Tell the boss: let me work less, and I'll get more done

LeisureUsually, I’m sceptical whenever some ultra-successful Silicon Valley firm gets held up as an example of how we’ll all be working in future. Sure, it’s possible that Google’s success is down to free yoga classes, napping pods and unlimited gourmet food consumed in “conversation areas designed to look like vintage subway cars”. But it’s surely equally likely that these are indulgences a rich company can afford, whether or not they help the bottom line – and they won’t be coming to call centres or council offices any time soon. The latest trend might have more going for it, though: more tech businesses are experimenting with four-day weeks. As Ryan Carson, co-founder of the education startup Treehouse, put it: “You get all day Friday off, instead of pretending like you’re working when you’re not.”

The most important reason to work fewer days, of course, is that it’s good for families, friendship, hobbies and the human spirit. But the most interesting implication of the current experiments, backed by some academic research, is that it appears to be good for productivity and work quality, too. Partly that’s because desk-based “knowledge work” relies on plenty of brain rest as well as exertion. Pushing people past their natural limits doesn’t just make them inefficient, it actively damages work on the following days. In other cases, employees aren’t working fewer hours at all, but simply rearranging them, from five days of eight hours to four days of 10. Yet even this provides a useful sense of constraint: knowing you’ve got to squeeze everything into fewer days seems to improve efficiency overall.

A similar philosophy of less-is-more informs Josh Davis’s recent book, Two Awesome Hours, which begins by rejecting the premise that it’s worth trying to squeeze value from every moment of every day. To get more out of machines or computers, it’s almost always best to run them for longer. But they can’t get tired; humans can. Instead, to the extent that your job allows it, Davis proposes fighting hard to ringfence one two-hour period of distraction-free work each day, at a time of peak energy – during which you’ll probably get more meaningful stuff done than in two whole days at half-power.

The big unspoken truth here is that we think about the work week in terms that might have outlived their usefulness. In the 1920s, the two-day weekend represented a major victory for workers’ rights, but that doesn’t mean five days of work is the right number. Even the seven-day week itself is a human creation: unlike the year, month, or day, it has no close connection to nature. (Revolutionary France had a 10-day week, and the Soviet Union tried a five-day “continuous work week”, with staggered days off, so production lines never needed to pause.) Besides, measuring work in hours, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution, makes little sense for knowledge work, save that it’s easy to quantify. If you can possibly get away with it, work less: you’ll find you get more work done.

(First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by Hash Milhan on Flickr.)

Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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