This will sound heretical in many circles, but if you’re working for yourself, you shouldn’t have to work more than 4 hours a day (or 20 hours a week). Assuming you work those hours sincerely, anything beyond that timeframe results in diminishing returns. Not only is it possible to work fewer hours, you’ll also work on the right things, do them the right way, and your results will improve greatly.
For most of us, the balance between the three areas of our lives is far too skewed towards our work, leaving little to no time for ourselves, let alone our relationships. While the work we do may give our life meaning and contribute to the world, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
The problem with living a work-centered life is multi-fold. First, it’s not sustainable. Sooner or later, something will have to give, resulting in burnout, and it’s usually our self and/or our relationships that pay the price. More importantly though, we end up viewing our lives from a work-centered lens, which can be far more damaging.
We need to remind ourselves that the reason we started working for ourselves was to gain control over our time, which is true wealth. While we may enjoy our work, it’s easy to work long hours to our detriment. It’s easy to become a slave to our business, lest we forget it should serve us, not vice versa.
For most of us, our life revolves around our work, when in fact our work should revolve around the rest of our life. There will always be more to do than we can possibly accomplish. Does that mean we spend all of our time working? Of course not!
I have long maintained that if you work more than 20 hours a week for yourself—or more than 40 hours a week working for others—something is wrong with either you, your nature of work, or both.
Working around 4-5 hours a day isn’t about working fewer hours, it’s about what it enables you to do with the rest of your time. It’s about doing fewer things better. We only have so much energy and capacity for work each day. We can either spend our efforts on a few things, or spread ourselves thin by doing many things. While the effort needed in both of those approaches is the same, it’s always our choice.
Working fewer hours forces us to focus on results and outcomes. Spending fewer (quality, focused) hours at work leaves us with sufficient downtime outside of work. This helps us renew ourselves. As a result, we return more renewed and energized the following day to do better work. And the cycle continues.
Ironically, working less produces better results. Here’s how: Working fewer hours acts as a time constraint. Because you know you only have a few hours that you can work every day, you’ll spend more time doing real work (producing results) and less time doing “busy-work” during the day.
Adam Smith, the pioneer of capitalism wrote:
The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the largest but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.
Work expands to fill the time needed, as per Parkinson’s Law. When you give yourself less time to do the work, you will find a way to make it happen.
When you work fewer hours, you bring out your best self. When you know you only have so much time to work, you’ll show up and do the right things automatically without wasting any time. For me, the creative work happens between 9 and 11am. If I haven’t used that time well, the time for doing the work that day has passed and there is nothing I can do about it, except for working the next morning.
While it may seem that by having fewer hours to work, one might have to rush through it to make the most of it, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When we show up to do the work with intention and awareness, we don’t need more time to do things, nor is there need for haste. It’s totally possible to slow down, be present, and fully engage with our work in those few hours.
In fact, many single folks who marry and start a family often find themselves working fewer hours in their business, due to their increased responsibilities. They realize it’s a blessing in disguise, and they are able to get the right things done in less time. Their only regret is not starting sooner, and they are hardly alone in that.
Folks from history like Darwin, Dickens, Hemingway, Poincaré, and many others worked around 4 hours every day and accomplished far more than we could ever hope to achieve in our lifetime. That happens when we care more about the quality of our work than the quantity. The same goes for the quality of our rest and its relationship to work, which in turn improves our overall life.
In fact, I happen to help visionary business owners restore balance in their lives so they can live their lives with intention, and experience true success. It’s one of the things I do to realize my WHY: to inspire people to live a meaningful life, so that together we can create a better future.
In order to achieve this level of simplicity (and sophistication) with work, there needs to be a level of complexity behind the work that makes it happen for you. While working fewer hours isn’t exactly rocket science, it is a result of careful planning and defining the work. “Doing” is the relatively easy part.
Here are some strategies for working fewer hours and making the most of your time and attention:
In order to work on the right things during the week, we need to figure out what those things are to begin with. Showing up ready to do the work is only possible when we have taken the time to think about and define our work in advance. That requires taking an inventory of everything we have on our plate; until we do that, we can’t prioritize what we need to do first, what comes later, or which things we can skip. We need to take a step back and reflect.
Remember, we can only do a few things well, so it stands to reason that we choose few of those things and give them our entire attention during the week. In other words, we must commit to outcomes for the three areas of our lives.
By far, the most valuable work I do is review and plan my weeks. Every weekend I take a look at my various projects and evaluate my progress. From there, I plan my week ahead with a focus on results. This ensures I am not simply swimming in a sea of to-do items all week, and instead making actual, meaningful progress towards predefined outcomes in each of the three areas of my life.
When you have planned your week, you know exactly what you’re working on. Then, you can focus on doing the work. The hard part isn’t the doing, but defining the work we do.
Remember, as knowledge workers, there are three types of work we do every day.
- Predefined work (work we are ready to do during our allotted time).
- Defining future work (this could be done before closing out your day and on the weekends).
- Ad hoc work (keep this to a minimum).
Depending on how you work, you can either schedule your work in your calendar or you can manage them in your list manager of choice or both.
Here are some ideas for making the most out of your workdays:
Manage your energy, not your time. I do creative work in the mornings because it requires the most energy, followed by consulting work in the afternoon and admin work in the evenings. Keep in mind, even though you are working in sprints, your overall energy depletes throughout the day. So you want to schedule the most intensive work early in the day and move actions that require the least energy towards the end of your workday.
We work best when we alternate between work and rest, so work in 90-minute sprints within separate two-hour windows, rather than going four hours straight. Forget about working hard or smart; strive to work better instead. The idea is to work fewer hours with greater intensity and focus. With this approach, we do the right things in the limited time we have rather than working long, continuous hours.
Slow the heck down. Focus on doing one thing at a time and doing it well. The thing is, when you are focused on your work—devoid of any distractions or interruptions—the quality of that work improves drastically, unsurprisingly.
Remember, true wealth is discretionary time. We can always make another buck, but we can’t create another minute. Maintain plenty of quality discretionary time doing things of interest and spending time with loved ones. The quality of your downtime will reflect in the quality of your work, and vice-versa. You’re more likely to make the most out of your discretionary time, when you show up and do the work sincerely.
When you’re planning your week, schedule time for guilt-free Play in your calendar first and then decide what you’re going to do in that time in advance. This way, you’re on the hook for doing your work because you know you have scheduled time for Play later on, so you can’t afford to waste any time.
That said, there are no hard boundaries between your work and the rest of your life. In fact, your work is part of your life, and not outside of it. Working this way ensures your work (and other areas) revolve around your life, not vice-versa.
We need to help ourselves before we can help others. One way to do that is to pay heed to the fundamentals: eat, move, sleep. These are vital not only for doing our best work, but also with living a fuller life. For instance, avoid an afternoon caffeine binge, and instead opt for a nap between “sprints” of work to renew your focus.
Be ruthless with your time and attention. Master the fine art of the slow “yes” and the quick “no”. Be willing to say no to requests by default unless it overlaps with your agenda in some way. Take your time before committing to things. Don’t let others’ urgencies drive your decision-making. Above all, act with intention.
There is only so much time and effort available to us. We can either do a few things better, or many things poorly. While the effort needed in both of those approaches is the same, it’s ultimately our choice.
Not only is it possible to work fewer hours, but, more importantly, you can use the limited time you have to accomplish the right work.
Working fewer hours helps us focus on the truly important things. More importantly, it is sustainable and doesn’t require you to defer your downtime to a future vacation, because everyday leisure is not a substitute for it.
If you’re doing it right, you don’t need to work more than 20 hours a week. Not only will you have more time for yourself, you will do your life’s best work, and have truly meaningful relationships.
If that’s not success, what is?!