I am the founder of Planio and I’m obsessed with automating systems to make work more efficient.
August 06, 2018 · 13 min read

The secrets and science of a productive four day workweek

(And why and how we're adopting it at Planio)

The secrets (and science) of a productive four day workweek

Nearly a century ago, economists and philosophers speculated that by the year 2000, industrialized nations might have workdays as short as 4 hours a day. And while we’ve come a long way from the 12–14-hour average working day of the first half of the 19th century, we’re still nowhere close to those predictions.

In fact, I’d wager most people feel like they’re working more now than ever.

But why is that? Technology has made it easier to communicate, collaborate, and run projects with people across continents and timezones. So why haven’t we seen the benefit of those increases in productivity affect the length of our workweek?

The truth is, we can work less hours. But most companies choose not to.

At Planio, we take the subject of work life balance seriously and have decided to move from a standard 40-hour week to just a four-day workweek. We’re only part-way through the process, but are already enjoying the benefits of this change.

So while the idea of a four day workweek might seem crazy to you, the truth is that we all could (and should) be working less. And the science, as well as our own experience, backs this up.

Before we start, here’s how we've structured this article:

Why you’re better off working less hours (but choose not to)

You might think you’re fine burning a bit of midnight oil. But recent research shows those extra hours catch up on you quickly.

Not only do long days and even longer working weeks make us tired, stressed, and put us at risk of burnout, but studies have shown that our productivity drops off a cliff if we work more than 40+ hours a week.

This means that when you spend that extra 10 hours a week working, you’re really only getting 5 hours of quality work in, at best.

But overwork isn’t just a threat to our productivity. Other studies have found that overworking can be detrimental to our physical health, increase employee turnout, and make us worse at interpersonal communication, managing our emotional reactions, and making judgment calls.

Overwork is a threat to our productivity

In short, the more you work, the worse of a job you do and the less happy you are.

So why do we work too much? For one, our culture has adopted a terrible connection between being “busy” and being valued. As individuals, this makes it incredibly hard to step away from our work for a number of reasons:

Overwork isn’t just an issue for employees. It’s something leaders need to be acutely aware of also.

In creative industries, your work is never really “done”, no matter how many hours you put in. And working longer hours isn’t a sustainable source of competitive advantage. But, almost ironically, working less is.

Not only will working fewer hours make your employees happier. But managing a shorter workday requires a mindset shift that favors realism, creativity, dedication, and resilience. And who doesn’t want a boss or manager who has these qualities?

Still, most of us fall into the trap of doing more and celebrating “being busy”. But science, and our experiences, have shown that this thinking is just wrong.

Working longer hours isn’t a sustainable source of competitive advantage. But, almost ironically, working less is.

Ok. Overworking is bad for us. But isn’t having less time for work just as stressful?

Not exactly. Throughout history there have been numerous examples of whole societies changing the way they work and seeing increases in productivity.

Just think about the 40-hour workweek. While it might feel like the defacto standard, it really hasn’t been around for very long. Just over a century ago, Henry Ford shifted his entire workforce from a 48-hour workweek down to a 40-hour one as he believed too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity.

Or a more recent example: In May, 1995, the entire country of China moved from a 6-day workweek down to five. With no loss in productivity.

In both scenarios, technological advancements allowed workers to increase productivity while working less hours. But that isn’t the only benefit.

After a few months of working a four-day workweek at Planio, we’ve noticed some significant changes to the way we work and the way we operate as a company.

Shorter hours force you to be more effective with your time

Parkinson’s Law explains how “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Meaning that when we give ourselves more time to finish a task, we’re more likely to waste time. It’s why so many students cram for exams or why writers love to hate deadlines.

Or, as prolific author Issac Asimov phrased it:

In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.

When we switched to a four-day workweek at Planio, one of the first things we noticed was that we had to be smarter about the time we did have.

With fewer hours to work with, you need to use them more effectively. But more than just knowing you need to work on your time management, working a shorter week forces this mentality on you.

Creativity thrives under constraints

Speaking of effectiveness, one of the more counterintuitive benefits of fewer working hours, is that it helps people be more creative.

For most people, this is hard to accept. There’s an image of the creative thinker staring pensively out the window waiting for the muse to arrive that still persists in most people’s minds.

Yet, studies have found that scarcity of resources (including time) is one of the biggest boosters of creative thinking. Rather than facing the unlimited potential of a blank page, limitations are like a mental template that force you to get started.

When researchers looked at the difference between creative thinkers with limitations versus those without them, they found those with limited time “give themselves freedom to use resources in less conventional ways–because they have to. The situation demands a mental license that would otherwise remain untapped.”

In fact, constraints are amazing for creativity in all sorts of ways. In another study, researchers even found that when people design products, having a lower budget significantly increased how resourceful people were, leading to better, more successful results.

(Even global advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy has seen the benefits of reduced working hours, and has put a hard cap at 40 hours per week—a big step for a company that used to be nicknamed “Weekend”+Kennedy!)

Shorter hours build team connections, mindfulness, and confidence

Collaboration is at the heart of every great company. Yet collaboration can fall apart quickly if you feel like your time isn’t being respected.

When you have less time to work each week, you’re more mindful of how you spend it together. This means shorter, better run meetings. More mindful interactions with your teammates. And more clarity when you’re working together so you don’t end up wasting time on “I thought you said…”

When you have less time to work each week, you’re more mindful of how you spend it together.

One great side effect of this is that teammates have to be very specific on the work they can do and want to do given their limited time. We all get asked to do things outside of our main responsibilities, and when you have unlimited time (or just no real constraints), it’s too easy to say yes.

But by knowing you have limited time and making strong choices about the work you have time to do, it changes the conversation from “I can’t do this job” to “I don’t do this kind of work”. This is more than just a semantic difference with researchers finding that actively saying “I don’t” is psychologically empowering and can help us stay motivated to reach our goals.

More time off means more time for recovery, rest, and personal development

Obviously, a shorter workweek means more time off. And research has found that psychologically disconnecting from work has major benefits, including: Less work-related fatigue, far lower rates of procrastination, far greater engagement at work (meaning they’re more likely to get into a state of ‘flow’), greater work life balance and quality of life, greater satisfaction with their relationships, and better mental and physical health.

But more than just helping you on the job, a shorter workweek also gives you more time to develop skills and maintain productivity. Those extra hours without work are fantastic opportunities for reflection and contemplation. This means more time to evaluate your own goals, work on personal and professional development, and even just gain inspiration for creative thinking.

Whether you spend your downtime binging Netflix, taking your family out, or exploring an art gallery, the benefits of those experiences can’t help but influence the rest of your life.

Shorter hours change what the “norm” is

While overwork is never the answer, there are inevitably times where you might need to put in a little extra effort. Although we strongly believe you shouldn’t get in these situations (and they’re usually the fault of poor planning), once you’re working shorter hours, the impact of an extended work day becomes less harmful.

As a simple example, if you need to increase working hours by 50% to hit a big milestone, you’re asking workers to go from 30-32 hours a week to 45 or 48. It’s still a big jump, but far less stressful than if someone’s already working 50 hours and you’re asking them to put in 75.

Again, the aim of shorter workweeks is to keep them short. But it is a nice secondary bonus that a temporary increase in working time won’t put your team at high levels of risk.

Why a four day workweek beats flexible hours

At this point, I hope it’s pretty clear just how beneficial cutting your weekly hours is. But not all shorter work schedules are made equally.

Should you work 5-day weeks but cut your days down to 6 hours like many companies in Scandinavia?

Or stick to your usual daily schedule, but add three-day weekends every week?

Or, should you just give your workers flexible hours to pick and choose their schedule for what works for them like many remote companies?

While these are all good options, in our experience, the best one is to keep everyone on a set schedule and just drop one day a week from your schedule. Here’s why:

How to transition your company to a four-day workweek (and how we’re doing it at Planio)

Transitioning your company or team to a four-day workweek isn’t as simple as just telling everyone to take Fridays off.

To make shorter hours work, you need to understand your employees, your business, your industry, and the nature of your work. You also need to be willing to experiment, track your progress, and be honest about what is and isn’t working.

But most of all, you need to make a major mindset shift from viewing work as a sprint to seeing it as a marathon. You need to want to build something lasting, rather than burning up, selling out, and fading away.

You need to make a major mindset shift from viewing work as a sprint to seeing it as a marathon.

For us at Planio, we’ve never wanted to grow just for the sake of growth. I’d rather have a company with happy employees where everyone is proud of the work they do instead of tons of VC money and the pressure to grow even when it doesn’t feel right.

But not everyone feels the same way. So before you try to cut your working hours, you should always ask: Is this right for my company?

For this to work the change needs to match your personal philosophy. Once you’re convinced, here are the steps you can take to help your company transition to a four-day workweek.

Step 1: Get organized with tools, processes, and expectations

Following a compressed workweek starts with being organized. You need to fit all the same work you were doing in 5 days into 4. And that’s no small task.

Ideally, the only hours you’re cutting are ones that were being wasted by non-essential tasks or less productive hours during the day. But that’s not always the case.

To start, make your objectives clear to everyone in the company. Getting more done in less time is intense. And it’s great when it goes well. But it can also derail your company if everyone isn’t in on the plan together.

Solicit feedback to see where people are worried they might be stretched too thin. See how you can help them by moving workloads or dropping/delegating tasks. You’ll want to take some baseline measurements around your personal metrics so that you can track how well your shorter hours are working for you.

Next, figure out all the tools you’ll need to make the shorter workweek a success. This means deciding on what communication tools you’ll use and when. Setting up a flexible and powerful project management tool (like Planio). As well as putting together processes for how you should use your tools.

How will documentation be handled? What about collaboration? When should you use email vs. IM?

The more processes you can set and questions you can answer early on, the more successful your transition is likely to be.

Step 2: Kill the time killers

Most work days are swamped with time killers. Meetings, long phone calls, never-ending email chains. In fact, one study found that most knowledge workers only have 1 hour and 12 minutes of focused time for productive work without communication each day.

Time is your most valuable resource. To condense your workweek, you need to get rid of these time killers and empower your team to spend more time on their actual work. This means:

If, like many companies, you’re used to lots of calls and meetings, this won’t be an easy fix. However, simply questioning why you need all this time will help you move towards being more efficient.

Step 3: Reduce and optimize your communication

Email, IM, and the dreaded “drop in” chat are necessary for doing good work. However, when left unchecked, communication can eat up time that’s better spent elsewhere.

As you transition into a shorter workweek, you’ll want to be especially mindful of how your team is communicating, and how much time is being spent asking and answering questions that could be done in a smarter way.

One easy way to do this is to focus on creating a pull-based communication strategy. Rather than having team members constantly reach out to ask questions, information should be available in wikis and documentation that they can access when needed.

You might also want to have in-demand people designate “office hours” for when they’re available, rather than always be open to interruption.

However, there are times where certain people will have to be available for communication that can eat up their day.

One unique issue we found at Planio is that as we’re a small, technical team, we need to constantly be available to jump in and help with customer support calls, chats, and emails. To make this work and not disrupt everyone’s day, each day of the week has an AM and PM shift where engineers are assigned to help with support. During an active shift, our engineers will work on less focus-demanding work, knowing they need to be available for interruptions.

Multiple studies have shown that interruptions are less impactful on our focus when they’re scheduled. And simply knowing when you’re more likely to be distracted can help keep you be productive, while also responsive.

Step 4: Sign a social contract (i.e. get buy-in from your team)

As you create these norms to support your new work schedule, you need to get buy-in from everyone at your organization. To keep hours short, everyone needs to know what’s expected of them, how they should act, and that the end of the day is the end of the day. No questions asked.

One good way to do this is with a manifesto—a short document that outlines not only how people should act, but also why this is important to you. This could be something as simple as:

“At Planio, we believe we all do our best work when we’re well-rested, happy, and focused. That’s why no work happens on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. This means no emails, IMs, updates, meetings, or calls. Your time off is yours. And we want you to spend it however you’d like.”

Planio 4 day workweek manifesto

A manifesto is a great start. But culture follows example, not words. Unfortunately, a shorter workweek often means getting rid of or shortening the time where teammates connect, like long lunches or the “half work” time where people socialize.

Try organizing group lunches that bring your team together and give them an opportunity to chat and decompress during the day. Or, put together regular company retreats to allow people the time to get to know each other outside of the office.

It might seem like to make shorter hours work you need to do less culture-building exercises, but the truth is that the more we know and respect each other’s needs, the better we work together.

Step 5: Design your days to encourage focus

Finally, you should spend time with each team member to help them design their days around focus and productivity. This means putting all of the last steps together on an individual basis. When are they expected to be available vs. heads down time for core work or “mission critical” tasks? When should they be doing “maker” work vs. “manager” work?

One simple way to do this is to create a template for each day. So, while the work or project might change, people know what they should be doing when. Here’s an example of what this might look like from Superbooked CEO Dan Mall:

Superbooked Calendar Template

Think about things beyond just your schedule as well. Staying focused and productive depends on getting rid of as many workplace distractions as possible. So take time to examine the communication tools you use, the bad habits your team has developed, and even your working environment.

This might seem like overkill, but a four-day workweek depends on clear expectations and an even clearer schedule.

The four-day workweek can be a reality. But you have to work for it.

During a recent fireside chat, Google CEO Larry Page noted that any time you ask a group of workers if they’d like more time off, they will undoubtedly answer yes.

Your team craves more downtime. And not because they’re slackers or lazy.

Good people want to do good work. And in our experience at Planio, giving them more time off only helps them do this by protecting them from burnout, keeping them motivated, and offering the opportunity to relax, recharge, and work on personal development.

It might take time and a serious mindset shift to get out of the “standard” 40-hour workweek. But if our experience (and the research) is anything to go by, shortening your workweek will only make your team happier, more productive, and focused. And what company doesn’t want that?