I first started experimenting with the conventions of the average “workday” as a high school student. On more than one occasion, I woke up the morning an assignment was due and knocked it out before breakfast. It usually paid off with positive feedback, unknowingly reinforcing a habit that was in full opposition to the measured processes we were learning in class. I came up with smarter, clearer ideas faster during the time when others were still sleeping off late nights cramming. I realized I was experimenting with the productive workday.

I found myself bringing back the early-morning sprint sessions of my student days past while working in a busy environment where conflicting last-minute requests were the norm. Long-term strategic projects suffered and stalled because of the astonishing frequency with which more urgent matters cropped up. In a last-ditch effort to move something forward, I began starting my days as early as I could, dedicating that extra hour or so of uninterrupted peak performance time to the big, cognitively demanding project I was pressed to wrap up.

The work began progressing – finally – and that bonus hour became the control variable around which the rest of my work oriented itself. It was during this time that I first became acquainted with a fundamental truth about general productive capacity – an understanding of my peak performance hours, and how this self-awareness could be best used to orchestrate maximal productivity.

The habit stuck, and now that I find myself in a situation with more flexibility in terms of a start and end time, I try to start my days as early as possible (admittedly much easier during non-winter months) in order to be able to finish by early afternoon. I know that if I miss my peak window entirely, my ability to focus and generate meaningful work will suffer throughout the day, and is almost guaranteed to bottom out by mid-afternoon.

Efficiency is embracing that productivity self-awareness, rather than struggling against it.

Challenging the Conventions of Nine-to-Five

When I first started organizing my days around early-morning power hours, it was easy to label this pattern of thought and behavior a procrastinator’s self-delusion. Some people still would – many of our institutions and work culture still ascribe to a somewhat narrow definition of productivity.

But, broadly speaking, we’ve come a long way in the past decade or so.

A movement that challenges the constraints of the “conventional” workday has been steadily gaining momentum in the mainstream. We’re beginning to grasp that “work smarter, not harder” may look quite different than what we know – and varies from individual to individual.

The closest expression of my personal “ideal” workday that I have encountered is articulated by Sean Ogle on his remote work blog. He urges his readers to start their days as early as possible, with an aim to stop working at noon. The goal isn’t to hit eight hours “on the clock” by midday (Ogle himself aims for 5.5 hours, beginning at 6:30 a.m.). Rather, his idea is to condense the work into something more intensive, meaningful, and equally (if not more) productive than the traditional schedule allows for.
the productive workday

How Much Work Are We Doing at Work?

Most people with nine-to-five schedules complete less than three hours of focused work each day  – the kind of tasks Cal Newport classifies as “deep work,” intellectually rigorous endeavours which require total concentration to execute. It’s nearly impossible to find an uninterrupted three-hour block in one’s calendar, especially when working in collaboration with others.

That’s part of why, for myself and for Ogle, early morning is the optimal time to reclaim and condense – it’s also convenient that this coincides with my peak productive hours. Any “leftover” cognitive energy is reserved for “shallower” work that can be completed in short bursts or without sustained focused attention: emails, meetings, small or repetitive projects, and logistical or maintenance tasks. Between these deep and focused periods and the non-cognitively-demanding work that can be completed while distracted, it is possible to keep up a sustained level of meaningful productivity for around five to six hours.

But any more than that is stretching it.

The Eight-Hour Relic of the FIRST Industrial Revolution

It’s worth remembering that the golden ratio of “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” is a relic of the First Industrial Revolution, and was a concept originally championed by advocates representing the interests of manual labourers. The nature of many kinds of work has transformed drastically since then. Thanks to communicative technologies, much of our productivity occurs at a pace that would have been difficult to even begin to conceptualize in the 1800s.

We are now in the fourth industrial revolution. We process more information in a single day than our forebears might have encountered in a week, or even a month.

While technology has enabled us to rethink where, when and how we work (and even define it), what it actually does is disrupt and exhaust a limited resource. What we understand as “productivity” is a finite commodity – we are finite. To continuously push for a greater and greater volume of productivity without adjusting the methods of production ultimately results in both weaker output and a depleted producer.

Many of our creative heroes seem to have understood this, favouring routines that facilitated uncommonly early (or late) hours, short bursts of productivity and large parts of the day to recharge their metaphorical batteries. They understood that the capacity to create is one of our most precious natural resources, and deserves to be mined with patience.

the productive workday

The Condensed Day (and Week) in Practice

Flex time is already the norm in many organizations. The idea of the shortened day, and the shortened week, is catching on. Employers in Sweden began implementing a pilot project built around a six-hour workday in 2016. In 2019, a company in Germany made headlines after enforcing a five-hour schedule for their workforce, alongside a strict policy that no employee access their work or email while away from the office. During office hours, they are expected to check their email only twice a day, and most meetings are limited to fifteen minutes. Trials have resulted in reduced turnover, higher energy levels and enhanced creativity among workers, in addition to a boost in productivity significant enough to offset the cost of new hires or else eliminate the need altogether.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Finland and New Zealand have suggested that moving to a four-day work week would similarly benefit worker productivity and satisfaction, while also stimulating domestic tourism and improving national morale. A rural municipality in Nova Scotia, Canada is already experimenting with the four-day-week framework.

Finland leads the world in flexible work policy – in 1996 an act passed granting most office workers the right to adjust their schedules within three hours (updated to four in 2020) of a suggested start or end time. They even have a word for it – joustotyöaika – meaning flexible working time arrangement, where the employer gives the employee flexibility on location and schedule of up to 50% of their work.

Finding the Right Productive Fit

As it stands, not everyone has the luxury of being able to customize their daily schedule to their unique productive aptitudes or circumstances. What does a productive workday look like for you? I recognize that this flexibility comes from a place of privilege, while many work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Scheduling and daily work hours are often out of the hands of the average employee.

But if you are one the lucky ones, you can probably find a little wiggle room – even if it’s just by protecting a daily block of time that coincides with peak hours, or getting a regular head-start on the day. And if you are a manager looking to improve your team’s productivity, rethinking the inherited ideals of what a productive day looks like is long overdue. It might seem counter-intuitive, but less is more. At the very least, helping your team find their own optimized productive schedule can be empowering and a win-win.

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