Sunday 24 September 2017

The case for a four-hour work day

A new book claims to have the key to achieving a day's work in a single morning. Katie Law reports on the latest rules of productivity

Disconnecting: Rest or 'me time' (above) is not selfish and can make you more productive
Disconnecting: Rest or 'me time' (above) is not selfish and can make you more productive
Arianna Huffington launched Thrive Global to promote sleep

Do you work on your wi-fi-connected commute? Feel virtuous putting in long hours at the office? Eat your lunch at your desk and keep your smartphone on 24/7? If the answers are yes, you're working inefficiently and ruining your health, says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang.

The 52-year-old former Silicon Valley strategy consultant is one of a new breed of lifestyle gurus who has concluded that the average office worker can achieve as much, if not more, work in four focused hours a day as in eight, and that making time for deliberate daily rest is a skill we all need to learn.

The problem is we've all bought into the long-hours culture, he says - it's no longer just for highly-paid execs. If you're working on open-ended projects and enjoy your work, it's probably worse, while many twentysomethings feel that if they haven't "made it big" by 25, their career is over.

That's not to mention the obvious fact that most businesses are relentlessly competitive and expect employees to be available to colleagues, bosses and clients day and night. But, he argues, snoozing is emphatically not for losers.

The time-out trend is growing fast. Its disciples include Arianna Huffington, whose Thrive Global company launched last year to promote sleep and sleep products to the corporate world; then Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, whose Little Book of Hygge - one of dozens - is currently topping the Amazon bestseller chart, and an entire brigade of thinking fast and slow behaviourial scientists such as Danny Kahneman, Daniel Levitin and Charles Duhigg.

Pang, who lives with his teacher wife and two teenage children, has perfected his own daily routine to achieve peak results and claims to feel more intelligent and be more productive than he did when he was working a 15-hour day.

Having consulted for a string of tech companies including Microsoft, he has just set up The Restful Company to advise companies and schools on how to incorporate deliberate rest into their schedules. He has also, helpfully, written a book for the rest of us. Here are his rules.

Four hours' focus

That's the maximum most humans, including top athletes, musicians and scientists can manage in any 24 hours, says Pang. But you can get far more done if this time is not broken up by email, voicemail and other interruptions.

Office managers need to block out times when no one has meetings or is obliged to check their emails. Smartphones should be turned off at least two evenings a week.

Pang's research suggests companies that allow employees such a luxury have a happier workforce and achieve better results. What's more, their clients don't actually notice. We overestimate the urgency of most communication, Pang thinks, because it makes us feel important.

The curse of the open-plan office

They may well induce collaboration, but they make it harder to do any remotely intellectually challenging work. Earplugs and noise-cancelling earphones are a good first solution but, Pang warns, you have to work really hard to get into the right head space where you can hunker down and focus.

Other potential solutions include being allowed to work from home, going to a coffee shop or taking over a meeting room. Or, ahem, how about a return to individual offices?

Why company break-out areas are bad

The hip company with a climbing wall beside the espresso bar is becoming a cliché, says Pang. While breaks can restore energy and help employees re-focus, there is a risk that they will become a way of keeping people in the office for as long as possible. Not good.

Encouraging employees to have their own lives away from the workplace makes them more productive when they are present. We tend to think of rest, or 'me time', as being selfish. It's not.

Keep meetings short

They should never be more than 40 minutes long. To get the max out of everyone in the shortest time, insist on no multi-tasking, keep devices switched off and ban chit-chat.

If you don't need to write things down, walking meetings can be useful as people can't check emails under the table or self-distract. LinkedIn does it.

Routine is critical to creativity

People tend to think that long hours and late nights are signs of seriousness and that leaving important stuff until the last minute is a sign of genius. Wrong, says Pang, who admits that as a student he used to stay up until 1am in a hyper-caffeinated frenzy and had to learn the hard way how to get more work done.

Routine is the answer. Author Stephen King, one of the most prolific creatives alive, swears by it.

Take a nap

Widely accepted in Japan and increasingly by companies such as Google, which has banks of nap pods, a 20-minute nap taken roughly six hours after waking up is as restorative as two hours of sleep and better for you than a strong flat white - but it needs to become company policy to be socially acceptable. Falling asleep on the job can be a sackable offence. The art of perfecting the short nap takes practice; you may need to set an alarm.

Stop working mid-sentence

Neuroscientists have found that when people stop doing a piece of work they know they are going back to, their subconscious keeps processing it even when their attention goes elsewhere. Take advantage and zone out. Your brain will still be problem-solving even if you aren't aware of it.

How to achieve peak vacation happiness

Short, frequent holidays are more restorative than a month away as you're likely to do less. The optimum break is 10 days, with peak relaxation coming on day eight, says Pang. Alternating intense activity and deliberate restful periods each day is ideal.

Pang's own routine

It starts the night before, when he sets out slippers and puts coffee and sugar in a mug. He rises at 5am and goes straight to his computer where the programme will still be running, with yesterday's last sentence unfinished. From 7am to 8.15am he walks the dogs and takes his children to school. He allows an hour each morning on 'client work', has an early sandwich lunch, followed by a 20-minute nap, then goes for a walk or to the gym. He finishes at 5pm.

Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, is published by Penguin (€18.45) tomorrow

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life