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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

    @hiddenson: You are right about the shades of grey. But that’s my point: This “shade of grey” is actually an eight hour workday (often I even work 10 to 11 hours a day – but there is little to none time wasted, I can assure you. At least I get to work creatively and make money with something I enjoy).

    That the quest to be better than your competition is flawed, well that is your opinion, and I can see where you are coming from. But explain that to someone who is willing to give you money for services or goods you offer – a client. Of course you are free to tell him “Sorry guys, I am not available to take your money after noon on a workday”, this is your choice. I can guarantee you, they won’t bother you again. I can’t blame them.

    In general, I enjoy pushing myself to offer better, more competent services to my client. I like the feeling of getting paid a lot because I deserve it. This is my career, and I had the incredible privilege of picking a career I enjoy. Working at least 8 hours a day is not unreasonable.

    For the record, I am all for big companies streamlining their operations and working more efficiently. And by all means, if you are done with your task and there’s really, really nothing else to do – go home, enjoy your day.

  2. Tom

    @nick
    No, I understand it perfectly. It is just completely unrealistic, unless you work in a bubble that is seperated from the outside world.

    The way I see it (sorry if this example is cynical, but I hope you will understand the point I make), the 4 hour workday would be perfect for a prison inmate who has to pick a certain amount of oakum on each workday. It’s a menial task, nobody really cares how much he actually works (he has no competition – he doesn’t even need to earn any money, the taxpayer pays for his meals. The money he makes goes into an extra pack of cigarettes). He (or she) concentrates and works like crazy, finishes the task in 4 hours and goes back to the cell to slack off – great for him (well, except sitting in a cell is arguably worse than being in fresh air, but nevermind that for the sake of the example ;). This example works because he has a set amount of work he can do and he doesn’t need to worry about competition.

    My reallife situation: I am working in a medium sized ad and design agency with some big clients. We are lucky to have them. Times are tough. They phone in constantly with things we have to do for them (most of the time it’s little stuff, editing a video, making a brochure). It is NOT like we know exactly what we will have to do on a given day in advance. On baaaad days it’s nothing it all (which sucks – but we still stay in office. Why? A client might call us to give us something to do. Or we are invited to a pitch – yay! This means we will be able to feed ourselves and our families for another week). We have to acquire clients – and keep them. How? By being cheaper, better, more available than other agencies. It’s a constant struggle. And THIS is the situation EVERY single company, corporation or entrepreneur worldwide is in.
    This is why a lot of firms will laugh in your face if you tell them “Hey, I am just going to finish up my work for today and head home”. They will argue (and they do have a point) – “Well if you really can finish up your entire work within 4 hours obviously it’s possible to lay you off and give the workload to someone else. Bye!”

    It’s called capitalism.

  3. Nick – love your thinking. I’m only going to pick up one minor point: ‘going to home school my daughter when she’s old enough’. She’s old enough now! from the first eye contact and lullabies, that’s home ed. You’ll notice this isn’t really a disagreement… ;0)

  4. Nick

    mand- I agree. I did think that, but just didn’t say it. I wanted to teach myself when I was 14, but my Mum wouldn’t back me. Since then, It’s been at the back of my mind to do it. This is part of the reason for looking to work less- so I’ll have time to do it. I want to travel too, taking her with us. That’s the way to learn a foreign language- live there for months at a time.

    Do you homeschool your kids? Any thoughts or opinions on it? Anyone, I’d welcome e-mails on this subject (n.steddy@sky.com)

  5. Nick

    Tom- I do this already in my job. I’m contracted to do 40 hours, but usually finish in under 30. Today I went home before 11. I appreciate that in your line of work, this isn’t going to be possible. Some careers lend themselves to shorter working hours, for others 70+ is the norm. It depends what’s important to you. I personally, would rather work 15-20 hours for $50, 000, than 50-60 hours for $100, 000.

    I know 2 people who didn’t want to work their lives away. One had a very specialist job in computers. He worked hard, but walked away when he was 35 (he planned this) and lived off of property investments. The other is in his early 40’s and just invested well in the stock market and as a private investor in numerous companies.

    If you can’t work less, or don’t want to- then I wouldn’t dream of criticising you for that. Only if you can and would like to- but don’t.

  6. A perfect post, and it follows thoughts and patterns I’ve used for years, but never really articulated. Lest any of your readers say this is not a realistic post, I will say, without reservation that it absolutely IS realistic.

  7. @Nick – replying by email (but not until tomorrow), since this will be a bit off topic. ;0)

  8. Seeing the split in responses reminds me of a favorite quote…”Whether you think you can or you think you cannot, you are right.” – Henry Ford

  9. You’ve made me rethink how I work on a daily basis, and your system sounds great. I’ll definitely try it next week to see how it goes. :)

  10. Hi……….i really like your ideas and way of writing….nice and simple yet helpful.

    Just a thought though….what about Bio rhythms and natural energies? Have you come across the Awakener/Builder/Container/Completer concept? Some people seem naturally more suited to working at different times of the day. I’ve now stopped giving myself a hard time for not completing things by 12pm and now work more productively at times that suit my energy better ;-)

    Still…..would be nice to finish by 12pm ;-)
    Denise

  11. Hi Tina! I love the idea of weekly goals. It definitely helps prevent the daily goals from sliding over to the next week. (I’m currently using a daily goals and monthly goals system, and will incorporate the weekly goals now that I have read this post.) I once read before that if you allocate X amount of time for work, it will automatically fill up to take up X amount of time, even if it really needs lesser. So I love the idea of allocating a certain fixed time and sticking to it – that’s what I strive to do for myself as well. Thanks for such an informative post!

  12. Scott, great post. I think you hit the nail when you mentioned most of us are knowledge workers, and that means that our value is created by our output, not our hours (this is not just a mind shift, it is at the core of the work we do).

    I am going to focus on making sure I work in this output centric mode. I’ll also shoot for the idea of doing everything before noon, I think I can get to it.

  13. I didn’t realize the post was written by Scott until I hit submit. Sorry Scott! My comment above was addressed to you.

  14. the foreigner

    4 hours of productive work = great!
    8 hours of productive work = even better!

    My most productive hours are between 8am and noon. In the afternoon I try to do stuff that are not so important but still needs to be done. Just to make it easier to find flow the next day.

    Maybe I should rethink? =)

    Thanks for a great post Scott!

  15. Excellent article. Well written, to the point and exactly what people need in today’s competitive market. In Hong Kong where I work, it seems that people put in long hours just for the sake of putting in long hours. It must be a culture thing to stay just as long as your boss (if not longer) and portray that you have that many things to do. I say screw that culture and produce high quality work efficiently. The rule of working smart vs working hard holds true and effectively gives me work-life balance. Thank you for this article.

  16. These are great ideas. I was just doing this yesterday, breaking my blog activities up into things I do daily, weekly, and monthly. Really cool stuff :)

  17. Excellent blog post and all the scotty stuff is fantastic. Very impressive at how you manage your time and I have adopted some of the tips immediately and have started using a weekly goals list to keep my mind focused on the goals

  18. What a valuable article for someone running their own business. I have felt so efficient in planning each of my days out in 8 hr day increments each week. I figure since I’m running a business, I should be spending that much time on it. So true that time spent has nothing to do with it. It’s all about outcomes. Thanks for the reminder Tina!

    -Scott

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