Read Time: 6 minutes
Have you ever wondered why the average workday lasts eight hours?
It’s the standard for most employees across the board, and is used almost everywhere in the world, but why specifically eight hours?
Does it take eight hours to get work done?
Does it maximise productivity?
Not even close.
So why does it exist today?
Where the Eight Hour Workday Comes From
The idea of the eight hour workday is fairly old. It originated in Britain in the 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, when Robert Owen coined the phrase “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” dividing the day into three equal eight-hour parts. Fantastic, right?
For some industries, the eight hour model can’t be helped. In hospitality, for example, employees are expected to work eight hour shifts (and sometimes more!) because customers walk in at any hour of the day and expect service. In the corporate world however, the eight hour work day is practically arbitrary.
Now why on this good, green Earth do we care about this? Because it’s ancient and outdated, and it’s time for change! Okay, I’m not campaigning for change just yet, but the eight hour workday is relevant because a lot of the time spent is wasted on procrastination. Think about it. How many people can actually spend a full eight hours being completely productive?
The More You Work… The Less You Do?
Sometimes, the more time you have to do something, the less you actually end up doing.
Let me give you an example:
- You have three weeks to complete an essay, and all of a sudden you find yourself rubbing your eyes in your coffee-fuelled stupor at four in the morning, trying to submit it an hour before the deadline.
- Now compare this to one of those times when you’ve woken up late for work and found yourself ready and out of the door in five minutes.
The reason for the inefficiency is a quirky little thing known as Parkinson’s Law, which basically says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. It’s extremely hard to escape this rule.
In a standard workday, people tend to find ways to drag their work out as long as possible, which makes them horribly inefficient. What can I say, it’s human nature.
However, armed with this knowledge, you can use this to your advantage.
Well, put it this way – If work usually expands to fit the deadline, what if you tweaked the deadline?
What if you gave yourself less time to work on something?
The Power Hour
I used to struggle with time management when getting work done. Last-minute essays were an absolute nightmare. I got sick of spending hours on writing but never quite getting anywhere.
I soon figured out why this was happening. Although I was sitting at the computer for four to six hours, I wasn’t actually working; Procrastinating and moping made up the majority of my writing process.
I decided to scrap my six hour stints and do the exact opposite. I’d limit myself to only one hour.
I blocked out 10.30 am to 11.30 am as my “Power Hour”. In this one hour, I would turn off all distractions, set my phone out of reach and tackle the highest priority task I had for the day.
This meant that I was completely flexible with my time for the rest of the day and by lunch I had been extremely productive, and come night time, I could rest easy knowing the day had not gone to waste, even though I had only worked an hour.
This is another way that you can work less by working smarter. If you tend to procrastinate a lot, working on high priority tasks for an hour with absolute focus eliminates a large portion of your work and gives you more free time throughout the day. Knowing that you only have to focus for a short period of time could also help with the main cause of procrastination: The lack of motivation.
For me, this simple change took away all the stress and guilt that lurked in the back of my mind while I was out procrastinating, now that I knew I had already achieved at least one or two important goals for the day.
The Rationale for the Power Hour
I have a theory as to why reducing the time I spent on studying actually tripled the amount of work I got done. I believe it has a lot to do with the 80/20 principle.
If we take another look at the graph of diminishing returns, you’ll probably notice that 70 – 80% of the productivity actually occurs in the first 20% of the graph (not an accurate value, but just for visualisation). By reducing the amount of time you spend working, you’d be focusing on using your optimal energy levels.
Anything beyond that 80% level is not really as productive, and the benefit you gain is just far too minimal to justify the amount of time you’re putting in.
Doing this myself, I didn’t get as much done as I normally would by working for four to five hours, but interestingly, I got about 60-80% of the work done within just one hour.
I noticed that when I planned to spend the whole day working, I would space out my work (wasting that crucial first hour) because I thought I had the whole day to do it, and I would get distracted very easily and procrastinate my day away.
With a strict one hour deadline, I had no time to allow for distractions. I was motivated by the thought that I only had an hour to work, and I’d be free to chill out the rest of the day.
Whether your problem is being completely unmotivated or working too much, limiting your work time to just an hour will significantly help, because firstly, you’ll be working at your optimal level. Secondly, you’ll be motivated by the fact that you’ll only have to work for that single hour, and finally you won’t experience burnout.
Focusing on Small Wins
Let’s face it, time management is boring, and I’m sure most of you, myself included, would much rather stick pins in your eyeballs than figure out how to manage your time.
Using a simple system – like the Power Hour – takes care of this. It’s a system that allows for flexibility, and enables you to be productive, while still having wiggle room to enjoy your day.
The system I initially came up with was way too complicated. It involved scheduling every hour of my day, and I spent so much time planning how I would utilise every minute. It was suffocating and dull.
I’d like to use an example from a section of a podcast I was listening to.
The host had received a question from a listener, saying that she told people that she wanted to run three times a week, but never ended up doing it and felt embarrassed. When he suggested that she try setting a smaller goal of running just once a week, she replied: “Well what’s the point of only running once a week? I’d rather not run at all!”.
It was mind-boggling that someone would prefer not to take any action at all over setting a smaller, more achievable goal.
I identified a lot with this – I spent so much time making to-do lists and setting numerous goals for the day, and ended up procrastinating all day. I needed to restructure my approach to goal-setting.
- Set just one or two achievable goals for the day
- Block out a time for those specific goals, and work on it for just one hour.
Setting a time is essential, because making a mental note of what you want to accomplish is never enough; you end up pushing it further and further in the day and suddenly it’s time for bed. By blocking out a time for your most important tasks, it becomes a scaffolding for your day. This way, you plan around it rather than shoving it out of the way in place of something more fun. That’s something I would definitely do.
What are your top productivity tips? Drop me a line or leave a comment and let me know!