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Challenge: 4-Hour Workday

September 7, 2011 — By Dr. Pete

4 o'clockI know what you're thinking — didn't Tim Ferriss already write the 4-Hour Workweek, and isn't that, by definition, 5 times better than a 4-Hour Workday? Well, yeah, sort of. I'm not here to argue with Tim's success or review his book (I think it has plenty of good advice), but here's my big question: How many people who read it are actually working 4-hour weeks?

What if we started smaller?

I'm not sure most of us can really see a path from where we are now to a 4-hour workweek, but over the past few months, I've seen a way I could do 8 hours of work in 4 hours, and it applies to most of the people I know. It's not a shortcut, and it doesn't involve outsourcing — what it does involve is a radical transformation of your day.

What do you do in 8 hours?

Let's be honest — even if you're extremely conscientious and hard-working, you don't sit at your desk for 8 straight hours with 100% focus on your work. Even if your office has strict internet usage policies, you still check email dozens of times a day, take breaks, chat with co-workers, daydream, etc. If you're in an industry like mine or work for a more flexible company, then add in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and virtually anything you do on your phone other than call people.

The problem isn't just the time these activities take — distraction costs so much more than that. Let's say you're doing something that takes solid mental effort, like writing. If you write for 30 minutes, but then check email 5 times for 30 seconds each, did you get in 27:30 of solid writing time? No. Your brain had to regroup every time, and inevitably those emails contained something that you'd have to act on later. As soon as you saw them, they started gnawing away at your capacity to focus. What you thought was 30 minutes of "writing" may have been 15 minutes at best.

What if we defragmented time?

What happens when you defragment a hard drive? Basically, you move all the open bits (the ones with no data in them) so that they're together, creating blocks of usable space. What if you did the same thing with your day? Let's say that, after all the distractions and mental gymnastics, every 30 minutes you "work" is really only 15 minutes of productivity. If we took all of those 15 minute chunks and put them into 1 block, we'd have a 4-hour period of productivity and a 4-hour period of distraction.

Of course, most of us can't work in one big, uninterrupted, 4-hour block. So, here's where the 30GO30 philosophy comes in — what if you thought of your work day as 8 30-minute blocks. During those 30 minutes, you work — no email, no Facebook, no watercooler gossip, no distractions. Set a timer, if you have to (I do).

So, I can go home at noon?

Obviously, it's not quite that simple. I'm not even suggesting that you stop working after the 8 blocks. In my experience, those 8 blocks often take 8 hours or more. Once you start thinking in terms of a 4-hour day, though, the time you spend outside of those blocks starts to seem more like pure distraction. Checking Facebook the 487th time sounds good when you're procrastinating. Doing it when it's just cutting into your "free" time loses a lot of appeal.

I'd also argue (from experience) that, if you really did this consistently, those 4 hours of focused work would yield more results than any traditional 8-hour day, especially for people in creative roles. You'd see your quality increase, and you'd learn where your efforts really pay off.

This sounds like a challenge.

That's right — this isn't just me waxing philosophical. My next 30-day challenge is to live the 4-hour workday, to commit to 8 uninterrupted 30-minute blocks of work every workday. I'll be sticking to weekdays, so this will actually be a 6-week challenge. I realize that jumping straight to 8 blocks may be too much for some people, especially if you have a more traditional office job. So, a couple of suggestions:

  • Commit to a smaller number of blocks — 6, 4, 2, even 1
  • Don't obsess over outside interruptions. You can't control other people, but if you just focus on what you can control, you'll still see a huge difference.
  • If it's really impossible to carve out any 30-minute blocks in the office, set aside 1-2 per day at home, for your own personal/family projects.
  • Don't be too rigid. You can use the blocks for anything — it's all about focus.
If 8 blocks sounds impossible, remember this — you're already working an 8+ hour day. I'm not talking about adding 4 hours of work. I'm just suggesting you do that work a little differently. Theoretically, you're not even changing what you do at first — you're just doing it in a different order.

The challenge starts Monday, September 12, and lasts 6 weeks. I'll update my status at the 3-week mark. If you're with me, let me know in the comments.