Shorter, Simpler, Smarter

Could a shorter workweek make you more productive?

"Time.. It's the one thing we can't buy, trade, or get back," muses Rana Florida in Upgrade: Taking Your Work and Life From Ordinary to Extraordinary, her 2013 book on maximizing personal and work life. In her chapter on time, the CEO of the Creative Class Group, an advisory services firm in Toronto, talks about compressed work hours. She refers to a Chicago web company's practice of working 32 hours a week four months of the year and demographer James Vaupel's theory that we all should be working a 25-hour workweek pretty much for life.

Could you do it? Cut back your weekly work hours to 35, 32 or even, most radically, 25? "I think by shortening the workweek we could get a lot more done," says Florida. When we decide to stay at our desks until the project is done, the work expands to fill the time until the cleaning staff arrives. But curtailing your hours and putting in place efficiency measures can see you golfing every Tuesday afternoon or picking up your kids after school. Do it right and your work quality may even improve. "People who are successful and who are creative and innovative protect their time fiercely," says Florida. Here are some ways the experts say you can chop your work hours, or at least make them more time-smart.

Stop counting

"We have somehow started to equate busyness with importance. We have these competitions where we tell each other: 'I worked 80 hours last week,'" says Tasha Eurich, an author and organizational psychologist based in Denver. Long weeks don't always translate into productive weeks.

What we should be counting: our sleep time. When we're sleep-deprived, we can't be efficient, nor can we learn and reason effectively. "People are getting less than six hours of sleep and telling themselves they don't have time for sleep. We have to change our story and make time for things to process," says Ann Gomez, productivity consultant at Clear Concept Inc. in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Master messages

"Email is the biggest productivity killer that I see," says Eurich. A study by Michigan State University shows that even brief interruptions double your chances of making a mistake.

To better deal with email, Florida instructed her staff to eschew "reply all" and only copy her if her input was truly needed. The day after, her inbox was suddenly empty. "When I first noticed it, I thought there was something wrong with our email service," she recalls.

Eurich suggests checking email at 9 a.m., 2 p.m., at the end of the day and once — just once — in the evening. Accountant Farida Yusuf, senior associate in the business enterprise solutions team at accounting, tax and advisory firm Fuller Landau, has been working a 35-hour week since mid-2012. She deals with simple email messages as they come in. Those that require thought or a complex answer get a flag and she tackles them when she has time later in the day.

Plan your work

"Take two minutes before you dive into something — that's usually all it takes," says Eurich, who thinks rash decisions lead to wasting time. Thinking about when and how you'll do a task — pondering all angles, seeing if it can be delegated or combined with other work or looking to see if someone has done a similar project — ensures you'll do the work quickly and well.

Yusuf, who says that her reduced workweek has not hindered the progress of her career in the firm, takes 10 to 20 minutes on Sunday evenings to check her email and schedule for the week. "By the time you get to work, you've already dealt with things mentally."

Part of planning should be putting all your tasks on realistic deadlines. "The work is never done. But if we institute a deadline then we're going to be more focused and productive," says Gomez.

Work smarter

Most organizations have junior staff keen to get involved in more complex work — why not use them to lighten your own load? Yusuf often identifies time-consuming parts of projects — such as data entry — that a junior team member would be happy to do, and offloads them. “I still have control over the project, but I’m getting some work off my to-do list.”

As well, while it’s tempting to put off difficult tasks — problem-solving something difficult, writing — until the afternoon, resist. Not only are we more sluggish as the day progresses, but inevitably there will be drama by mid-afternoon. “Realistically, something will drop in your lap by the end of the day. Do it in the morning,” says Gomez.

Take breaks

Runs to the coffee shop, noontime yoga classes and lunch dates don’t sabotage the work day, they make it better. “We need breaks,” says Gomez. “We can’t focus for more than 90 minutes at a time.” She recommends tracking your work patterns and seeing how long you can go without checking email or getting up to chat with a colleague. Once you figure out your own “sweet spot,” plot out your day around those 30- to 90-minute increments and book in breaks of checking email, taking walks, running errands and meeting others.

Ideally, your day should be made up of short bursts of efficient work broken up with fun, active or useful tasks that give your brain and body a break. Don’t neglect real breaks: vacations. A study by Ernst & Young found that for every 10 additional hours of vacation employees took, their work performance reviews improved by 8%.

Question things

Eurich has three questions she likes to ask of workplace tasks: is there a simpler way? Can this be delegated? Does this work need to be done at all? These questions demand creative thought and taking risk, something not all organizations encourage. “Too often we look to the past for the right way of doing things when it’s the future that holds the answer,” she says. Suggesting your team stop writing a report that no one truly reads or testing out a web application to do a shortcut might meet with resistance. Forging on with ideas that will save time, energy and open everyone up to do better work is tough, but worth it.

It's personal

Rana Florida protects her time in the office and at home too. Here are the time-wasters she's tackled in her personal life.

Toxic friends

So-called friends who sap your energy with their complaints, their broken promises and their negativity have to go — or at least get taken off your speed dial. "It's difficult, particularly when the person is related to you," admits Florida.

Waiting

Use the web to research your administrative tasks in advance to find out when border crossings and passport offices have the smallest lineups. Fill out forms in advance virtually. Preserve your time by always doing your homework first.

Getting ready

Florida has a bag already packed, ready for one of her frequent trips. Husband Richard Florida, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, owns an entirely mix-and-match wardrobe so he never has to waste time deciding what to wear.

Events

Florida scraps all but the most interesting and imperative event invitations — she'd rather meet one-on-one with friends or colleagues or network online. The time getting ready, splurging on outfits and cabs and losing precious sleep are rarely worth it. "Really, what are you getting out of these events? How could that time have been spent better?" she asks.

About the Author

Diane Peters


Diane Peters is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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