To Be More Productive, Limit Your Time

There’s a lot of talk about shorter work weeks. This is a natural outgrowth of the acceleration of remote work over the last two years.

The thesis, as I understand it, has two parts:

  1. Most/all employees can get the same amount done in 32 hours that they can get done in 40 hours.
  2. Doing so leads to an overall increase in well-being for everyone

I have no idea what the long-term data are/will be on the first point, but my first reactions are:

  • I’m sure most people waste a ton of time at most jobs. This  means there’s a lot of slack built in. So it’s believable that some people can work 20% fewer hours and get the same amount done.
  • I am curious about whether this impact is temporary or permanent.
  • And, more fundamentally, I wonder what happens in people’s heads when they feel they only have 4 days in which to get 5 days’ worth of work done.

Does our time being (or feeling) constrained lead us to be more productive?

I think this is entirely possible. When our boss, at 10am, tells us we’re working until 10pm today, most of us will find space for a longer lunch and a few other distractions.

Conversely, I’ve found (particularly during the pandemic) that knowing that I have a set of end-of-day obligations at home (driving the kids somewhere, cooking dinner) keeps me hyper-focused on getting everything I need to get done in the (shortened) available time and I am more productive.

You might experiment with juicing your output by, counterintuitively, constraining your time. Create your own strict deadlines for projects—“I’ll get this done by 5pm” rather than “by tomorrow”—and see if it creates a positive cascading effect in the hours leading up to that deadline.

The fact is, we all have moments when our energy lags throughout the day. The question is: what do we do in those moments, how do we manage them?

Do we consciously take productive breaks (getting some fresh air, walking around a bit, getting a glass of water and sitting quietly without our phones)?

Or do we dither and get pulled into (online) things that can spiral and that sap our energy?

For most of us, in the last 60 minutes before a deadline, we’re hyper-focused and spending 0% of our time doomscrolling.

The trick is to harness a sustainable version of this feeling over the course of a day, so we have a sustained sense of focus and urgency and, as a result, are much more efficient.

And, lest we forget, whenever we hit our own early deadline, we have to remember Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to give ourselves a (figurative) cookie. The reward for 4, 5 or 6 hours of super-productive, focused work has to be…rewarding! And that probably isn’t jumping immediately to the next task.

The bonus is that, not only does this behavior make us more productive, efficient and happier, it’s also an opportunity to practice being accountable to ourselves (and not just to other people).

The muscle of self-accountability is a blog post for another day, but the short version is this: the better we get good a keeping the promises we make to ourselves (along with, not instead of, the promises we make to others) the more chance that we’ll use our newly-found free time for projects that really matter.