and a schedule down, but I once I did, I was movin! It is amazing what a little work can do to make a load go away!

  7. Sarah Jones

    Thank you a lot for this article. About month ago I quit my job and now concentrate myself only for my business. Daily/weekly to do list system helped me a lot to adapt to a new environment.
    BR, best antifungal cream

  8. So nice to see others who share my feelings on work schedules!

    I worked a very exhausting 4 hours and 13 minutes yesterday. When I look at my accomplishments, it feels like a day well spent. But when I see my co-workers turn in 40+ hour time cards vs my 25 hours, it feels like small paychecks are a punishment for my laziness.

    60% of my work is done from home and I have to admit, it is tempting to exaggerate my hours or charge for goof-off time. But I would rather avoid the guilty conscience and just find a way to show my boss that 3 or 4 of my hard-working hours are every bit as valuable as 8 of an average employee’s hours.

  9. Z

    Speaking as someone who does creative work that I LOVE (writing), the reason for not doing more of it just because you love it is because… whether you love it or not… if you are doing it right (i.e. putting a good amount of creative energy into it to produce something good… particularly true in fiction work), it is DRAINING. You are mentally exhausted after 4 hours of pure creative work. Doing it for 8 hours a day, no matter how much you love it would make you hate it in short order.

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