Ask anyone how long a typical workday is, and they'll probably say eight hours. How did that become the standard? Is eight hours beneficial for productivity, or should we rethink that number? The team at social sharing app Buffer investigated.
One of the most unchanged elements of our life today is our "optimal work time" or how long we should work — generally, every person I’ve spoken to quotes me something close to eight hours a day.
And yet for most of us, it's obvious that how long the average person works every day has little to do with how efficient or productive that person is. At least, that's what I've found for my own productivity. So what’s the the right hourly rate? With success stories from people working four hours a week to 16 hours a day, it’s hard to know if there's an optimal amount. So instead of going with my gut, which often fails me, I looked at research on work time and how to optimise it for happiness and success.
Why Do We Have Eight-Hour Workdays In The First Place?
The typical work day is around eight hours. But how did we come up with that? The answer is hidden in the tidings of the Industrial revolution. In the late 18th century, when companies started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to running them 24/7 was key. Now, of course, to make things more efficient, people had to work more. In fact, 10-16 hour days were the norm. These incredibly long work days weren’t sustainable and soon a brave man named Robert Owen started an eight-hour workday campaign. His slogan was, “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
It wasn’t until much later that Ford actually implemented the eight-hour workday and changed the standards:
“One of the first businesses to implement this was the Ford Motor Company, in 1914, which not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled their worker’s pay in the process. To the shock of many industries, this resulted in Ford’s productivity off of these same workers, but with fewer hours, actually increasing significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter, eight hour work day as a standard for their employees.”
So there we have it. The reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out. It’s purely a century-old norm for running factories most efficiently.
Manage Energy Not Time: The Ultradian Rhythm
Without wanting to fall into the same trap, it’s time to ask a better question. How many hours we work every day is barely important anymore in today’s creative economy. Instead, the right focus is your energy, according to famous author Tony Schwartz:
“Manage your energy, not your time.”
Schwartz explains that as humans, we have four different types of energy to manage every day:
- Your physical energy–how healthy are you?
- Your emotional energy–how happy are you?
- Your mental energy–how well can you focus on something?
- Your spiritual energy–why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?
One of the things most of us easily forget is that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. At the core, this means that machines move linearly and humans move cyclically. For an efficient work day that truly respects our human nature, the first thing to focus on is the ultradian cycle.
The basic understanding is that the human minds can focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes. Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is required for us to get the renewal to achieve high performance for our next task again.
So instead of thinking about “What can I get done in an eight-hour day?” I’ve started to change my thinking to “What can I get done in a 90-minute session?" Now it’s time to break down those 90-minute sessions further.
The Core Of A Productive Workday: Focus
In a stunning research project, Justin Gardner found that to actually focus on something our brain uses a two-step process:
1. Sensitivity enhancement: It means you see a scene or setup and take all the information in that's presented. Then you focus in on what needs your attention. Kind of like “a blurry photo that slowly starts to come into focus".
2. Efficient selection: This is the actual zooming in on a task happens. This allows us to enter into what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “Flow” state. Now our actual work on a task happens.
The following figure probably describes it best:
In figure A, as our brain is presented with only one task, we're able to separate out distractors (blue) from what’s actually important (yellow). In figure B, as we are presented with multiple tasks at once, our brain is increasingly easy to distract and combines the actual tasks with distractors.
The key conclusion that Gardner suggests from his study is that we have to both:
- Stop multitasking to avoid being distracted in our work environment.
- Eliminate distractors even when only one task is present.
Sounds fairly obvious right? And yet, getting it actually done every day is much easier said than done. The good news is that we can even actually change our brain structure by learning to focus. Here are some hands-on tips:
Four Tips For Improving Your Workday:
For my daily workflow at Buffer, I’ve made four distinct changes to better implement the above research. Here's what worked the best so far:
- Manually increase the relevance of a task. Now, a lot of us still might struggle to find the focus, especially if no one set a deadline to it. Overriding your attention system and adding your own deadline, together with a reward, has shown some of the most significant improvements for task completion, according to researcher Keisuke Fukuda.
- Split your day into 90-minute windows. Instead of looking at n eight-hour or 10-hour workday, split it down and say you’ve got four, five or however many 90-minute windows. That way you'll have just four or five tasks that you can get done every day much more easily.
- Plan your rest so you actually rest. “The fittest person is not the one who runs the fastest, but the one who has optimised their rest time,” says Tony Schwartz. A lot of the time, we're so busy planning our workday that we forget about rest. Plan beforehand what you will do your rest. Here are some ideas: Nap, read, meditate, get a snack.
- Zero notifications. One of the best ideas I’ve ever had was to follow my colleague Joel’s advice on Zero Notifications. Having absolutely no counter on my phone or computer changing from 0 to 1 and always breaking my focus has been a huge help. If you haven’t tried this yet, try to turn off every digital element that could become an alert.
Personally, my life has been pretty much turned upside down after implementing these findings over the past few weeks. And I couldn’t be happier. I get both more done and feel happier at the same time.