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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. Hamid

    Its a great post. I am going to apply it to my reading schedule. Since I am a writer, I have to read a lot. And often my readings tasks outgo the time and I have to extend the reading stuff on one day to the next day. This post resovled the issue as it never exisited.

  2. I work on a similar premise but not quite as rigid. If I have other things to do on a certain day, I double up. When one works in a creative way, life isn’t always perfect and doing certain activities can spawn a moment of excessive productivity. I go with this and let the work flow…it makes me feel very good and very productive.

    As a regular routine this system is perfect and I’m going to adapt it over my weekly “to do” list which targets my long term visions.

    For those of you that have mentioned a “Love for Work” and wanting to do it all the time, that is one formula that works well for the workaholic mind. I love my parents but don’t want to spend all my time with them, in fact very little. BUT…Life is a balance. Having more than one interest is good. Focus spare time on family, friends and other creative pursuits. Do one thing well is good for some but some of us have varied interests. When I finish writing and web stuff…I want to be playing guitar, watching hockey, cooking or enjoying nature (maybe even all of them at once – not following my work passion.

  3. I used to be one of those 13+ hour a day people but then I realized that I valued family time over work time. Now I have a list and I fly right through it each day. It’s just not necessary to spend all of that time working, and a lot of the time it’s not working anyway because you get distracted and start doing something else. That’s why I am a big fan of the checklist to measure productivity.

  4. Matt

    Great post. But I think it could be easily misinterpreted, causing people to try to rush through their work, trying to meet that goal, and stressing themselves out even more if they fail to achieve it. I’m sure that rushing is not what you have in mind when you’re talking about being “super productive,” but I think that is probably what many people would end up doing when trying to follow this system.

    I think the habit of rushing through everything is actually a huge problem, especially in America, and ironically, it often means we get less done in the long term. A book that really addresses this well is “The Practicing Mind” by Thomas M. Sterner. This is a truly incredible book that has changed my whole concept of productivity, and what living in the moment really means. I agree wholeheartedly that we should measure what we accomplish and set clear goals for the day and the week, but this should not become all we are concerned about. If we are not deeply involved in what we are doing, and are only concerned with “getting through” the work we have to do, then much of life becomes only a means to an end. Process and product are both important, but the primary emphasis should be on process.

    I would guess that while you are in the midst of working, you are focusing more on how efficiently you are working (with an eye toward the goal of course) than on the end result of being done for the day. Perhaps that is why you are so productive. But others could easily think, “oh great, I can get all this work done, I’m really looking forward to that” and they try to work really fast to get it over with, which is not an effective strategy in the long term. So, as a favor to people like me who have a history of rushing toward deadlines (and as a result end up procrastinating due to burnout) I think it would be great if you could emphasize that *rushing* through that 4 hours of work for the “prize” you get at the end is NOT a good work strategy.

  5. Agreed!

    Great post and I totally agree that this is possible. However, I work in a consulting environment with a boss who believes that you are only successful if you work way more than 40+ hours a week (and sleep way less than 8 hours p/night), regardless of how productive or efficient you are. I find this completely frustrating and the wrong way to approach this business…but not sure how to deal with that. any suggestions?! In the meantime, I will continue to think about how I can move on and begin my own business… :)

  6. Good article. Like many here, I use a similar concept too, but apply it more to 5-6 hours instead. Whatever makes you happy…

    In reply to those claiming that if you love your job, there should be no reason to limit the time put in it: I do love my job, but I love my chosen field (graphic design) even more. Therefore, my passion does not stop when I leave the office, there are still countless posts to read, magazines to peruse, sketches to do for the simple joy of drawing…

    ITC and the graphic industry is one where learning never stops. If your job tasks sucks up all your time, there is none left for continuous learning, or you end up burned out. Believe me, I’ve tried… So, long story short, I don’t consider myself lazy or depressed with my career because I allow it less time, I’d like to think of it as time better used for inspiration and keeping my resume on track with (at least) today’s standards.

    I still have way too long days, but that’s because I value quality time with my wife… Limiting time for love is another story ;)

  7. I always keep in mind that the 1 thing I’m doing right now is the best thing I could be doing. For me, I know there are tasks that I don’t want to do so I find a million other things to do that waste time and avoid that task. But when I kept the One Thing mindset, it wasn’t so bad.

    I’m surprised to see there isn’t anything about timers here! I absolutely love them for making those daily goals fly by. It’s all about maximizing your energy. 15 minute bursts of absolute concentration have done wonders for me.

    Great post! Thanks for this. I’m going to start making more daily goals.

  8. Hi Scott,

    I always plan my week and schedule at least 1 – 4 important tasks that I must complete my the end of my day. Once I get the important tasks done, I knew I did my part and just go on to do other things. I love your 400m example. It is a great reminder to tell us not to overwork.


  9. Great ideas! I totally agree. I can’t stop myself from working for long hours with my electronics shop site. I should listen your advices.

  10. Love this! I read the 4 Hour Work Week and it changed my life. I have a full time job in an organization that is very traditional and very “face time” oriented. Thankfully, on my mat leave with baby #2, I decided to do thinks differently upon my return to my job. My boss is pretty cool so that helped. So we have a “flexible” arrangement just between the two of us. I “work” from home whenever I want, as long as I can get some out of office meetings during that day. So now, I work from home 2 days a week, and I’m super motivated to get the work done so that i never let my boss down. he’s getting great results, and I”m not wasting time driving to work, and get to spend oodles of time with the kids Mondays and Fridays.

  11. Scott,

    Ironically, I read your article while avoiding doing the work I had to do yesterday! I decided to give your method a try today. First thing into the office, I started at the top of my daily goal list. Then I moved on to email. I didn’t open a non-work web page or engage in chit-chat until everything was done. By avoiding the time sinks, my work got done in no time. I’ve seen similar recommendations before, but I really like how you put it in your article.

  12. Seriously, I Totally agree Vincent.

    I like to really focus on my most important tasks first, Like my Life Coach Rob Scott says “work on your highest leveraged activities”.
    I also find that Remember the Milk helps me stay on time with my highest priority tasks.
    I find the 4 hour work day to be effective but have learned some very interesting psychology behind why we procrastinate from Rob. You should definitely look him up.

    Be Well All,


  13. The advice about not adding more to your workday if you finish early is so right. Managing my time working at home has always been difficult for me. I dream of shorter hours, but for some reason feel like working more and doing extra proves how hard of a worker I am. I so have to get over that.

  14. I have to agree with nearly everything in this article. I am currently a software developer at a small company. One thing that I have grown to despise as of late is the fact that, when you work for someone else, you tend to be measured by how many hours you work first, and what you finished second. I have been thinking about this more and more lately.

    I feel like it is so inefficient that if I get to work by 9 and finish all my work by 12, I still have to sit here for 5 hours and waste time just so that I can get paid my salary. I whole heartedly believe that I should be paid my salary regardless of how many hours I work, it should be paid based on whether or not I actually finish my work and finish it well.

    Now I tend to either finish my work early and spend all day thinking about how there is so much stuff I could be working on at home or elsewhere; or I procrastinate heavily, just so that I can stretch out the work I have for 8 hours and pray that I don’t look like a slacker. I definitely need to take a look at the Four Hour Work Week. *Sigh*, O well, back to reading more of this blog and trying to stay awake for the next 57 mins. Thanks for a great post.

  15. Nice article, I have read the 4 hour workweek and am a big fan.

    Ever wonder how you always manage to make a deadline regardless of how unlikely you might think it is??

  16. This was one of my major frustrations with corp employment. If I could finish my work by 2, it seemed cruel and unusual to require me to stay at my desk and “look busy” until 5 instead of getting to spend time with my family or getting my errands done. I think this is why long lunches are de rigueur these days. I was certainly not the only one.

  17. You got some really simple ideas and very well explained. I’m 23 years old and I’m barely starting to walk my path towards ‘something’. To achieve a goal one must recognize and apply methods (right or wrong we can only be sure after we try). I was never sure about how to put this theory to work. But this ideas could be a good start.

    I’m truly appreciated.

  18. I actually have been trying to use this method and now am more inspired to keep it. I find that waking up early and getting it done early makes me more focused so that I can have the rest of the day “off”. I am usually unproductive in the afternoon anyway (took me long enough to figure that one out) so take the liberty to nap. In the evening I do more work if I haven’t finished my goals, and before I sleep, try to get a list of daily goals for the next day written down. I only have 2-3 days to work like this though, as I am working part time and going to school too.

    This method has been helping me blog more regularly (that’s part of the work I try to get done in the morning), but I haven’t been doing it long enough to see tangible results yet, though I’m optimistic it’ll happen.

    I’m trying to get a good habitual system in place before I graduate so that I can lead a productive and creative life.

    Thanks for the article!

  19. Following this comment thread, it’s striking how many people are working efficiently and then wasting their afternoons ‘looking busy’ in the office. For employers there’s a lesson here: USE OR LOSE those good workers, or remodel what you call ‘normal’ working hours. (This is part of the reason businesses are missing out on the contribution of many potentially productive, creative, conscientious workers: mothers.)

  20. Tom

    Have you people ever heard about “competition”? And have you ever worked in a team? Or are you just sitting at home alone layouting menu cards for restaurants?

    In any case – good luck.

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