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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. Tina,

    I’m an entrepreneur, so I use to have the philosophy that work came first, and that I had to work at least 100 hours per week or else I wasn’t being a good entrepreneur. If I finished a project early, I would just stack up more things to do because there are always things to do when you’re running a startup.

    Slowly but surely, I began to burn out. Even though I’m young and full of energy, I could physically and mentally feel stressed. My relationship with my girlfriend began to suffer and I was spending less and less time with my friends and family.

    I soon realized that I could get everything IMPORTANT done before noon. This post is great example of how you can do it.

    What I do everyday now before going to sleep is write to lists:

    1. The first list has all the core, important tasks I must finish the following day
    2. The second list displays all the things that I’m supposed to NOT do the next day

    It’s very important for me to write down what I shouldn’t do so that I can stay focused on what’s important.

    Whenever I’m off track, I now know which blog post to read so that I can make sure I’m being highly effective with my time.

    Thanks and I’ll make sure to RT!

    – Jun Loayza

  2. I currently clock unhuman hours in my 2nd month of this new career. Think 9am to 12am (with 2 more hours to check emails, write a blog draft, and anything to do with the web).

    However, the good news is that this article reminded me that I did achieve 4 hour work days even as an employee dealing with financial claims for a good 6 months – and yes, I do set all my work to begin at noon while ending right after lunch.

    It’s time to get back to the 4 hour work day again.

    Thanks Tina for sharing this here. :)

  3. Scott,

    Interesting ideas!

    I really like the idea of paying yourself for work done. I’m an work for myself and I might try the Weekly/Daily Goals idea.

  4. Uzma

    Hey Tina,
    I get very stuck with daily goals. I follow them for a while and then forget about the whole thing. I suppose to focus on result , rather than simply work put in, will help.
    Also, as I am a writer as well, this struck me ‘you write 3000-4000 words a day!!! wow!!! How do you do this. How does creativity become regularised? Do let me know .

    Loved the article. Am gonna try what you’re saying.Thanks


  5. Great article, especially the “if you get done early don’t add more work” part.

    I am always behind, never can catch up, but then it is a challenge doing what I do. So, at some point I have to just stop and shut the computer off and unplug for a while.

    I even bought a cheap phone that I can take with me when I get away that does not get email or have a web browser. I does not even have saved addresses in it so I can only call my real friends that I remember the phone number of.

    That seems to work for me.

  6. Great ideas Scott. I work from home and consistently complete a full day’s worth of work by noon.

    The more effort I put in in the morning, the more freedom I have in the afternoon. And I use that freedom wisely. ;-)

  7. Wonderful, informative post! I’ve picked up the book The 4-Hour Workweek so many times but never purchased it. Now I think I might! I’ve always believed I could get all of my work done by 12:00pm every day. Usually I space out the work I need to get done so I’m not bored by noon. Now that I’ve discovered blogging, there is a LOT to keep me busy during the day. Though I currently work in an office, 8:00am – 5:00pm, I would love to be able to work from home. I’ve been home the past two days and even though I’ve been sick, I feel like I’ve been even more productive than I would have been if I’d been in the office. It would be so interesting to see what our country would be like if we worked only 4 hours a day. It would be wonderful for me, but I feel like a lot of people would NOT be down with this idea. Not to mention, I feel like a lot of people would have to rethink the way they do things to increase their productivity (something I feel a lot of people don’t care to do). This post was great. Thanks for allowing a guest post, Tina, and, Scott, thanks for writing this!

  8. This assumes that you do not fully enjoy the work that you do; that it doesn’t fulfil you, otherwise why would you want to limit it?

    If your work is something that detracts from, or inhibits your preferred lifestyle, then by all means limit your time involvement. But since the world as we have structured it revolves around the work that we do, it may be better to find work that you can throw yourself into; the kind of work that you can’t get enough of.

  9. I’ve been working a lot on moving away from “hourly” pay, focusing instead on the value I provide. That helps a lot when working on reducing working hours. I don’t think I work more than about 25 hours a week right now, and I intend to reduce that a little bit more!

    At the same time, there are days when I WANT to work because I’m excited about a project – and then I don’t feel bad for working all day, even if it’s Sunday!


  10. Khuram Malik

    Hey Tina,

    Great post.
    Quick question: Do you note down your goals on paper, just simple paper and pen, or do you use some software?

    Cos i find out run out of space on paper and i get alot of clutter on my desk, but with software the actual act of managing tasks sometimes becomes more than the goals themselves.

    Your thoughts?

    Also, i tried clicking the link to Re-Tweet the article for you, but it doesnt seem to work for me?

  11. Funnily enough, I just recently recorded a video post on a very similar topic – the difference between being busy and being productive. (And why a lot of people struggle because they focus on being busy).

    I don’t know who I have to thank for this advice, whether you, Scott, or Tim Ferris, but realizing that there’s a difference between being busy and being productive was one of the most useful tips I’ve ever got about productivity.

  12. Agree with John above! If you really love what you do, why limit it to 4 hours a day?
    If you are a chef who loves to cook, you would never try to limit your cooking to only 4 hours a day!

  13. I know I’ve been guilty of stopping at a given hour of the day and leaving work for the next day. And also of working set hours. I’ve also got some of life’s little errands and things to do.

    Your idea has helped me see that I shouldn’t look at those as bad detractor from my work. That it’s possible to just get the important stuff done for the day and then fulfill the other responsibilities in your life.

    I usually work between my other responsibilities. Now I’m just going to set some must-finish type items, and go with that. :) I already had weekly items, but it’s easy to say “I’ll do it tomorrow”, isn’t it? ;)

  14. Hi Khuram Malik,

    I do all my notes and goals (long term, short term and daily) on paper. I’ve tried software, but personally had a hard time keeping up.

    With paper, I have folders to keep the loose paper together.
    I get ideas at the most random times, and being able to quickly jot it down on paper is priceless (since I’m not always in front of the computer).

    I do also keep a text file on my computer desktop to note todos, ideas, reminders. I transfer them on my paper system during planning time.

    Re: Re-Tweet

    Type putting this in twitter:
    Reading: The 4 Hour Workday via @thinksimplenow


  15. I love the idea of a 4 hour workday.

    Growing up, I was always a little more efficient, and a little quicker at accomplishing tasks than others. I would love to be able to train myself to become ultra-productive over the next few years so that I can have time to start a family.

    The problem with my job is that it is a 9-5 kind of job, and even when we are all done for the day, we are forced to literally sit and watch the clock until we are allowed to go home. Its the kind of job where you can’t start on the next day’s work until the next day, so when you’re done for the day, you sit around and wait.

    Frustrating to say the least.

  16. Marcos

    Stop procrastinating what an excellent idea! I’ll start tomorrow :)

  17. Rolando

    Hi there!
    this is a great post, and i need to do some changes in my daily life.

    im 21 years old, i study industrial design and work(4hrs schedule) at the same time. Ive been doing this for about 4 months. And i live bymyself. When it started, i tought it was going to be easy, but after four months, im looking at the results and im not to happy about that. Cuz my life just vanished, my social life, and my personal life. Everything was getting ready to fit my day. And doing basic things everyday. Like having breakfast sometimes… going to work(and i was late), returning home(in public transportation and walking), preparing luch, eating, going to school, and finally getting ready to sleep and start the same thing again the next day.

    So in my frustration of something new, i bought a puppy, i spent sometime learning how to housetrain it.

    So this is my situation. Im lucky my puppy is easy (i have a good time with it).

    So the point of all this is that even im busy all day. I fell unefficient, i have lost the weight i gained when i went to the gym, i dont practice and design new things as i used to do, and i havent had any relation since then. Im not happy at all.

  18. Aw

    I just quit my freelance career :(

    Have to go back to 9-5 , sigh ~

  19. Hey Tina,

    What do I have to do to get a smart girl like you in my life? :)

    I know you are married (congrats!), but do you have a sister or a friend as talented and gracious as you? :)

    And thanks Scott for a great article!

  20. I’ve kinda used this system, without even noticing. For some years, when I felt on top of the game, wasn’t stressed or anything I would sit down and write a list of work items with a small square in front.

    As I completed the tasts, I put a “check” in the square of the work item.

    As I got more busy, a little stressed and so on I stopped doing so.

    Thinking back, I got a hell of a lot more work done by using this system and taking it easy. When I felt busy, and skipped the system I only completed half of the work I did when using the system.

    Is there any online software that supports this system by keeping track of daily and weekly goals? Maybe you can use Remember The Milk?

  21. I only have three hours on an average day, cos of disability, so this is especially relevant. Time management never came naturally but, in this situation, i’m learning! Thanx for such an apposite and well-put post.

  22. Thanks. Great article with a lot of useful information. I really like the productivity log idea!

    Also, it is my first time here after hearing about it for a long time and it is a wonderful blog. I will be back!
    Peace and Laughter

  23. Great advice, I work from home too, I wish I could do everything in 4 hours. I feel so guilty if I stop at that, I guess I’m just a bit of a workaholic.

  24. I agree that it doesn’t take nearly as long as you’d think to get a day’s work done. My problem is that people call me throughout the 9-5 (and beyond) day. It’s hard to wrap up and not answer that phone call when I’m watching a movie!

    And there’s the guilt. “If I can get so much done in 4 hours, what could I get done in 8??”

    Mostly I fill the day with social media. (and Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook!).

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