Working Less: Why You Can Do More Meaningful Work In 4 Hours Than 4 Days

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The headline, hyperbolic as it may be, points out the necessity of focussed work.

Too many of us are merely present but not fully focused and engaged.

We overestimate what we can do in a day and we underestimate what we can do in a year.

We cram our days so full that we end up being unproductive.

You look back at the end of the day and what did you do? Not that much.

All those super important tasks at the end of your todo list? Still undone because you only got half way through your todo’s.


The problem is that these unproductive days become unproductive weeks, months, years.


It doesn’t matter who you are.. it will never be possible to run a marathon in half an hour (short of some kind of biological manipulation.)

It’s just not possible.

But traveling the distance of a marathon in a year? That’s child’s play... You don’t even have to try.

So many entrepreneurs recommend working extremely hard.

But to me, that seems like sprinting during a marathon.

Eventually, you’ll have to stop because it’s not sustainable.

Then you sprint again and stop again until you lose motivation.

I think a much better approach is just to do less in the short term, so you can do more over the long run.

Burning yourself out by going extremely hard Jan 1st — 7th is the best way to guarantee you’ll quit until you make the same New Year’s resolution to start exercising next year.

Whereas, the guy who exercises a shorter amount of time but with full focus has a much better chance of turning that into a daily habit.

And ultimately, it’s not the total amount of work done over the course of a day we’re trying to optimize but rather the total amount of work done over the course of decades or even our life in some cases.


Intellectual Giants’ Thoughts On The Ideal Number Of Hours Worked Per Day:


Anthony Trollope said:

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

And I think that’s exactly right. There are so many extraordinary people who ‘’only’’ worked 3–4 hours a day.

But they NEVER missed a day.

Henri Poincaré (The famous mathematician who coined the Poincaré conjecture and worked on mathematics, philosophy and theoretical physics, publishing over 30 books and 500 papers.) worked from 10 am to noon and then in the evening from 5 pm to 7 pm (Toulouse, 1865).

The time Charles Darwin spent doing scientific work usually consisted of just three 90-minute periods a day (Freeman, 2019).

If you go here, you can see Francis Darwin describing his dad’s entire routine.

After a morning walk and breakfast, Darwin worked in his study from 8 AM to 9:30 AM, at which point he’d take a break.

At 10:30 AM, returned to study, which period he considered the end of his working day.

4:30–5:30 PM, he worked in the study, clearing up matters of the day.

I left all the non-work related activities out for brevity’s sake but I recommend checking his schedule out using the reference below.

Stephen King, one of the best and most productive writers, ‘’only’’ writes 6 pages a day. But he too never misses a day. 

That consistency adds up.

The pioneer of capitalism, Adam Smith (Smith, 1776), 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.”

One of 20th century Britain’s most eminent mathematicians, G.H. Hardy, began his day with a solid breakfast and learning cricket scores, followed by work from 9 am to 1 pm. “Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician,” he told his friend and fellow Oxford professor C.P. Snow (Pang, 2016).



I wonder what would happen if we only worked 4 hours a day in companies where that’s possible.



But you never miss a day.

That’s 28 hours a week. I have a strong suspicion that we’d be insanely more effective for a few reasons:

1) 4 hours is so short, you’ll be much more likely to enter a flow state and get near 100% productivity and focus 

(vs. burning time which is what most employees are doing during an 8hr period and certainly during a 16hr period).

2) You’ll think about work outside of work and you’ll spend that 4 hours better vs. when you have unlimited time. Then you’re much less picky about what you do and how effective you are, and as a result, you’ll make mistakes and have to re-do work.

3) It’s much easier to build sustainability vs. the up and down of those Herculean sprints.

4) I think people will get more done because they’re less overwhelmed which leads to inaction. People also likely won’t burn out anymore. Work becomes a pulling force vs. a pushing force.



I see this phenomenon in the gym too.



People who kill themselves sporadically vs. people who’re there daily. 

Continuously improving but not killing themselves so they don’t have to take time off.

In scientific terms, they call this Maximum Recoverable Volume. What’s the most you can do such that you can still recover from it?

What if we applied that concept to business?

What’s the most we (and our employees) can work, still recover from, and be pumped to work again tomorrow.

Here’s a clip from the coach of GSP, a famous MMA fighter:

In it, his coach Firas Zahabi, explains how they use ‘’flow’’’. 

A concept coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The idea is if you can go to 10 twice a week, you need to rest on the other days. (Provided that’s your absolute max! There’s no higher level.) (Say 10 represents 10 pull ups with 50Kg added.)

Resulting in a total output of 20. (20 weighted pullups.)

Whereas, if you only go to 6 every day, you don’t need rest, and you decrease the probability of injury and burn out.

Resulting in a total output of 42 (weighted pullups). That’s over 200% total output compared to the first situation.

I think work should be a pulling force. You should want to work. If you consistently get into a state of flow it’ll become addictive.

But that’s not gonna happen if we kill ourselves every time we show up.

If we have the discipline to choose to do less, we’ll end up doing more and better.


References

Toulouse, E. (1865). Henri Poincaré par le Dr Toulouse. English version: https://www.bookdepository.com/Henri-Poincare-Edouard-Toulouse/9781418165062. Original version: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/u/umhistmath/AAS9989.0001.001/48?rgn=full+text;view=pdf

Freeman, R. (2019). Charles Darwin: A companion. Retrieved from http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?pageseq=95&itemID=A27&viewtype=side

Smith, A. (1776). An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations[Ebook] (pp. Book 1, Chapter 8 Of the Wages of Labour). Retrieved from http://geolib.com/smith.adam/won1-08.html

Pang, A. (2016). REST: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less [Ebook] (1st ed.). Basic Books. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2Ii1WkS

RJ Youngling