Hacking the Workday

September 16, 2013

1:00 pm

Starting around age 6, the schedules begin. School goes from 8 am until 3 pm, or (shudder) 7 until 2. Once we make it to a corporate job, it’s 9-5 day in and day out, Monday through Friday, week after week.

Luckily, entrepreneurs have a flair for irreverence, rebellion, and experimentation. Work hours are 9-5…says who? The workweek is Monday through Friday…says who? And so the testing begins.

Hacking Monday-Friday 

The four-day workweek is the most popular of those tests, for obvious reasons. According to the 2012 National Study of Employers, 37 percent of employers allow some employees to work fewer days and longer hours, while 7 percent allow “all or most” employees to do so. Those numbers aren’t huge, but perhaps higher than expected. Slingshot SEO is one such employer, where people work four 10-hour days.

But the more radical option is doing four-day weeks without the extra hours. 37signals, the firm run by Jason Fried that specializes in productivity software (pause a moment to absorb that), enjoys 4-day, 32-hour weeks from May to September. And Fried claims it’s led to better work and less waste.

Founder and CEO Ryan Carson of Treehouse is in the same camp. Running on four-day weeks for three years, the tech education startup has grown to 60 employees, over $7 million in revenue, and $12 million in funding. Surprisingly, he says, the issue of their four-day week never even came up in conversations with investors.

Carson finds that a four-day week is one of their strongest recruiting tools. As a startup, Treehouse doesn’t pay “tons” of money, so three-day weekends are a big draw. He, too, sees less waste and hyper focus thanks to the shortened week.

On the flipside, four-day weeks come with their own challenges. First, Carson had to stop sending emails from Friday to Sunday so that his staff wouldn’t feel pressured to respond. But during the week, pressure can’t be avoided. “Everything’s more hectic. You just don’t have the ‘let’s chill and just explore ideas’ sort of feeling because you’re just so frantic all the time,” he says.

They also debated a while about how to deal with clients and customers, but settled on simply telling the truth and setting expectations. Now, a recording on their answering machine explains that Treehouse is off on Fridays, although the support team is available seven days a week.

Four-day workweeks are something Carson recommends to every company. He spends most of his weekends hanging out with his wife and two sons, watching movies, and lifting weights. Although productivity and profit might suffer a little, is it worth a 50 percent increase in time with your loved ones? Carson thinks so.

On the other end of the spectrum, some entrepreneurs experiment with their schedules to fit more workdays in the week. Joel Gascoigne, founder and CEO of Buffer, tried working seven days a week, but two hours less each day. He hoped that he could reinforce daily work habits, better connect with his remote team, and be more productive thanks to shorter workdays.

But after two weeks, he was burned out. Despite the extra time in the day, he found himself in need of a break. And he realized that, no matter how much you want to work on the weekends, you can’t escape the fact that other people aren’t working. You can’t send emails, write blog posts, or release features the way you can during the week.

So Gascoigne settled on a six-day workweek, taking inspiration from God and the Sabbath, resting on the seventh day.

Hacking 9-5

As you decide how many days a week to work, you’ll also have to decide on your hours. Working eight hours straight through, with breaks for lunch and coffee, is a tradition that dates back to the days of factory work. And while muscles can work nonstop, brains sometimes cannot.

Also at Buffer, cofounder and CMO Leo Widrich decided to do some research on the brain to figure out the best work hours. He learned that our bodies have an “ultradian rhythm,” which translates into periods of higher and lower alertness. For optimal productivity, we should work for 90-120 minutes and then take 20-30 minutes of rest. Based on this knowledge, Widrich now works about four or five 90-minute sessions per day, each devoted to one task.

As his commenters point out, this method sounds similar to the Pomodoro Technique, which recommends 25-minute sessions and 3- to 5-minute breaks (with a longer break after four “pomodori”). This pattern is designed to reduce distractions and give our brains a brief refuel. The Pomodoro Technique is named after the tomato-shaped timer used by its inventor, Francesco Cirillo, but nowadays you can use a variety of apps to track your pomodori.

To maximize their output – though not necessarily their per-hour productivity – some entrepreneurs try to pack more than eight hours into their days. I even read recently about someone who did two seven-hour shifts of work, with a two-hour rest in between – effectively, two workdays in one calendar day. That theoretically leaves eight hours for sleep, but in practice probably means less. Apparently, he explained, it “takes some getting used to.” In the same vein, Twitter chairman and Square CEO Jack Dorsey works eight hours at Twitter then eight hours at Square each day.

In cases like this, some calculations need to be made. Does the increase in hours worked outweigh the decrease in per-hour productivity? In other words, is your output still higher? And even if it is, are you willing to sacrifice those extra hours that could be spent relaxing, exercising, or seeing friends and family? Is such a schedule sustainable for you?

Your schedule 

In science, experiments are conducted so that other scientists can replicate them to get the same results. But that’s not the goal of workday and workweek experimentation. There are broad-stroke lessons to learn; for example, having a specific goal or deadline can fuel motivation when you work long hours or many days a week. But whether your experiment succeeds or fails depends a lot on you and your industry. If your job involves connecting with people all the time, you’ll be forced to respect the world’s working habits to some degree. And ultimately, your body, brain, mood, and stress levels will tell you if you’ve hit upon a solution, or have to design another experiment.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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