The four-and-a-half-day week

I always imagined working 12 hours a day makes Jack a strong, productive boy. How horribly, horribly wrong I was!

Your focus is your reality. Not a line I thought up. It’s from the pages of a book called, ironically, Focus written by [youtube] from Star Wars. The book got my attention a few years ago. I turn to it every once a while I think, or receive feedback, that I am going down the garden path, need to introspect and correct course. Pause. Think.

“Your focus is your reality.”
Indeed. Can anything be farther from the truth than that? I’m not sure if Goleman intended it as wry humor or drive home the point harder. But he twists it in when he paraphrases a line that has its origins in Sufism: “When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets.”
The moot question here is: Is focus of that kind desirable? And that is why this dispatch.
There is an issue with focus. Months of personal jottings on how I work, operate, live and based on feedback from family, friends and those who have seen me at close quarters suggest my pursuit of focus could have meant I was barking up the wrong tree.
By way of example, a stock answer to a regular question like “What was your day like?” is inevitably met with “Awfully busy.” Or if the question was intended in the future tense, it is met with a curt “Packed”.
Inevitably, it would lead to conflict on some fronts—like at home with the wife and children; with close friends; with the self when there are many things barking for attention all at once. “What are you so busy with? What are your days packed with?”
In trying to unbundle that question, I stumbled across a line from some jottings in my personal notebooks. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from. But I suspect I may have clipped it from one of the Paul Graham’s essays: “You are defined by what you say no to”. When thought about for a while, between the assertions that what I am focused on is my reality, and that I am defined by what I say no to, a few thoughts emerged.
1. Inevitably, there is a trap embedded in focus (and I stand guilty of falling into it often). If not cognizant of, it is easy to lose sight of the larger picture and get into a rabbit hole, a theme I have reflected upon often in the past.
2. It is something Goleman warns against and tries his damnedest best to remind readers and his audiences. In studying the theme over the years, his constant refrain is that, at end of the day, we are human. And humans are not unidimensional creatures, but have emotions as well. The more accomplished ones are those who understand and appreciate emotions. To that extent, their emotional intelligence is high.
3. How do you build emotional intelligence? Based on extensive studies over the years, he makes the point that those who are high on emotional intelligence have high levels of self-awareness. And because they know and understand who they are, can manage themselves better. In doing that consciously, they place themselves in other people’s shoes and can look at the world from various perspectives. While it gives them a well-rounded perspective, it empowers them with a high degree of empathy as well. “…weakness here can sabotage a life or career, while strengths increase fulfillment and success.”
4. Based on these assertions, Goleman argues, it would be naïve to think of focus as absorbed on something to the exclusion of everything else. “For leaders to get better, they need all three kinds of focus. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world.”
He prefaces it by pointing out: “A well-lived life demands we be nimble in each.”
When looked at from this perspective, the answers to some questions become startlingly obvious. For instance, most of us are witness to people who can accomplish an infinitely lot more than what we can. Why? The answer lies embedded in Goleman’s hypothesis. They do not look at life based on ideas like work-life balance.
I must concede, while implicitly aware of it, I have been unable to explicitly deploy it. The kindest I can say in my favor is, I remain work in progress. The quest to figure out how to deploy to led me to a short course on focus at FS Courses, an new initiative from Farnam Street Blog—a site I keep tabs on and have referred to a few times in this series. I do not intend to go into all of what I picked up there because it contains curated material the creators have thought through and earn a living from. Among the various questions raised, one struck me as particularly pertinent.
Do I respect myself?
“But of course I do,” I muttered in my head as I went over the material.
But when thought about deeply, I don’t.
To put that into perspective, I control nothing. What I have control over are how I conduct myself and my time. For instance, somebody yells at me. Ought I yell back or not? Somebody writes me an email. How and when do I respond? The choice lies with me. Because how I respond and how I use my time are all I have control over. If I give that up, I lose myself and my freedom.
Imagine this: When in a meeting with somebody, why do I intuitively put my phone away? What is it about those moments that compel me to stay engaged with the person across the table and ignore calls, text messages, emails and other assorted distractions? Intuitively, because the person across the table is an important one.
If that be true, then why is it then that when I am engaged in an activity that insists my attention be devoted to it, why aren’t similar distractions put away? Is it because I do not respect myself? But of course! And I pay a huge bloody price for it. Studies from authoritative sources like the American Psychological Association have it on record that shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.
Now, let’s do the math here.
1. Assume for a moment you are clear you will work for no more than eight hours a day. And in those hours, you will get as much done as possible. This includes everything that is part of the routine like phone calls, emails, colleagues vying for attention, meetings, the whole razzmatazz. To get all of it done, multi-task. If in a meeting, or working on a project, for instance, an email or text may ping and insist you attend to it.
2. The paper I’ve linked to above documents what happens each time we respond to that ping. Assume for a moment you are the hard-working kind and put in six-day weeks, with the mandatory eight hours spent at the workplace. If you factor in for a 40% loss in time on every eight hours you put in, you lose 3.2 hours each day. That adds up to 19 hours a week. Another way to look at it is, more than two freakin’ working days in a week. I wouldn’t be off the mark then to argue that, by multi-tasking, you’re actually working eight days a week when only seven days exist.
The numbers were staring me in the face, I always imagined myself a bloody hardworking bloke who clocked in at least 12 hours of work and someone pretty damn good at multi-tasking.
In my scheme of things though, the math indicated I lose almost 5 hours every day—close to 30 hours a week. Translated, I lose more than a day doing nothing. In tangible terms, if I were to work with clockwork efficiency, to accomplish all of what I try to do now, all I need to do is put in just about four and a half day of work a week.
Why am I not surprised then I look like a mess and those close to me are pissed that I have no time for them? Based on much documentation and many observations over the months, I have begun with a few tweaks to how I operate. I am now my own guinea pig.
I started out by mapping my circadian rhythm. By now, I know early mornings and the first half of the day are good for proactive and creative work. Reactive stuff that is routine and does not require active decision-making are best left to be dealt with in the latter half. And beyond a certain hour, if I attempt anything, it will either be sub-par or disastrous—both to me and those around.
Basis this understanding, I’ve started implementing a few changes in my lifestyle. A caveat: these are not cast in stone; are based on my observations and customized to me; are amenable to change; are being fine-tuned; are incredibly difficult for me to cope with; and there are more bad days than good.
1. Plan all of what I need to do, how I intend to go about it, capture my thoughts, reading material and all else on Evernote. As products go, it is easily the best in class. I was among the product’s earlier adopters. But its customer service sucks and the company is teetering by all accounts. Microsoft’s OneNote is a good option as is Google Keep. I haven’t used either of the latter extensively enough to offer an informed opinion—but they are certainly good and work across all devices. On days when exasperation sets in, I just use a damn calendar with good old paper and pen. A review is not the point here. My point is: Do whatever you have to do. But plan. In advance. In my case, ideally, the evening before I call it a day for the next morning.
2. These plans are put into the tried and tested Eisenhower Matrix. This article explains how to prioritize and a spreadsheet embedded there helps do it proactively. But I keep it flexible because the world is a complex one, situations change, and who knows what exigencies may emerge tomorrow?
3. I’ve started to put my phone on Do Not Disturb mode after 10pm. On days I think I may be needed, the only people who can access me are those on my favorites list. Everybody else can wait.
4. I like the morning hours. Waking up anytime between 4 and 4.30am is ideal. I don’t need an alarm clock to do it. If my body suggests I sleep, I don’t argue. It means I need the sleep. After having woken up, some rituals follow. I like to brew my tea, spend about an hour pottering around doing nothing, but no matter what, not even a peek at the phone.
5. An hour of pottering around later, I begin to prime myself. This includes a quick look at the plan made the earlier evening, a peek if there are any alerts from an IFTT recipe on emails that may need my attention, and a glance over the headlines. If any action be needed on these emails and fits the mandate as defined as “Urgent and Important” on the Eisenhower Matrix, complete it right away. But the phone remains on DND. Social media is a strict no-no, unless the team has planned or suggested something. Days I’ve violated these rituals have ended up disastrously.
6. Take a break. Help a wee bit with prepping the kids for school. Wait until they’re gone. One more mug of tea. Settle down and fire up the HeadSpace app to meditate. My default time is set to 20 minutes.
7. Now, I’m ready. But my phone continues to remain on DND mode until I take my first break. Over time, on the back of experience and some help from the Pomodoro technique, my logs suggest my mental muscle is good enough to help me work uninterrupted for 40-45 odd minutes. It’s above average I’d say because most people struggle around the 20-25-minute mark.
8. Time now to check emails, look at the phone, indulge in some banter, and figure out what’s for breakfast. Not that I’m going to cook it. But suggestions are welcome at home. I prefer a high-protein diet to get me going like a few eggs, sausages if possible, cheese, the assortment. But a heavy one.
9. Make a few mandatory calls, find out what’s going on, and all else. But as far as possible, I’d much rather avoid meeting anyone in the morning if I have creative work scheduled. This, because like I said earlier, the mornings are when my output is the best. It is my sacred time. These hours are blocked on my calendar as my appointments with myself. If I don’t have time for me, I don’t matter to me and in the longer term, I will to nobody. If I take myself for granted, everybody will. I cannot let that happen. I come first.
On days when I’ve worked like this, I’ve figured that in about 3-4 hours, I manage to belt out the best I can. After that, I am free to meet people. There are days when there is nobody to meet. I’m free. I can read. I can do whatever I choose to. But my work is behind me.
I still haven’t wrapped my head around this and find it intimidating. How can I have done as much on the back of a few simple rituals and have time on hand to read a book, watch a movie, or do whatever it is I want to, and yet have accomplished as much?
The problem is, work expands to fit the time on hand. I haven’t gotten used to this yet and am unnerved. I’m primed to say I’ve got no time on hand and have had an awfully long day when nothing is farther from the truth than that. But apparently, this is how the real journey to focus begins.
Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel Publishing.
His Twitter handle is @c_assisi
Daniel Goleman. Photo: Wikimedia Commons