Why the “new normal” workday should be a whole lot shorter

With the world adjusting to post-pandemic life, everyone’s talking about the “new normal”. But what does that mean when it comes to how we work? 

Coronavirus has forced us into a massive social experiment. More people than ever are working from home, using tools like Zoom to connect, and adjusting to not being in an office.

Yet once we get over the practical hurdles of the “new normal” there’s a deeper question to answer:

How should the typical workday look when there’s no need for commutes, 9-5 schedules, and open-plan offices?

After looking through data, trends, and surveys from around the world (both before and during the pandemic), one thing became clear: the “new normal” workday should be much shorter.

In this post:

Why the 8-hour workday shouldn’t be a part of the “new normal”  

Before the pandemic, your life most likely revolved around an 8-hour (or more) workday. But in the “new normal” that 8-hour structure should be the first thing to go.

As Deep Work author, Cal Newport writes:

“Three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”

Here’s why:

1. Almost no one is “working” for 8 hours a day

Let’s start with some hard data. 

It doesn’t matter how long you spend in the office, chances are you aren’t working productively for 8 hours a day.

Instead, data and surveys from around the world have found that modern workers are only truly productive for a maximum of 2 hours and 50 minutes a day. 

But what about the other 5+ hours? They’re spent on non-work activities like reading the news or social media, socializing with coworkers, taking breaks, or lost to multitasking, context switching, and endless meetings.

For more on this, read about The Planning Fallacy.

2. Quality of work (and happiness) drops sharply after a certain number of hours

Even if you try to work more to make up for those lost hours, your productivity will hit a wall. 

According to research from Stanford University, output and creativity sharply decline after 50 hours of working in a week. And it only gets worse the more you work. In fact, people who work a 70-hour workweek are likely to produce nothing during those 15-20 extra hours.

3. Our focus is limited to blocks of 20-90 minutes max

The problem with long workdays isn’t just that we’re spending too long at work. It’s that we’re trying to spend all that time productively. 

The human brain is more like a muscle than a computer. You can’t load it up with tasks without giving it breaks and proper time to recover. As research scientist Andrew Smart explains:

“The idea that you can indefinitely stretch out your deep focus and productivity time to these arbitrary limits is really wrong. It’s self-defeating.”

Instead, research shows that attention spans being to decay significantly after 20 minutes while most people require a break every 50-90 minutes.

(If you want to get technical, our brains go through something called Ultradian Rhythms every 90 minutes after which we need to take a break.)

4. Working fewer hours is linked to higher output, creativity, and even health

So that’s the bad news (and there’s a lot more of it. But you get the picture). 

The good news is that you can cut hours from your day and still hit deadlines, make meaningful contributions, and stay connected to your team. 

Even better, working shorter hours–whether it’s a four-day workweek or shorter days–has been shown to increase productivity, inspire creative ideas, and keep teams happier and healthier.  

How to build a 4-hour “new normal” workday (and still get your tasks done!)

So how do you create a shorter “new normal” workday schedule that actually works?

Unfortunately, creating a new schedule isn’t as simple as just saying you’ll work fewer hours.

There are forces at play–both internal and external–that will make it incredibly hard to stick to your “new normal”, even if you know it’s better for your health, productivity, and creativity.   

Here’s the step-by-step process we use at RescueTime to help teams and individuals take back control of their day.  

Start by understanding your productivity baseline (i.e. know what a “good day” looks like)

“What gets measured gets improved.”

If you want to save money, you track your spending. If you want shorter, more efficient workdays, you need to track your time. 

Time tracking is a great tool for understanding where your time is going, uncovering distractions, and building a better schedule.

But more importantly, tracking your time helps you understand what a “good day” actually looks like for you. 

A tool like RescueTime automatically observes and tracks everything you do on your digital devices to give you detailed reports on how long you spend on specific apps, websites, and projects, as well as help you uncover trends in your productivity. 

After a week of data collection, you’ll be able to understand what your baseline productivity looks like. Here’s an example of a weekly dashboard:

How to find your productivity data in the new normal
(If you’d rather go the manual route, you can track your time using a pen and paper. Just set a timer and write down what you’re working on in 10 or 15-minute increments.) 

The main dashboard shows you some high-level stats about how you worked over the past week. But to get the data you need to build a more efficient schedule, you’ll need to dig deeper into a few specific reports:

  1. Total time: How long do you actually work most days? This will most likely be lower than you think it should be. And that’s ok. It’s important to see that most people only “work” for 4-5 hours a day.
  2. Productivity by time of day: When are you most productive? This report shows you when during the day you’re doing productive work. By looking at the trends over a week, you’ll see your optimal work hours in the new normal. 
  3. Time spent on your “core work”: How long do you spend on your most important work? This is whatever task you’d like to do more of–whether that’s writing, coding, designing, or something else. Again, this is probably lower than you imagine.  
  4. Time spent in communication: How long do you normally spend on email, chat, and in meetings? These are activities that balloon your workday and that you’ll want to try to reduce. 
  5. Most distracted hours: When (and how much) are you losing focus? We can’t be productive all day. Look for times when you’re most likely to be distracted and either schedule breaks or cut them out completely.

Rewire your brain for focus

For most people, seeing their personal data is a lightbulb moment. Even if you’re working 8+ hours a day, you’re probably lucky to get 2+ hours of time for your most important work. 

But this is good news. As Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, told us:

“Two hours where you can really get into the problem yields solutions that are going to be better than if you spent 10 hours broken up by meetings and bouncing around on Slack channels.”

The key difference is in your ability to focus.

Singletasking and focusing for long periods of time are superpowers. In fact, some researchers say that a highly focused hour is up to 500% more productive than one where you bounce between tasks, emails, and calls.

Your new normal schedule should be built around optimizing for focus at all costs. This will take some work. But to rebuild your focus you need to do two things. 

First, set aside time for focused work and stick to it.

This means blocking distracting websites that tempt you (FocusTime is a great tool for this) and keeping your email/chat/phone on DND mode. 

FocusTime lets you block distractions manually or even schedule focus sessions directly from your calendar.

Next, you need to physically rewire your brain for focus. Constant interruption is part of the old normal. To undo its detrimental effects, you need to retrain your brain to focus for longer periods.

Luckily, there are some simple and even enjoyable ways to do this. As Amanda Ruggeri writes on BBC Worklife:

“When both adults and children were sent outdoors, without their devices, for four days, their performance on a task that measured both creativity and problem-solving improved by 50 percent. Even taking just one walk, preferably outside, has been proven to significantly increase creativity.”

Take a long, hard look at your priorities

When we interviewed 850+ knowledge workers, we found that people who work 8+ hours a day are 3X as likely to say they have “too much work” than those who work 5 hours or fewer. 

But it’s not just too much work that causes us to work longer. It’s also a lack of clear priorities

Read more on our latest work-life balance survey.

When you know what work is truly important, it’s easy to set aside focused time for it. But the opposite is just as true.

When you’re uncertain about your priorities, it’s easier to spend all day on low-value tasks like constantly emailing, chatting, or meeting up. 

The best way to clear up your priorities is to talk to your manager or team. Be open about what’s on your plate and ask for advice. If that doesn’t help, we’ve put together this in-depth guide on 9 strategies to help you prioritize your day. 

Schedule your day around your peak productive hours

With your priorities straight, hard data on when you work best, and a commitment to focus, it’s time to build your shorter, new normal schedule.

But just as important as how much you work is when you work.

We all go through highs and lows of energy throughout the day. And it’s much easier to focus and be productive when you schedule important work during your peak hours.

The easiest way to do this is to look at your RescueTime Productivity By Time of Day report and block out at least 2 hours where you’re naturally more productive.

In the above report, productive time spikes earlier in the day and then drops off.

Working like this, it’s not unrealistic to get more done in 2 hours than most people do in a day.

To learn more, check out How to find your most productive hour each day.

Set limits on your communication time

Communication is key to a healthy workplace. But the always-on nature of chat, video calls, and email means work never ends.

To keep up with your new schedule, set limits on your communication time, or only make yourself available during specific times of the day. 

This is known as “bursty” communication—meaning you alternate between times of deep work and deep conversation. According to studies, this is the best way for teams to stay productive and innovative. 

Pro tip: You can use RescueTime to alert you when you’ve gone over your communication time goal for the day. For example, I have an alert that’s triggered after 30 minutes of email in the morning telling me to focus on meaningful work!

Embrace active rest

Working four hours a day isn’t an excuse for not taking breaks. Our brains need downtime during the day to recover and re-focus. However, we also need downtime outside of work to be at our best.

Your overall wellbeing, creativity, and even productivity depend on a healthy default-mode network (DMN). This is the part of the brain that activates when you’re “doing nothing”. 

A large part of a healthy “new normal” work schedule is giving yourself permission to not work. If you find this hard to maintain, try scheduling your hobbies and downtime. 

Talk about your “new normal” with the rest of your team

It doesn’t matter how much you plan to change your workday if you’re not in sync with the rest of your team.

The only way a shorter day works is if you’re all on the same page about focused time, communication, and priorities. Otherwise, it’s too easy to slip back into old habits and work all the time. 

Why choose a “new normal” with the mistakes of the past?

Nearly 90 years ago, philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in Harper’s Magazine on the importance of idleness and not chasing endless productivity: 

“There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

We’re all too busy for our own good. And perhaps one of the few silver linings to come out of our current situation is a deeper questioning of what makes a good day.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m building a “new normal”, I want it to be productive, purposeful, and playful.

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Trupen Patel

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