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I wonder if it is possible to get more done by working less.

Lets say that on a normal day: I work 8 hours and finish 10 units of work.

If I work less in a day, there are 3 possibilities:

  1. I finish the same or more. // Ex: In 4 hours a day, I will finish 12 units of work.

  2. I work at the same speed, finishing half the amount of when I would work an 8 hour day. // Ex: In 4 hours a day, I will finish 5 units of work.

  3. I work more productive than when I work longer, but I can't do more work than in a full day // Ex: In 4 hours a day, I will finish 7 units of work.

I'm calling on Parkinson's Law which states that when you have closer deadlines (less time to work), you would work harder and more concentrated.

I personally think that option 3 is the correct one. What do you think?

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I think an important factor to consider is that it's very rare for a person's periods of peak productivity to be particularly long, so the question might not be "How long should my total workday be?" but rather "How long is my average productivity burst, and how many of those can I feasibly achieve in one day?" with an eye to the additional question "How big is the unproductive gap between my peaks?" –  asfallows May 2 '12 at 20:21
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Additionally, I think the mindset I described above is an element of the Pomodoro technique, but I'm not sure. –  asfallows May 2 '12 at 20:21
    
I actually had a go at magicworkcycle.com which says work for 30 minutes then play for 30 minutes and repeat. This worked wonders as you only have 30 minutes to work so you work hard, and you also think that you can take a break in 30 minutes so it's OK to push yourself. –  Daniel Imms May 4 '12 at 3:52
    
Good article, certainly working 8 hours is more productive than working 12, whether working 4 is more productive than working 8 is another question. Living on the salary for 4 hours a day would be very difficult. alternet.org/visions/154518/… –  HLGEM Jul 16 '12 at 14:58
    
Lifehacker had this article today: lifehacker.com/5938353/work-less-to-get-more-done?post=52262425 –  Rory Alsop Aug 29 '12 at 9:55
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4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Many people actually report better results with fewer hours. I guess it depends on what you're doing, what's your motivation and for how long you've been doing it. 12 hour days are great at short bursts, but they're not sustainable. On the other extreme (and I don't buy the 4 hour work week BS), you have companies like 37 Signals and their 30 hour week policy, with exceptional results. Some argue that they weren't always like that, and that's probably true, but for a steady situation, it might be great as a company. You can get top talent that will die for you, because they're so happy to work at a place like that.

But going back to your question, I agree that result #3 is more likely the winner, with a caveat: When you have significantly less time to get things done, you inevitably have to focus on what's truly important. Things will get dropped, but probably the bulk of that would just be busy work, or stuff that you can live without. Just make sure that you do the 20% of the work that gives you 80% of the results, and the rest is gravy.

Google "Eisenhower method" and "Pareto Principle" for details...

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There are a couple points that make this an unrealistic situation.

First is the assumption that we, as humans, can keep the same quality of focus and work as we work longer. This is simply not true. You and I might get 8 units of work done each day, but if you're tired after unit 5 your quality of work will get affected by this - even if you complete full 8 units.

The second is that units of work is not applicable that much for most people anymore. In the past we had manual labor compromise most of the workforce where it output was predictable, e.g. 5 widget an hour. Today, most of us on here are knowledge workers. This is much more difficult to track because knowledge work doesn't have units of work. So how do you measure it? Based on results. As a knowledge worker your performance is based on the results that you deliver.

This brings up the idea that you can complete 10 units of work, and I only complete 5. In terms of results, I could still deliver better results even though I put in less "work".

But to directly answer your question - yes, working less can be more productive :) Set better outcomes, plan accordingly and you'll find yourself working less while getting more done (from my experience).

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It all gets down to the way you think. If you think you can finish 12 units of work in four hours, you can do it. Your mind doesn't know Parkinson's law.

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+1 due to Parkinson's law. –  maz3tt Jul 16 '12 at 12:10
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This will depend on your current work style: If you are wasting time now and a shorter workday helps you concentrating and gives you a sense of "I really have to use every minute" then it will help. If you already have good concentration, cramming more tasks into a smaller amount of time you will only stress out.

Some people tend to say that they work better under pressure: This is not true. Some people will finally start to work if the deadline neares, but the personal comfort and quality of work will suffer.

To answer your question: My guess would be that in half the amount of time you can accomplish about half of the work you would normally do, if all the other variables stay the same.

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