If the Covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that things don’t have to remain how they’ve always been. Take for example, the concept of a four-day workweek, which continues to build steam as the next step in the evolution of business. A recent multi-year study in Iceland followed 2,500 people that worked four days a week across multiple disciplines and occupations. Productivity, health outcomes, and happiness all rose. Companies like Shopify and Shake Shack have successfully reduced their work weeks, with more–like Unilever–planning trial runs in the near future.
And employees are enthusiastic about the idea too–after all, who doesn’t want to work fewer hours? It’s not a hard sell. But, the common reaction from business leaders is, “That sounds great, but how will we actually do that?” In my new book, Thursday is the New Friday, I explain how taking Friday off isn’t just possible–it just makes good sense. Here are some of the best parts:
It’s all made up: How the Babylonians gave us the week
Thousands of years ago, the Babylonians saw the sun, moon, earth, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter as the seven major celestial bodies, and from there created a seven-day week. But that was a fairly random method of organization–there’s nothing in nature that points to seven days making sense. A year makes sense, a day makes sense, but a week is completely arbitrary, especially when you note that the Romans had a ten-day week, and the Egyptians had an eight-day week. We just as easily could have ended up with a five-day week and had 73 of them in a year, but Babylon gave us the seven-day week…in other words, it’s all made up!
Fast forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The average person was working 10-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. It was a farmer’s schedule, even if you didn’t work on a farm. Then in 1926, in an effort to sell more cars to Ford employees and increase productivity, Henry Ford instituted the 40 hour workweek. His belief was that people would buy a car not to get to work faster, but to have more leisure time.
So less than 100 years ago, the 40 hour workweek began. This shift was an important evolutionary step at the time–but now we’ve outgrown it.
Then in 2020, we saw another shift. The pandemic made us think differently about work. In other words, we began to realize that it didn’t make sense to think of workers in the same way the Industrialists did. People are not machines or assembly lines to be plugged in. We are much more complicated than that.
Slowing down to speed up
Most people work their 40+ hour week and are burned out and stressed out by the weekend. Without any sense of intention, they enter their weekends only to burnout more. They spend it running to soccer games, grocery shopping, cleaning their lawns, and going to social obligations they’d rather not attend. Then they enter their workweek with dread and low energy.
But there’s another way. Emerging research continues to show us that our best and most creative work comes when we slow down. Through slowing down, our brains reset. We form neural connections that allow us to think beyond the problem at hand. A study by Ariga and Lleras from the University of Illinois looked at “vigilance decrement,” a term that references our ability to pay attention over time. The study found that we don’t pay attention as well at the end of a task as we do at the beginning, and that microbreaks of just one-minute during a difficult task can help the brain to deactivate, and reactive, mitigating vigilance decrement.
We know this intuitively–when do we have our best ideas? Usually it’s in the shower, on a walk, or driving when we have time to let our mind wander.
Why the four-day workweek helps you level up
Numerous leaders and executives have said something along these lines to me: “If we give people 20 percent of the time off, won’t we have a 20 percent drop in profits?” Whether we’re looking at larger businesses or smaller solopreneurs, the answer is, “No.”
If I asked you, “Is Friday as productive as Monday?” If you are like most people, you’ll probably answer, “No, not even close.”
What’s interesting about the emerging research and case studies, is that people end up doing their best work, when their time is limited. If you knew this coming week you could only do 15 of your 20 tasks, would you do the worst 15 or the best? What happens when you are doing your best 15 tasks week after week?
When time is limited, workers preserve their energy for their best work, avoid being distracted by work that could easily be outsourced or eliminated, and start to see new and creative opportunities they couldn’t see before.
As you look to this coming weekend, I want you to add one thing and remove one thing. This small step will help you to experiment with optimizing your time. First, add one thing to your weekend that you know will give you more life. Maybe there’s a book you’ve been intending to read, a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or a scenic hike you’ve been meaning to try.
Then remove one thing. Maybe you’re scheduled to have coffee with a friend who often leaves you feeling drained. I give you permission to cancel that date with your toxic friend. Maybe outsource some chores–have the neighbor kid work on your lawn or have your groceries delivered instead of wasting hours at the store.
As the post-pandemic generation, we have a chance to recreate how we work–to make our own blueprint as the Babylonians and industrialists did in the past. It is time to slow down, in order to be more creative and productive. It’s time to make Thursday the new Friday.