A few weeks ago, I read a really interesting article about time management on Thrive Global.
The author says the 9-5 work day is a myth.
He says it’s poorly structured for high productivity.
He says perhaps it was when most work was physical, but not in the knowledge working world we now live in.
Then he says the most successful people in the world work only three to six hours every day.
Three. To. Six. Hours.
That kind of makes sense because, in between meetings, I probably only have three or so hours to actually get work accomplished each day.
But what if my goal were to work only six hours a day, even with meetings?
Does Time Management Mean You Don’t Work as Hard?
It’s a conundrum.
I was raised with an incredible work ethic.
I was taught that, with hard work, comes lots of rewards.
And, for the most part, it has.
But I’m also tired.
I’m tired of working 14 hour days without a 14-hour-day return-on-investment.
And, now that my Beanie is older and it’s summertime (which equals outdoor riding), I don’t want to sit at my desk that long every day.
Sure, I get a lot done, but I definitely do not get 14 hours of work done every day.
How it Works with Exercise
And, it makes sense.
Research has shown that shorter bursts of exercise, combined with rest days is what gives you the best results.
It’s counterintuitive to most of us, but I can tell you from experience, it works.
In January, I hired a new cycling coach with the intent of getting back into racing.
It’s been four years since I raced and, while I still managed to ride six days a week during my four-year hiatus, I was not in racing condition.
The first thing my coach did is make me stop riding six days a week.
- But what about my steps?
- And the extra calories burned?
- And can I really be ready if I’m not riding nearly every day?
- Will I gain weight?
I asked all of these questions and more.
Five months later, I’m on my bike 10-12 hours a week and, of those 12 or so hours, less than four hours are high intensity, red-lining my heart rate, going super fast.
The rest of the time is spent in a recovery heart rate zone.
Some of you know how this story ends: Last month, I did a 400-mile bike ride and didn’t have to crawl around for a week afterwards.
In fact, I took one rest day and was back on my bike doing my normal training.
Not only that, I’m eating close to 4,000 calories a day and I’ve not gained a single pound.
I have, however, gained more muscle mass and gone down a dress size in jeans.
Sure, there are days I feel like death, and a nap is oftentimes the remedy.
(Or, sharpening my saw, as my mom calls it.)
The Science is Correct
I use this as example to prove the science correct.
Like I said, it’s counterintuitive.
We’re taught from very young ages—especially as girls—that we can’t eat more than 1,200 calories a day if we want to maintain our weight.
We are supposed to exercise vigorously for 60 minutes every day.
And that’s just plain old wrong.
So if that’s wrong, is having to work 9-5 (or 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.) wrong?
What if our best work happens in short, intensive spurts?
This means working a minimum of one and a maximum of three hours, but this must be deep work without a single distraction.
Just like an intensive workout is non-stop, so should be your work.
After my cycling experience so far this year, I was willing to give it a try.
Two weeks ago, I began to test this theory.
I’m certainly not down to working only six hours a day (I did 12 yesterday because…meetings), but it’s definitely less than 14.
As Long as You Don’t Multi-task
If you’re like most people, your work day is a blend of low-velocity work mixed with continual distraction (social media, Slack, and email).
I always laugh when people say they’re great at multi-tasking.
NO ONE is great at multi-tasking.
It simply means that person has more time to do the work so the distractions don’t bother them.
But what if they were told they had only four hours to do eight hours’ worth of work?
I guarantee there would be no multi-tasking.
We’ve talked a lot about how the amount of time it takes you to do something isn’t the goal—meaning if you can get your job done in six hours versus eight, you win.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the way our society functions.
But I’d be willing to bet most of you have some flexibility to be results-oriented versus being busy.
This means working really hard for no more than three hours and then taking a break—or, if you’re finished with your task list, finishing for the day.
How incredible does that sound?
You Can Have Your Afternoons Off
Of course, the Catch 22 in some organizations is if you are able to do this, they’ll just give you more to do.
But that’s OK!
Take a break to work out or take a walk or have lunch with a friend and then do another three hour stint.
Between those two stints and your hour off, you’re doing the work of three people, getting through your distractions, and still at your desk for the required eight hours.
But if you’re in control of your own schedule, you’ll have more flexibility.
Want to go to the beach or the pool with your kids this summer? You can do it!
Try getting up earlier and spending your very first three hours (5-8 or 6-9) working on your most pressing priority or two.
Then take a break to hang out with your kids.
Or get them ready for their half-day summer camp.
Or have a leisurely breakfast while you read the news (not that any of us really want to read it right now).
Then, from 9-11 or 10-12, work on your third and fourth priorities.
Then spend your last hour with email and social media distractions and be ready to go to the pool at 12 or 1!
Because we’re in a client service business, we need to be available to our clients in the afternoons, but that’s easy to do from the pool.
And, because you accomplished so much in your morning, you won’t feel one iota of guilt.
Not a morning person?
That’s totally fine!
Do what works for you.
The point is to work in two, one- to three-hour intensive sessions and then give yourself a break.
My Personal Daily Structure
Here is what I do:
- I prefer to ride in the early mornings so I don’t have to contend with traffic and amateur athletes. I get up at 5 a.m. so my butt is on my bike seat, riding toward the lakefront by 5:20.
- I’m at home by 7 a.m. (assuming no flat tires or run-ins with runners who cross the path without looking) and get Beanie ready for school.
- Between 7:30 and 8:30, I walk her to school, stop at Starbucks, and visit with my neighborhood friends (which, BTW, gives me between 14,000 and 16,000 steps before 9 a.m.). I also have perfected answering emails without looking at my phone to type so I can do that for the mile between her school and my desk.
- At 8:30, I am ready to focus on work. From 8:30-11:30, I do not let distractions get me. I turn off Slack and email. I don’t open social media. I’ll work on my most pressing priority.
- Then I take a break. It might be to answer emails or get on Facebook or watch an episode of House of Cards or take a nap (mmmm…naps).
- From 12:30-3:30, I once again focus. I already know I cannot write a blog post after 3 p.m. so I spend the first part of that time block writing the next day’s content. Then I work on my next priority.
- At 3:30, I open my distractions and allow myself to answer emails, get to the things people need from me, stop ignoring my team, do my busy work, and check in on the social networks.
- That gives me 30 to 60 minutes before I have to walk to get Beanie to do what I want. In most cases, I’ve been working on the next day’s to-do list.
This only works for me on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
I tend to have full meeting days on Mondays and Tuesdays, but that’s OK because that has to be done, as well.
Why This Won’t Work for You
This isn’t going to work for some of you.
Here is why:
- You just cannot get up early. But you’ll notice the only reason I get up at the crack of dawn is because I want to ride before I have to contend with traffic. So if you can’t get up early, that’s OK! Structure your day differently. You could exercise at lunchtime or in the evening…or not at all.
- You work for an organization that requires you to be there from 8-5. Awesome! What you’ll do is make your morning rounds from 8:00-8:30. Then you’ll do your first burst of intensive work from 8:30-11:30. It’s time for lunch—your time. Then you do your second burst. And look at that…you’ve accomplished more than you did yesterday or the day before.
- Your kids are home for the summer. Lucky! Spending summers with your kids is enviable. And you can totally make this process work for you. Just block two, three-hour intensive sessions each day. The night before, outline what you need to accomplish and then do it. No distractions. I promise. It works.
- You spend all of your days in meetings. I hear you! Do you have to be in every meeting? Or can you say no to some of them? I’m willing to bet you can say no to some of them. Use those meeting times as your intensive work periods.
- Your boss controls your schedule. Start by sharing with your boss the Thrive Global article I linked to at the beginning of this article. Then leave copies of The Four-Hour Workweek, Getting Things Done, Deep Work, and Virtual Freedom on his or her desk. I guarantee things will shift. If they don’t, you work for an unreasonable human being. Begin floating your resume.
- You are constantly disrupted. I hate to say this, but you allow that. If it’s because of email, social media, Slack, or other online venues, you created that. Stop it. Turn all of that off.If it’s because of colleagues in and out of your office (or you work in an open office environment), you can control that. Put a sign on your door. Wear headphones. Communicate that you’re heads down on something and will get to them in a couple of hours. NO ONE is going to die if you don’t answer them in three hours. And, if you think they will, structure a plan with a colleague who can do their intensive bursts opposite you so are both covered.
- You need to be on call for your clients. I have the best story about that. One winter, I was in Colorado for work and I really, really wanted to go skiing. But we were in the middle of a huge launch for a client and I needed to be available for media calls. I decided to go ahead and go skiing and I would take calls in between runs. Of course, the moment I got on the ski lift, a journalist from The New York Times called. I spoke with her while I rode to the top of the mountain. Then I told her I needed to confirm some things and I would get back to her within 30 minutes. I skied the run and called her back. You can be on call from anywhere.
The point is, this actually will work for you.
You don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. and ride for 90 minutes.
You don’t have to structure your day like mine at all.
Our priorities are different—and that’s just fine.
I outlined my day just as one example…and to give you a starting point.
Try it! You’ll Like it!
In the two weeks I’ve been testing this, I’ve already become much more productive.
I no longer think, “I can spend two hours this morning cleaning out my inbox because I know I can do that project this afternoon.”
I was bragging to Laura Petrolino that I am now ahead of my to-do list.
A feat that has never happened in my entire career.
Try working in two, three-hour bursts every day for the rest of this week and see what happens.
I guarantee you’ll structure your days exactly like this from now on.