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The 15 Hour Work Week: Rethinking Our Workstyle to Save Our Lifestyle

The idea of spending four days exploring Los Padres National Park and the Central Coast tugged at me like a child at her parent’s sleeve. I sorely needed the energy of nature, novelty and an open road to restore a sense of freedom thwarted by the pandemic. Several years ago I exchanged my city-friendly Fiat for an SUV specifically to accommodate trips like these, many of which I still have yet to take. But with looming book deadlines, a seed project to get off the ground, coaching sessions and an upcoming company launch, I once again doubted I could gift myself the time.

As if on cue, the 15-hour work week grabbed my attention through social media and a colleague’s email blast. The concept of this reduced work week was born out of a prediction in 1930 by John Maynard Keynes, a British economist who posited that improvements in technology and productivity would lead to a significant reduction in working hours. As we know today this did not go as planned, and many people work well over 40 hours (ironically, technology advancements often take the blame).

They say that life has a way of putting what you need in front of you. I decided I wouldn’t argue with life. I would try a 15 hour work week.

(Starts to panic)
Is it possible?
Is it stressful?
What could be some unintended results?

I ultimately decided that there was no time like the present, and that my 700-mile road trip would be an interesting secondary experiment. If I could master this workstyle, I could change my lifestyle.

I took a deep, hopeful breath and tossed my weekend bag, snacks, laptop and two rescue dogs into the car and set out for a much needed, long awaited adventure. Below are my top three ingredients and top three failures — complete with leadership takeaways — taken from this new, experimental workstyle. But for those without a lot of time (maybe you’re trying a 15-hour work week of your own), here is the big result…

At the end of the day, I compared my tasks completed with those of my previous two weeks. There was, essentially, little to no difference.

How to Design a Successful 15-Hour Work Week:

1) Working for yourself helps, but is not necessary.

I have a lot of flexibility in my work, and that is by design. Since I am most productive, innovative and in my power place when I have autonomy, flexibility and control over where my energy goes, I went the entrepreneurship route. This absolutely aided in the successful parts of my week, mostly because I didn’t need permission from the powers that be. This what I find that most people tell themselves about trying this sort of schedule. “My boss won’t go for it.” or “It’s too stressful to think about leaving” or “No one else at work is doing it.” It breaks my heart to hear people close the door on this workstyle simply because they think they will be looked down upon or seen as less dedicated. Let me tell you, this experiment took a LOT of dedication, even for someone who runs her own career. As a co-founder, executive coach, and writer in the middle of several book projects, I’m not exactly lacking a long to-do list.

However, it is possible to adhere to this workstyle with proper planning and resources (more on that next).

Leadership takeaway: If what employees need to change their workstyle is sincere permission, consider encouraging your people to conduct this experiment. Set them up for success by being thoughtful and purposeful about how they can be supported. Heck, go crazy and give it a whirl yourself. The best that can happen? Reduced work weeks for everyone, more life for everyone. The worst that can happen? It fails, you conduct a post-mortem to understand why, and you go back to the drawing board.

2) Planning is critical.

Whether you are driving hundreds of miles with two dogs in one day or trying to home school your kids, host meetings, keep your team motivated… (you get the idea), planning skills and prioritization are critical. I share a link to my daily schedule — created specifically from this experiment — below; however, by knowing your energy, organizing your priorities and anticipating potential wrenches in the day, executing highly productive work blocks is exponentially easier than winging it. Breaking the mindset of “I can do it later” is important if you are going to stick to your hourly limits each day. You get the most out of yourself when you’re focused and clear on what matters most. Over my sacred morning coffee, I found it helpful (and quite pleasant) to consider the following components before setting my schedule in stone:

  • What is the one thing I want to complete/work on today? This can be something you look forward to or something you are dreading. Regardless of which, it’s important for your confidence, energy and momentum if you can complete “the thing” for the day.
  • How motivated am I to complete this? Or, how long will it take me? We tend to drag our feet on boring tasks and speed through our enjoyable flow time. We also tend to overestimate the time it will take us to complete less preferred tasks and underestimate the amount of time it takes us to complete work we love, so keep this in mind.
  • What time of day is best to work on this? I like to write at night, hold meetings between 10am and 1pm, and set other focused work from 8-10am. After 3pm I’m pretty useless unless I’m working on a creative project, which I start after dinner and some stretching.
  • What special, fulfilling or engaging thing can I plan after my less preferred tasks? We behavior analysts call this the Premack Principle. It sounds sophomoric, but hey, it works. Give yourself something to look forward to. Sure, you could just do the fun thing first. But it’s so much sweeter when you can revel in your accomplishments and do the fun thing. It feels like you earned it, you enjoy it more, and that boring task is done and over with.
  • If my wifi is slow/nonexistent, or if I want to change up my day, when can I complete some end-of-workday tasks? Things happen, plan for them. I created a “dump time” each day that allowed me to “dump” other work into that time slot if things popped up. When they did, it was less stressful because I already knew I had time to handle it and when, exactly, that would be.

Once I took all of this into consideration, I planned my day around my meetings and coaching sessions that were already scheduled. From there, it was simply a matter of having the energy to execute (more on that next).

Leadership takeaway- Daniel Goleman is quoted as saying “a primary task of leadership is to direct attention”. Spend some time reconsidering time and energy wasted — mainly, meetings. Think purposefully about designing systems and processes with the preservation of time and energy in mind, so that your people can focus on the revenue-producing job they were hired to perform. Streamlined processes ensure clarity and focus and get everyone walking in the same direction using their skills and talents. This produces a secondary benefit of clear, meaningful impact, as each individual ends the workday knowing exactly what they did to advance the company that day.

Here’s another way to understand this concept that I use with my coaching clients.

In college I went to a nutritionist who told me I could eat pizza and ice cream, in moderation, but not French fries. Noticing the perplexed (albeit ecstatic) look on my face, she explained why:

“Pizza and ice cream have some nutritional content. You can feel alright about eating this way every so often, because the food is contributing something to your body. French fries have no nutritional content. They are a waste of time. They provide nothing but junk that slows you down.”

Where are your company’s French fries?

3) Movement and nutrition became a productivity requirement.

Regardless of whether you are on the road or at home while trying this workstyle, your wellbeing still matters. I was not interested in a 15-hour work week so I could sleep during the day (besides my quick naps), drink wine at noon (no judging) or generally lay around. I wanted to spend more time living — enjoying nature, writing and exploring — and less time working, but I needed to be just as, if not more, productive. That meant clarity, focus and energy, which meant hydration, meditation, low alcohol intake and daily morning movement (light yoga + walks). This produced noticeable improvements in my ability to set a work block and execute it very efficiently. It is noteworthy to mention that I do these things anyway, but these wellbeing behaviors are typically of less quality or quantity because of the time I spend working. Instead of rushing out for a quick run, I was able to spend 2-3 hours of my morning engaged in my own wellbeing. I started the day feeling incredible, and I don’t know how (or if) I’ll ever be able to go back to rushing through it all.

Leadership takeaway- Human bodies have to meet their biological needs in order to perform at their best. Stop throwing yoga and salad at your people and expect them to recover from the stressful environments and long working hours in which they are expected to operate. With a reduced work week, they will have additional time to choose any number of wellbeing behaviors that fit their lifestyles, their abilities and their schedules. Instead, spend wellbeing and employee engagement budgets on creating systems that will actively reduce the stress of your people by modifying the processes under which they work.

My Epic Failures:

1) Wifi outages.

No matter how many times one confirms the reliability of the wifi, things happen — especially at 7,000 ft elevation in record-breaking heat. Two area outages were the main wrench in the week’s plan, causing intense stress and forcing me to cancel a class I adore teaching. Again, this speaks more to my adventure experiment and less to the 15-hour work week, but something to consider nonetheless.

2) Easily demotivated.

Ok, I admit it. When I arrived at Windwood Ranch in Paso Robles, I was mesmerized by the teepees, airstreams and general beauty of California wine country. I ran the property with my dogs then poured myself a glass of wine while I laid in bliss on the Adirondack chairs, chatting with a writer from Los Angeles. It took me until 8pm to start work, and I only completed 2 hours due to taking a phone call instead of sticking to my plan. That being said, I imagine that if I were working from home this would not have been the case. In the end, I took the opportunity to exercise some self-compassion and give myself a break. I added an extra hour to an open space on Friday and decided to be done with it.

3) Breaking old habits.

I arrived at my cabin in Frazier Park on Sunday, but it took me until Tuesday to fully settle into my new mindset and workstyle. Monday felt uneasy and stressful. I woke at dawn and watched the sun rise, but quickly ditched my wellbeing plans and fell into my general, rushed routine of getting the dogs exercised as quickly as possible to start my work. Even though I am self-employed, even though I had planned my day well, I still felt a sense of urgency and guilt for being on a walk at 9:11 am (but who’s counting) instead of in front of my laptop. I imagine anyone trying this experiment would take some time to adjust, so beware of old habits dying hard and be kind to yourself in the process.

Final Thoughts: Is It Possible? Is It Worth It?

On the third day of my trip I was walking my dogs, surrounded by pine trees, complete silence and fresh air. I felt calm and restored, even after dealing with stressful internet issues the day before. I looked forward to working later that day, but I wasn’t rushing to anything. I was present, calm, grateful. An overwhelming sense of something I can’t describe washed over me.

It was at that point I realized the magic of a 15-hour (or greatly reduced) work week. For the first time in my life, the first few hours of my day were focused on my life and my wellbeing, previously known as “the other stuff” I’d struggle to make time for later. I felt a sense of myself come back and take center stage.

I ended my week with a total of 16.5 hours worked, the extra time due to a meeting that went long because my business partner and I happened to be exceptionally excited and productive. Most importantly, we each had the time to stay online and continue working instead of rushing off to the next thing. This workstyle is not always possible — and as someone who loves her job, there are weeks where I will actively choose to work longer hours — but it’s worth a challenge of the status quo. Preserving the wellbeing of our people (and ourselves), enhancing the time spent on the things that matter and dropping what doesn’t, and putting 25+ precious hours a week back in employees’ pockets is simply worth a closer look. It has to be.

Conclusion? The 15-hour work week has less of a downside than you might think. Try it.