IT’S 7PM ON A MONDAY NIGHT. You have everything open from Facebook to TechCrunch on your browser tabs, except for the work you actually need to get done. You return to your lists of to-do’s for the day, only to realize you haven’t finished a single task since 1pm.
Let’s face it, we’ve all been there.
Why the 9-5?
The average American today works 8.8 hours per day (Bureau of Labor Statistics), but how effective are we really working those 8.8 hours per day? Before we dig in, I decided to do some background research about how the 9-5 came to be in the first place.
The answer comes from a man named Robert Owens, who started a campaign during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, 14-hour days were the norm in order to maximize the output of companies’ factories. Owens bravely advocated the notion that people should not be working for more than eight hours per day.
His famous slogan was: “Eight hours labour. Eight hours recreation. Eight hours rest.”
The 8-8-8 rule soon became the standard when Ford implemented the eight-hour day with Ford Motors Company in 1914. Despite the doubts he faced, the results were astonishing: “With fewer hours worked by the employees and double the pay, Ford managed to increase his profit margins by two-folds. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter, eight-hour workday as a standard for their employees.”
Bottom line: There’s no scientific or well-thought-out explanation of why we work eight hours per day. It’s simply a standard that has been passed on for over a century, used to run factories most efficiently.
Work smarter. Not longer.
Time has become a measure for productivity because it’s an easy metric to measure. We constantly try to jam in more hours during the day because we feel like we accomplished something by the end. But time is a vanity metric when it comes to measuring productivity.
In today’s creative economy, how long we work per day isn’t what’s important. It’s what you do with the time you have. According to Sara Robinson, referring to various studies done by businesses, universities, and industry associations:
“On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day… [In fact], every hour you work beyond 40 actually makes you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.”
Long hours, in other words, are often more about proving something to ourselves than actually getting stuff done.
With this in mind, I’ve been on the hunt for ways to get more done during my day. After experimenting with various tips and tricks, here are five things that have been working for me:
List your three most important tasks.
Before you leave the office, list three tasks for the next day that will be the most impactful to what you are working on. Tip: If you already have a to-do list, pick the task that’s on the bottom of your list or the one that you’ve been avoiding the longest, and put it on the top.
Work in 90-minute intervals, then take breaks.
Rather than looking at your day as a six- or eight-hour workday, break your day up into three or four 90-minute chunks (1 task per 90-minute interval). Take breaks in between to go stretch, run, flirt — whatever you need to get your mind off work for a period of time.
Give yourself less time.
Apply the Parkinson’s Law for everything you do during the day. As Tim Ferris puts it, “a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted to complete it.” Basically, if you have eight hours to do something, you’ll take all eight hours for something that can be done in less time.
Bunch similar tasks together.
Whether it’s replying to emails, making phone calls, or sending out tweets, do them in bunches. Multitasking is the devil, and you do not want to waste your mental energy going back and forth on different tasks.
Ask for help.
Emphasize what you’re good at, but don’t waste time trying to correct weaknesses. If you’re stuck on something, take five seconds to ask a neighbour or phone up a friend who may know the answer. Start leveraging your network, and it could save you hours of stress and time.
I’ve personally felt much happier after implementing these few tricks, and as a result it has only improved the work I do in the office. I’d love to know how these tips work for you. Feel free to recommend them to anyone you think would find them useful.