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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. Tom

    Another thing I do not understand:
    A lot of people commented they were “done by 2” – well I have to ask you something: Did it ever, ever cross your mind there might be something else for you to do? Your employer pays you good money after all (though I am afraid this will end soon for many of you unless you forget about this – seriously – harebrained idea).

    Wasting time at work sucks, yes. Spending too much hours in the workplace sucks, yes. But this happens when you work in a team of specialists. And your company has to be better and more efficient than the competition. Suck it up. Your wages don’t grow on trees.

  2. Gideon K

    Hey T,

    Great Blog!!! Like your perspective on work.

    -G

  3. Scott, you’ve given us so much to ponder… but really, it’s all about putting these concepts into action, isn’t it? I’ve worked in a home office for more than five years and am still mastering these techniques. Been working on better daily scheduling for the last month; will tweak my schedule today using your Weekly/Daily Goals. Thanks!

    Happy day,
    Anne

  4. I guess Google got this pretty early when they implemented the 20% time plan, keeping the employees busy in “constructive” things who finish their tasks-for-the-day well before the day ends.

  5. Great article! I intend to practice myself (I can be an over-doer) and will for sure share the concept with clients. Its healthy and I can really see the value. Thanks!

    Judy

  6. I liked your first post – finding beauty in life and this was much more interesting….. :) …..Very nice one ..Tina

    Though I’m lazy enough to put the goals (daily/weekly) on a paper, infact I work in a similar way.I work to make sure I close all my tasks on time. At times, at the end of the week, if I have something pending and feel like relaxing a bit, I push it to next week and complete it first in the following week.

    But, I do have a question – if I consider myself as an exampe or problem….please read below.What will be your solution?

    I work (a techie :) ) in an environment where issues keep coming up continously. When I think I’m done by around 12 pm on a day and begin to do something with my career development, My client walks by – “Hey something came up just now….can you take a look?”. I can’t say no. How do you think you can handle this situation?

    My solution (or may be something to get around this) – I started my work right from the start of the day from home so that I will be able to able to accomodate such “unanticipated urgencies at work” :). Though this is helping this way, it is affecting in another way. When I don’t have anything such, I relax again. Here I feel I’m wasting all my resources. And also this solution may last long as long as I’m single and I’m away from family.

    Will check out the book you mentioned. Will give the “jotting down the goals on a paper” a try and see if I would notice a change.

    Thanks
    Kishore

  7. sorry a small correction in the above – in the first sentence read it as – your first post “I read”

    Kishore

  8. This is great content. It’s not how hard you work, but how smart you work. Have your goals and stick with them :)

  9. Tim

    Hmmm – OK lets get something straight here. Sure, if you are a lucky minority, you might be able to justify working 4 hours a day. But for the majority of people on this earth, work is something that they have to do to live, to put food on the table for them and their family.

    Are you seriously suggesting that people in the 3rd world countries dont get up at 5am, walk the many miles to get the water they need, spend the day working in fields, whilst you sit in your comfortable home writing a few words and being paid in comparison a disgustingly huge amount of money?

    OK – maybe I am taking it too far. Lets look at your normal 1st world Average Joe or Jessie. They will have a 9 to 5 job and most will likely get in a bit earlier than that and leave a bit later. Their employer pays them for the hours they work. When I did that type of work, just because I was young and able to touch type, did not mean I thought after 3 hrs I should be able to pack up for the day whilst the 55yo lady next to me was punching away with 2 fingers. If a company pays you per hour, you should work per those hours. If that means you do more than person X next to you, dont even think about it. That is the contract you have signed.

    Then we get on to likes of you. People that have the sort of privelidged jobs that pay excessively more than they should. And oh how easy you find it to write tripe like you have above. So, because you are a writer, you feel that you can work 4 hrs a day. OK fine. If your employer pays you to produce X articles, and you can do this in 4 hrs a day, good for you. But dont write the above rubbish that suggests for the majority of people they can do the same. For the majority, we work damn hard, long hours. If the people/companies we work for paid us the same they pay the likes of you, the economy would not work.

    So – sit happy in your smug self centered world thinking you are something special. You are. The thing is though, being a special kind of idiot isnt something to be proud of.

    And as for you lazy students that read this and think this is something to aim for, try going out, getting a job and WORKING for a bit and giving back to the society that has likely subsidised your education. In the country I live in (UK), every person other than those that get up, work, pay their taxes and seem to get nothing back, seem to get hand outs. Then the scum breeds with other scum and we end paying for these little junior chavs through yet more benefits. When will the world recognise that you should only ever get a ‘benefit’ if you contribute. Human Rights should only come with Human Responcibilities.

  10. I’ve been following new comments on this post and it’s not hard to find some folks that disagree (not really sure about what) with this whole idea. It’s not a bad thing to disagree, but try to understand the true meaning of it, before judging it. I mean, this might not be possible to the great majority but maybe that’s something we might want to change and don’t just accept it. I heard someone saying it would be impossible to a 3rd World citizen to put this to practice… well, maybe there shouldn’t be a 3rd and a 1st World. It seems to me that some folks just accept that fact as something one cannot change.

    This whole idea, besides practical, requires a profound change on hour society. We should care more about quality.

    I hope everyone take a deep breath, read the post, question the world around and most important, yourself. Then you might be able to see beyond the words.

  11. It seems to me that some of the counter arguments here stem from a confusion about the industry areas where this concept can apply.

    There is of course a huge difference between task oriented work, and service oriented work. In task oriented jobs, you can actually hit 5pm and call it a day if you have completed your goals: this happens with a project, an event preparation, a business meeting. Service oriented jobs do not offer this predictability: a phone can always ring in a call center, a trouble ticket can always be recorded in an IT operations room.

    That said, all jobs, ALL, have daily maintenance, as well as long-term planning. Leaving some space, whether 15 minutes or 4 hours to work on your long-term tasks is desirable. Use the rest of your time as you see fit.

  12. Beth

    This is really interesting, and it’s a completely different mindset from corporate America. This is really the way of the future.

  13. This article is so accurate. I can now do so much more in just a few hours than when I was working full-time. People ask me if I plan on going back to full-time when the kids are older and I ask, “Why would I?” I’m making just as much working only a few hours a week. Thanks for a great post!

  14. I want to say thanks for this article. I have been working this way for years and I felt like the only one. It always seems (seemed) like everyone is so busy, but then I also think about how they go out on smoke breaks or stand chit-chatting at each others offices/cubicles. I wonder how they are doing those things if they are so busy. Maybe it turns out that they are just procrastinating. I can’t know for sure, I suppose.

    However, I have this routine I keep to, and until the beginning of this year when my employer demanded I be in the office “during normal business hours”, I would work 4 hours a day and get everything done quickly and efficiently.

    This is my routine:
    – Arrive at work. Turn on office equipment/lights.
    – Check email and file those things that need to be done under the category “today”.
    – Reply to immediate needs or things that can be answered/taken care of right now and get those off my plate.
    – Add things that need to be done on a more long-term basis to my to-do list (structured as a spreadsheet with multiple blocks – one for each project).
    – Add things that need to be done today to a separate to-do list (in a pen and paper notebook I keep on my desk).
    – As those things get done, cross them off.

    This works so well for me and it’s easy to know what I still need to do that day. I work in a deadline oriented environment so I’m able to schedule my time pretty well. I have also set myself up to be able to access everything from home if I have to have an unexpected absence (I have an 8 year old son, so this sometimes happens). My co-workers also now how to reach me via cell, which is always on me, so my time out of the office rarely ever results in missed work or lack of information.

    It’s very frustrating to have to sit in the office after you are done working and not be able to, say, go to the grocery store or run other errands. I would also appreciate the ability to have a snack ready for my son when he comes home from school (3:30) and/or to have dinner ready and be able to prepare it in a more leisurely fashion. I believe these are the important things in life – not the “face time” that the corporate world demands.

    For those who think that people like me are not earning our salaries, I call rubbish. I am doing the work assigned to me, and if I were to ask anyone in the office if they needed help with something, I’d surely lose my job due to lack of work. It’s a catch-22! You say to “do more work”, but for people in jobs like mine, we can only do our own work because each project is very specialized.

    I am always offering people to come to me if they ever need help or advice with anything on the job. I’m usually the person that offers the most help to a new hire when they look confused or scared, and I try to be friendly to encourage this. That doesn’t mean I get any more work from doing that. Sometimes there just isn’t more work. Also, if I were to clear out all of the work I had to do for the week in 1 day, I’d be VERY bored all week. I have also been the one to do certain things outside of my usual work, such as taking home and scanning all of our tax exempt certificates for my team to use without having to fax them, implementing new templates for certain paperwork that was unorganized, and passing my to-do list and methods on to other team members.

    In any case, thanks very much for this article – I really don’t feel so alone and awkward anymore after reading it and the comments.

  15. The philosophy of finishing your workday before noon resonates with me. One of my businesses functions in a location 13hours ahead of me. This means I am always done by 2am, and always before noon.

    My view of what is possible has recently been redefined by what I convince myself works. When you have a family member who needs you far away, and you are willing to reorganize your life, it is amazing what is possible. You develop a “can-do” mentality.

  16. Nick

    I love this idea. I mean, what’s not to love, right? I think some of the critical comments come from a position of misunderstanding. After all, you are essentially compressing a work ‘day’ into a few hours. It’s not like anyone’s suggesting that you don’t perform what is expected of you. Did they even read the bit about the 400m sprint?

    Put it this way- you are still doing the same important tasks, but without the filler. So, essentially, you are missing out checking your e-mail 100 times a day, random surfing, long lunches and water cooler chat, etc. Plus, if you were to work with the intensity of the 4 hour workday, but try to sustain it over 8 hours, all you would end up is burnt out.

    BTW, this principle crosses over into education as well. I’m going to home school my daughter when she’s old enough. Between us, we’ll cover many times more than the pathetic schools curriculum (UK) offers, in a third to half of the time.

    My moto- “Every problem has a solution”

    Good luck to everyone in their personal goals. Kind regards, Nick.

  17. Tom

    I just think the whole concept exemplifies how lazy and spoilt we, as a culture, have become. Never willing to go that extra mile, always being satisfied with doing the bare minimum.

    This is the reason why the West is being overtaken by former developing countries like China, India, Korea – societies with an almost suicidal work ethic (for the record, I would HATE working from early morning until midnight. But this is our competition) and a hunger for success.

  18. @Tom: again, I do not understand this argument that you yourself do not defend so well… Since when is “less than suicidal work” downright “lazy and spoilt”? Aren’t there some degrees in between where some of this could fit?

    The quest for being the best is inherently flawed, as in this case economy is in opposition with quality time.

    Anyway, I think I will blog my long point of view at my own space, I need to restate the assumptions.

    Interesting article with a nice debate!

  19. Nick

    Tom. I don’t think you are grasping the concept of the 4 hour work day at all. You ARE doing 8 hours work- but in 4 hours. It’s not realistic to do two ‘lots’ of intense 4 hour sessions. If you have to do an 8 hour day, then you would have to work at an easier pace.

    There is also such thing as balance in life. Working the best part of the day, for the best part of your life is not balanced. Having the afternoon to engage in your interests, family/ friends, etc, is a fantastic improvement to your quality of life. If anyone is in a position to shorten their day, but chooses not to, then I hope you love what you do, because the alternatives are not good- stupidity, fear, closed mindedness, etc.

    It’s not realistic to compare the work ethic of China to America. There are so many differences in culture, social development, etc. Comparing apples to oranges.

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