Is a Four-Day / Forty-Hour Week Possible?

by luke patrick

the one where we find out if condensing your workweek (forever) is better

John Maynard Keynes thought that we’d be working less by now. To him, technology was a steady decline landing in free drinks, lots of sunbathing and little (if any) work. It’s hard to blame him. With so much change happening in his lifetime, Keynes’ aristocratic lifestyle must have looked like a future inevitability.

Sadly, it just ain’t so.

It seems the modern worker puts in 40 hours a week, and has been doing so for a long time now. For some, only 40 might seem like a luxury.

Which brings us to our hypothetical:

What would happen if we all worked really hard — like really hard — four days out of the week. The other three? We don’t do anything.

It’s not working less, in the Keynesian sense, but it is working condensed. Let’s phrase it as an actual hypothesis: Is it possible to work 40 hours in four days consistently?

Is it practical or even beneficial? What does that schedule even look like? Of course, there’s only one real way to find out.

So, I tried my best to work forty-in-four weeks. For an entire month. Here’s how it went:

How it Went

If you’re just skimming headers, this is the summary:

At first it worked really well. Then, due to some poor planning, it took a southward turn. Eventually it was too much to maintain.

Through the experience I learned a lot about scheduling. I also learned a lot about my own body, for better and for worse. If you’re looking to learn from my mistakes, and possibly recreate my successes, here are the basics.

The Ideal Schedule

A typical 9-5 isn’t going to work here. We need to cram more working hours into a single day, ideally 10 hours out of every 24. I never sat down to craft an actual schedule, but eventually I fell into a steady routine.

Mornings began between 8:00 and 9:00 AM. I’d wake up, drink some coffee, make a quick breakfast, and wait to check email until roughly 9:30 AM.

From there, I’d work in earnest until 12:30 PM. I work out of coffee shops, so minus the bike ride to downtown, we’re looking at roughly three hours of work. If I got four in by this point, that meant I was hyper-productive.

Lunch takes up an hour, meaning work starts again at roughly 1:30 PM. I dragged out this second bout until 4:30 PM. Due to afternoon fatigue, this period was often a bit shorter. All in all, another three hours of work, bringing us up to six total.

Only four left to go in our hypothetical best day ever! But I cook most nights, which means 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM is a three hour chunk that’s now out the window. Assuming I started work again at 8:00 PM, I could work until 12:00 AM, getting that final four hours.

The Real Schedule

Surprisingly, the schedule was not hard to follow. Mornings and afternoons are more or less the same as any other work day. Working late, though, became a problem child. Some days I felt on-target. Other days I came up an hour short. Maybe dinner went long, or maybe my morning was a bit late. If things went astray at any point, I found it difficult to make up the difference by working at night.

Regardless, results were not at all unpleasant. As proof, here’s my tracked time for the period of the experiment.

The results of working forty-in-four workweeks, as self-reported

You’ll notice right away that the first three weeks were (mostly) a success. I missed some hours here and there. Quite a few accidentally went uncounted. But for the most part, ballparking 35 hours in four days felt like an acceptable margin.

Then there’s the final week — Week #4. As you might have guessed, things stopped working quite so well. At all. Naturally, there are reasons, most of which will come as no surprise. Here’s the skinny—

What Went Wrong

We’ve already established that the schedule itself wasn’t difficult to follow. In fact, it was often a lot of fun. So what the hell happened in that last week? Or Week #2, in which my productivity took a noticeable downward turn? There are a lot of variables, but a few things stick out:

1. You Cannot Sacrifice Sleep

This seems like a no-brainer. But when you’re short a few hours, it’s tempting as all hell to stay up late. Or, it’s tempting to get up early to close the deficit. Just a bit more, and you’ll hit that mark. I did this a lot the first week, and inevitably, my body started to break down.

Loads of people like to focus on their sleep cycles. I don’t go out for that so much, but it is worth noting that I need less sleep than the average person. If I get 6.5 hours a night, I can function quite well. Anything less and my immune system takes a serious hit.

I worked several late days during the first week, plus a few early mornings. The results are clearly evident the following week. Speaking of —

2. Getting Sick is Way Too Easy

Because I’d been messing with my sleep cycles, my immune system went haywire. I made it to the first week-end, then came down with a nasty cold. I felt exhausted by Saturday, and my body couldn’t hack it anymore. The first couple days, I had kept a good cycle and had refrained from working late. But as deadlines came in, I neglected myself. Eventually, it hit a big, mucus-ridden wall.

Because I was sick, I lost a lot of workable hours the next week. This diminishes my net productivity quite a bit. So, I learned my lesson. By Wednesday of Week #2, I made sure to sleep regularly and to go to sleep as near to midnight as possible.

3. Homelife Needs to be Secondary

If you want to make this schedule work, you have to put the home life on hold. Same goes for being social. Thankfully, my partner is in Law School. Making sure home life coincided with rigorous work was no issue. For those with kids, or those in the early stages of a relationship, this might be a problem.

Even scheduling things like doctor appointments can be a hassle. Losing a couple hours during those four days can set you back, which in turn makes you want to work longer to make up for it. That leads to less sleep, which leads to sickness, etc. It’s best to schedule social activities and family planning (literally) on Friday.

4. Travel will Destroy the Entire Operation

All this pales in comparison to what destroyed the final week: Traveling to a trade show for work. The travel itself can be scheduled effectively. Do the majority of the movement on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, and you can keep working as normal. However, it’s the other stuff I found particularly damning.

For instance, I knew I was going to lose some time in Week #4. So, I tried to work harder during Week #3. This amounted to more late nights, more early mornings, and then yet another cold. Plus, I was extremely tired. None of which makes for easy travel. By the time I got on the plane, I felt exhausted, sickly, and absolutely spent. It took days to recover, and even more lost man-hours.

On top of it all, working late and getting up early seems not to have benefited me. Week #3 looks about the same as Week #1, despite my best efforts. As any psychologist will tell you, I actually shorted my chances of being productive by exhausting my mind and body.

The End Result

Let’s loop everything back to our initial question: What happens if you try to work 40 hours in a four-day week?

The answer, it would seem, is that you have three incredible days off. And those three days, when I stayed true and kept to them, were fantastic. A full 72 hours (every week) of relaxation can recharge the mind in the same way that a long vacation can. The creative benefits alone make it worth it.

On the flip-side, there are some serious pitfalls. A more honest answer might be, “You will get sick.” Given that I managed to contract a cold twice in a four-week period, it seems almost inevitable. However, it’s not all bleak news.

How to Make it Work

If you want those 72-hours off while remaining productive, just remember the following:

  1. Go to sleep on time, and don’t talk yourself out of it. It’s tempting to watch Netflix or have a beer after a long day at the wheel. But that extra 30 minutes to an hour can cost you in the long run.
  2. Do not make up for lost time: It’s gone, and trying to catch-up will destroy everything. It’s worth remembering that the point is to work well and in bulk. Is it necessary to hit 40 hours precisely when 35 feels more natural? Don’t stress over it, just let it go.
  3. Along those lines, remember not to push. If you feel tired, get some rest. If you’re hungry, eat some food. If you feel like taking a day off, do it. This is all an experiment, not a religion. There’s no one with a gun pointed to your head, so remember to follow your head and your heart.
  4. Be diligent about everything but the work. If I’m honest, getting the work done was hardly challenging. I enjoy what I do, and keeping the drive wasn’t a struggle. A consistent bed time, or making sure those four days were clear of other engagements — these were the hard parts. Diligence is necessary, just not in the way you might think.

As a summary for the header skimmers, here’s the nutshell.

The 40/4 workweek was highly enjoyable. At its best, it’s perhaps the best way to work I’ve ever tried. At its worst, though, it can compromise your health and your happiness. If you think you can keep the schedule and still be mindful of your body’s signals, it’s worth doing. At the least, it beats 80 hours in the office any day.

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