This article gives you a glimpse of what you can learn with Shortform. Shortform has the world’s best guides to 1000+ nonfiction books, plus other resources to help you accelerate your learning.
Want to learn faster and get smarter? Sign up for a free trial here .
Why do most people work 40 hours per week? Are there benefits of a shorter workweek?
The traditional 40-hour workweek is designed to keep employees productive and dedicated to the job, but it actually does the opposite. Instead, working an excessive amount of hours makes employees exhausted and less motivated. The solution is to form a shorter week that prioritizes employees’ happiness and health.
Below we’ll look at reasons why a shorter workweek is beneficial and what can be done to implement it.
The Traditional 40-Hour Workweek
Where did the traditional 40-hour workweek come from? We have to start at the beginning. For the majority of human history, humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups. But hunting and gathering aren’t as time-consuming as you’d think, claims Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez in their book Your Money or Your Life.
Modern-day hunter-gatherers average just 15 hours of work per week, far below our “normal” 40. They often work for two days, then take two days off, with work, family time, and leisure blending together. This shows that we need about three hours of work per day for basic survival.
Today, we accept the standard 40-hour workweek and think less of people who work part-time. But how did we come to fill our time with so much paid work?
First, the Industrial Revolution sped up the pace of work and shrunk leisure time. People who worked in factories worked long hours doing very repetitive tasks. In 1900, workers averaged 60 hours a week. A movement emerged calling for a reduction in work time. As a result of this movement, the average workweek dropped to 35 hours. But the Great Depression reversed this progress. Suddenly, many people were jobless.
Now, instead of valuing the right to leisure time, people valued the right to work. People thought poorly of not having a job, or working less than full time, and viewed leisure time as a missed opportunity to contribute to the economy. Now it feels almost impossible to work any less than 40 hours a week because it’s frowned upon by society.
The Problem With the Traditional Workweek
Our definitions of work vary because they’re drawn from media, culture, what our parents taught us, and other experiences. A common definition of work is that it’s what we need to do to survive, or “make a living,” hence why we work such long hours in a week to provide for ourselves and others.
But this definition falls short for two reasons:
- It ignores work we don’t get paid for.
- It values paid work more than unpaid work, free time, and leisure.
Just like with money, we need a definition of work that holds true for everyone consistently: Work is any activity you do that aligns with your values, purpose, and dreams. By this definition, work can include both paid and unpaid activities, freeing you to seek fulfillment beyond paid work.
TITLE: Your Money or Your Life
AUTHOR: Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez
The Solution: Shortening the Workweek
In Deep Work, Cal Newport cautions that there is a limit to how much deep work you’ll be able to accomplish per day. Anders Ericsson, author of Peak, also explains that most novices can only accomplish about an hour a day of intense concentration. Experts who have extensive practice can expand to up to four hours but rarely can exceed this.
If you’re the type to want to be productive, it may be tempting to spend every waking hour working. Newport thinks this is a counterproductive mindset, and that you should instead deliberately shut off your work and let your brain relax. If the standard workweek was shorter—say 32 to 37 hours a week—this would be less of a problem. Some alternative solutions to the 40-hour workweek include a four-day workweek, a six-hour workday, and a five-hour workday. Ultimately, the work schedule should be unique to each business and its employees’ needs.
To make sure everyone can handle the shorter workweek, Newport suggests embracing deep work. Cal Newport defines “deep work” as focused, uninterrupted, undistracted work on a task that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit. In contrast, “shallow work” describes tasks that aren’t as cognitively demanding—like answering emails and attending unproductive meetings. These tasks don’t create much value and anyone can do them. Additionally, shallow work takes up more time in the day that could be spent relaxing.
The Benefits of a Shorter Workweek
Other than increasing productivity, there are many benefits of a shorter workweek. And employees aren’t the only ones who can reap the benefits—businesses and the community will see a positive change as well if the workweek were to be shortened. Here are the pros we know about so far:
Pros for Workers
- Four-day weeks increase happiness. In Formstack’s 2021 experiment, worker happiness increased by 14% following the change, while in a UK study over 75% of managers said that their staff was happier with four-day weeks. This happiness is probably linked to improved work-life balance, including having extra time to do chores or spend time with family.
- There’s less burnout. Workers with four-day workweeks report feeling fresher and more energetic. They’re also more engaged with their work. After assistant nurses in a Swedish nursing home switched to a 32-hour week in 2015, for example, the number of activities they organized for patients increased by 85%.
- Four-day weeks benefit workers financially. Employees with four-day weeks save money on commuting, childcare, work lunches, and even pet care. They can also use their extra day to increase their income, either by creating a “side hustle” or by taking another job. This possibility is especially important in difficult economies.
- Shorter workweeks improve workers’ physical and mental health. People working four-day weeks take fewer sick days, suggesting that they feel healthier than their five-day week counterparts.
Pros for Businesses
- Some businesses have reported significant savings after implementing four-day weeks. In a survey of UK businesses, those that had adopted four-day weeks reported annual savings totaling £92 billion (US $108 billion) in 2019 and £104 billion (US $122 billion) in 2021. These savings largely come from increased productivity, fewer leave days, and savings on overhead costs.
- Companies that offer a four-day workweek find it easier to attract high-quality applicants. The UK’s Atom Bank, for example, has seen applications for open positions rise 500% since it implemented the four-day week. The number of applications for Shake Shack also increased, with some employees saying they were attracted by saving on childcare costs one day a week. Attracting high volumes of candidates is especially important in highly competitive industries, such as tech, and in tight job markets like the current one. Joe O’Connor, CEO of 4DayWeek.com, points out that while it’s difficult for most companies to offer a salary in the top 1%, it’s much easier to offer a workweek in the top 1%.
- Four-day workweeks increase employee loyalty and decrease turnover. After Healthwise switched to a four-day week because of problems with employee turnover, unexpected turnover dropped to zero.
Pros for the Community
- The four-day workweek benefits the environment. One research team calculated that if a four-day workweek were implemented across the whole of the UK, the country’s carbon footprint would decrease by more than 20%. Data from the Utah government pilot suggested that over the year of the project, the amount of carbon dioxide saved would be equivalent to getting rid of 2,300 cars.
- Four-day workweeks may increase employment. There’s not a great deal of data on this so far, but the Swedish nursing home that participated in the six-hour day pilot had to hire 17 new workers to cover the extra shifts. (The program was ultimately discontinued because of these additional costs.) Deputy Mayor of Gothenburg Daniel Bernmar adds that not only would implementing four-day weeks on a large scale create more jobs, but it would also encourage people to stay in the workforce longer before retiring.
- There may be more general economic benefits. People who are working one fewer day a week are likely to spend more on their day off, boosting the local and global economy.
- People with four-day workweeks may spend more time volunteering. The Utah government’s pilot program saw workers spending their days off volunteering at churches, in animal shelters, and for social programs like Habitat for Humanity.
How to Make the Shorter Week Work
The shorter workweek has obvious benefits for employees and companies, but what can you do to make it happen? We’ll focus on the three most effective ways to keep the week short and make the hours on the job more productive.
1. Eliminate Activities That Waste Your Time
To shorten your workweek, but also be productive about it, you need to eliminate activities that waste your time. Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek suggests stopping doing unimportant things, learning unactionable information, and cutting down on time spent on email, calls, and meetings.
Do Only Important Things: Efficiency Does Not Equal Effectiveness
Most of us probably approach our chores and tasks by managing our time, prioritizing, and finding efficient ways to get things done. However, the best way to save time is to only do things that matter, and stop doing everything that doesn’t.
There are two principles to keep in mind:
- The 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle). This rule states that 80% of results come from 20% of effort. Therefore, if you stop doing some of your activities, you’ll cause only a small or negligible effect on your results.
- For example, imagine you’re selling magazines. 80% of your orders come from 20% of your customers. If you completely ignored any customer who wasn’t in the top 20%, you would lose customers. But you’d still retain 80% of your orders, and you could use all the time you saved to do something else that made you money or to do a dreamline.
- Parkinson’s Law. This law states that a task will take up as much time as you give it, and the more time you give it, the more important it will seem.
- For example, if you have five days to write a paper, it’ll take you five days. If you have two hours, you’ll get it done in two hours.
To stop doing things that aren’t important, apply both laws—only do the 20% of your tasks that give you the most return, and give yourself short deadlines for those tasks.
Ignore Long-Winded or Unactionable Information
Ignore newspapers, radio, and TV—all media. If something important happens that will affect you, you’ll hear about it from someone else.
If you need to learn about something, ask other people who already know about it to summarize it for you. If you don’t have a friend who can advise you on the subject, get a brief overview of the topic by reading a single book on it and then contacting experts and asking good questions.
Only learn information as you need it—if you learn something too far in advance, you’ll forget it by the time you need it, and have to spend time relearning it. And if you start learning from a particular resource and it’s not helpful, stop. There’s no need to finish everything you’ve started.
TITLE: The 4-Hour Workweek
AUTHOR: Tim Ferriss
2. Abolish Vacation Policies
To allow employees to have a work-life balance, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings neither allots vacation time nor tracks days off. This makes it easier to attract top talent and sends a message to employees that management trusts them to handle a shorter workweek if they choose to.
In his book No Rules Rules, co-authored with Erin Meyer, Hastings asserts that leaders must set an example by taking big vacations, talking openly about them, and encouraging employees to do the same. Regardless of what managers say, workers will follow what they do—if they say that everyone should feel free to take plenty of vacation, but they only take a week off all year, employees won’t feel comfortable taking long vacations. Similarly, if the CEO takes five weeks’ vacation but a department head barely takes two, that manager’s team will follow her lead. In other words, all leaders—from the executive suite to the middle managers—must set a good example of work-life balance for their subordinates.
Abolishing vacation policies can apply to any company. Perhaps employees want to use their vacation time to take Fridays off, creating a shorter workweek that is on a consistent schedule. Hastings notes the policy (or non-policy) brings significant benefits:
- It gives employees more control over their lives to create a work-life balance, which improves their job satisfaction and performance.
- It makes it easier to attract and retain the industry’s top talent, especially millennials and Gen Z workers who favor less restrictive work settings.
- It sends a message to employees that management trusts them, which inspires them to live up to that trust.
TITLE: No Rules Rules
AUTHOR: Reed Hastings
3. Maximize Strengths—Yours and Others’
The last way to implement the shorter workweek into your or your employees’ routine is to build or leverage strengths—your own strengths and the strengths of those around you.
The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker argues that you can’t accomplish anything significant by focusing on your own or others’ weaknesses. When you focus on weaknesses, you undermine the purpose of the organization, which is to translate people’s strengths into performance for results. He says that morally, managers owe it to the organization to maximize the strength of every employee, and owe it to employees to enable them to excel to the extent possible.
When you only focus on strengths, you and your team are more likely to get things done in a quicker amount of time. And as we’ve discussed, one of the only ways to make the shorter workweek function is to get work done in less time.
What Is a Strengths-Based Approach?
The Gallup organization popularized strengths-based development for performance management and leadership development in 2001, although the idea arose in the 1980s as an approach to social work. Embraced by HR professionals and major companies, strengths-based development launched the trend of strengths coaching.
Gallup defines strengths as a person’s unique combination of talents, abilities, and motivators. Strengths-based development helps employees understand and leverage their capabilities; it focuses on what they do well rather than what they do poorly.
Gallup says its research over 40 years shows that when employers focus on workers’ strengths rather than trying to fix weaknesses, they have better employee engagement, performance, retention, customer engagement, and profitability.
TITLE: The Effective Executive
AUTHOR: Peter F. Drucker
The traditional workweek has its flaws and is ready to be shelved. It may take a while to get everyone on board with the shorter workweek, but there may be a future where you work less and still make the most of your job.
How do you feel about a shorter workweek? Let us know in the comments below!
Want to fast-track your learning? With Shortform, you’ll gain insights you won't find anywhere else .
Here's what you’ll get when you sign up for Shortform :
- Complicated ideas explained in simple and concise ways
- Smart analysis that connects what you’re reading to other key concepts
- Writing with zero fluff because we know how important your time is