At the start of the year, I resolved to do a better job at managing my work-life balance.
But then, on my first project, I fell behind. So, like a dieter eating cake on his birthday, I made an exception. I worked through the weekend to catch up. Because I had to.
Then the next week, I had to make an exception again.
So much for work-life balance.
I was wasting my weekends working instead of watching movies, going for walks with my wife, or waiting in line for some inexplicably popular brunch spot.
Even worse? How little I was accomplishing despite my extra efforts. Like loading a canoe, the more hours I put in, the less efficient I became. And I was sinking.
I needed to do something more than my dead-in-the-water New Year’s Resolution.
So I did a bit of research and landed on an idea for maybe the most ambitious of my 30-day challenges to date:
Try to get by on a four-day workweek while still getting as much work done as usual.
Work Like a Viking
My inspiration to take on this four-day workweek challenge came from Iceland.
Back in 2015, the Icelandic government offered a lucky 1.3% percent of its workers a pretty sweet deal: Go down to a four-day workweek without a cut in salary.
As you’ve probably guessed, those fortunate four-day-ers’ productivity stayed afloat. It even increased in some areas. Four-day workers felt:
- Better prepared to go back to work on Mondays.
- More motivated.
- In a better state of mind to collaborate with colleagues.
The Icelandic experiment was such a success that now, 86% of the country’s workforce are working shorter hours or have the right to do so.
While I’m not Icelandic, I’m self-employed. And I was excited by the potential of being more productive in less time.
So I began my four-day workweek challenge.
Chop Instead of Whittle
My plan to get more done in less time?
Actually have a plan.
I made a weekly-to-list. Anything not on it wasn’t a priority that I would postpone or pass on ever doing. And rather than my usual strategy of whittling away at each to-do a little chip at a time, I set out to chop each down one by one.
For my first Monday, I planned to edit a video interview my brother Cam did last week and write a script for that video. It felt like a lot. But I found motivation by thinking of the three-day weekend I’d enjoy if I got through it.
And it worked!
I crushed it on Monday. And I continued crushing it for the rest of my shortened week. I plowed through my to-do list like a Viking…
…ferociously paddling a canoe…
…to the entrance of Vancouver’s Central Public Library. Because that’s where I spent the first half of my work-free Friday unwinding.
I would have preferred to hang out with friends, but they all had to work. That was a downside of a four-day workweek I hadn’t considered.
Even so, I had a great Friday. I took advantage of the beautiful weather to sit on the library’s rooftop patio reading the first of the Shadow & Claw tetralogy, which I’d been looking forward getting into.
I started Week 2 of my four-day workweek challenge rested, relaxed, and motivated to crush my to-do list like a marauding Icelandic Viking.
But then something happened that Kellam hadn’t warned me about: My four-day workweek attack plan sprung a leak.
The culprit: My computer.
Apparently, a three-day weekend wasn’t enough rest for my Mac because it started lagging, crashing, and causing me all sorts of problems. And while I only lost about three hours repeatedly shutting down and restarting it, that was plenty enough to put undue pressure on my tightly-tuned to-do list.
This opened my eyes to a problem with my strategy:
A tight work schedule is like an aerodynamic racing canoe. It may be sleek, but the slightest turbulence can cause you to capsize.
Which is exactly what happened to my workweek because of my computer problems. I wound up reverting to my old ways, working through Friday and even into Saturday morning to get my head back above water.
My failed second week made me wonder:
What do you do when you reach the end of your four-day workweek without having done everything you need to?
Also, am I a workaholic? Should I talk to someone about it?
So I did talk to someone.
I talked to Jack Kellam, the co-author of the official report on the Iceland four-day workweek experiment. I wanted to know if any Icelanders confronted the same issues as me and, if so, how they dealt with them.
He gave me a pragmatic answer:
There’s nothing wrong with working extra sometimes. It can be unavoidable, especially if you’re self-employed, like me. And some people love what they do. Just be wary of letting fatigue fool you into thinking more work leads to better output.
Then Kellam dropped a bomb on me:
The Icelanders from the trials worked reduced hours but not twenty percent fewer. It was more often three to five hours a week. And they didn’t necessarily take a full extra day off.
Maybe being overworked prior to this challenge clouded my brain? Because during my research and planning, I genuinely did not consider “four-day workweek” to mean anything other than working four 9-to-5s.
So while I felt embarrassed by my misunderstanding, I also felt relief and optimism. Cutting three-to-five fewer hours instead of a whole day gave my tight schedule the wiggle room it needed.
Weeks 3 & 4
Positives From Constraint
In Week 3, I stuck to my strategies of a prioritized to-do list and chopping instead of whittling, but added a half-day on Friday as a buffer. I used it to clean up extra tasks from the week and prepare myself for the following one.
It was no longer a four-day workweek, but it was contained.
And so was my focus. When I filmed with Cam on Thursday, I found I made sure we were more productive and concentrated with our time.
Before this challenge, I would have treated a day like Thursday as part of my social time. I’d chat, mess around, and cause the workday to take longer than it needed to. This prevented me from taking meaningful time completely off later in the week.
But the focus brought about by my newly-contained workweek enabled us to wrap even earlier than expected. This gave us extra time to hang out afterward without the stress of impending deadlines.
Another benefit of restricting my workweek that I noticed as the month came to a close:
I was using my downtime differently.
For example, I finished six books during my thirty-day challenge. That’s way more than normal. So it seems I was being more productive at work and away from it.
My Plan for Future Workweeks
While I failed at squeezing my workweek into four days, a constrained thirty-six hours of work over four-and-a-half days seems to be a good fit for me.
But I’m still getting used to it.
I’m someone who gets easily stressed out when I’m falling behind schedule, so it’s hard to trust that resting can help me get it done sooner and better. Come to think of it, that’s likely why I was overworking myself at the start of this year.
The long-term results are winning me over, though. When I stick to my plan and take real time away from work—even when I’m feeling behind—I’m able to regain that ground the following week. I even get further ahead.
So I’ve committed to keeping up the restricted workweek. I’ll still have to occasionally make exceptions for big deadlines, but I expect that to happen a lot less than before.
Because I’m more productive. And also because, as much as I enjoy what I do, I don’t want my job to consume my life.
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About the author
I'm Chris. Canadian, husband, dad, writer, investor, athlete, and obsessed explorer of the secrets to living a never-boring, always improving, unfollowable life story.