Working overtime is a norm nowadays. Especially among millennials. The hustle culture. The grind. The white-knuckling. ‘No pain, no gain’ mentality. Working 9-5 sounds like a good old tale our parents used to tell us.
We now work all hours of the day. We can create reports at 11 pm, check our emails at 1 am and start working early in the morning without even brushing our teeth.
However, I am on a mission to make fixed working hours cool again. I strongly believe 8 hours a day should be enough to get the work done for most knowledge workers. At the end of the day your contract says you are paid to work 37.5-40 hours a week, doesn’t it?
Still don’t believe me that 40 hours is more than enough to get work done? Ok. Let me share some personal facts to prove my point. I rarely worked or studied past 5 pm for the past 12 years. Ever since I can remember myself I was always very protective of my free time. It would need to be a humongous reason to sacrifice any part of it to work or study.
Without working past 4-5 pm on a daily basis I was able to:
- Finish university with an honours degree and top GPA. I also worked 20-30 hours/week during that time.
- Get promoted regularly.
- Launch and manage complex projects at work.
- Get accepted into a masters program with a full scholarship.
- Co-author 3 peer-reviewed articles during grad school.
- Finish grad school a semester earlier.
- Post weekly on my blog and podcast.
“I will get fired” objection
The common objection I hear is the fear of not being promoted or even worse getting fired if someone chooses to stop working at 5 pm.
You can still get ahead and get promoted. You do this by getting important vs. busy work done. There are only a handful of metrics that really matter in an organization. Try to identify those 20% and focus your time on those. Is there any initiative you can do that would drive revenue or cut costs? Is there a way you can streamline a process? What’s the biggest challenge your company is facing right now? Can you help solve it?
Why it is important to have fixed work hours
The answer is simple: quality rest. No, I’m not talking about watching Netflix or browsing social media on a couch. I am talking about the activities that rejuvenate you. And these activities need (a) time and (b) the energy to do them.
Remember how rested you were after a good camping trip? A spa day? A hike with friends? Going to a concert? Attending that lecture that truly inspired you? How about going to church on Sundays if you are religious? Engaging in your favourite hands-on hobby? Or simply being present with your family or friends?
These activities offer a much higher ROI for mental recharge than Netflix or social media.
Who will be a more productive employee on Monday? The one who spent all weekend watching Netflix and eating potato chips while responding to work emails every few hours or the one who disconnected from work email and went on a long hike with friends and family? Who will host a more energetic stuff meeting? Who will have ‘I can handle this’ attitude to the new challenges instead of ‘Oh no, not this again’? See my point? It is very beneficial for the company to have well-rested (or better yet ‘quality’-rested) employees.
How do you bring back fixed working hours in your life?
1. Ruthless Prioritization
“The biggest productivity lie is that everything matters equally.” - Garry Keller
Saying No is the first skill you need to learn. Here is a template for how to do it in a professional setting.
“I understand that this is important to you. However, my team is working on A,B,C for the next two weeks. Our time is taken up with these projects. What would you like us to pause on, so that we can focus on your task instead?”.
This works like magic. When you list out your priorities people realize that you are working on important things at the moment. And then the burden is on them if they ask you to put these important projects on hold. No one wants to carry this burden, so they generally leave you alone to get your tasks done.
“Very few things are truly urgent and important.”
I think I repeat this phrase in every blog post and podcast episode. This is the mantra you can adopt that can truly change your life and bring an incredible level of intentionality. Everytime you get an email requesting your time, stop for a second. Allow for some time to pass between your thought ‘I better start working on it immediately’ and your action. Remember that very few things are truly urgent and important. Is this thing one of them?
2. Guard your mornings like it’s the biggest national treasure.
Set a goal to get your most important task done before lunch. During my grad school, it was writing my dissertation. I had a daily goal of what sections I would accomplish that day. And my goal was to finish the writing by lunch.
That way the second part of the day feels a lot more enjoyable. You feel proud of yourself. You have confidence in yourself which translates into all the other tasks you do for the rest of the day. Everything is a lot easier when you do the most difficult and important task in the morning.
In the last few years I went as far as blocking off my mornings in Outlook, so my colleagues can’t book any meetings with me during that time. Did I ask for permission? Not really. Did anyone notice? No. Did it cause any inconveniences? No.
If you are still afraid your boss will be against it, start casually mentioning it. For example, your boss asks you to run an analysis on a particular issue. This is something that is hard and requires 2 hours of your uninterrupted time. You can respond with:
“Sure, I can definitely get it done for you. I prefer to work on such complex projects in the mornings when my brain is at its best. I will dedicate a few hours of uninterrupted time on Wednesday morning to work on it. I will send the first draft to you by 12 pm on Wednesday.”
At the end of the day what your boss cares about is that this task is done. Very few people in your organization can provide this level of clarity on their schedule and timelines. You will stand out from the crowd when you manage your schedule and clearly communicate when certain tasks will be done. This is how you create trust. The more you do it, the more people will trust you. They will know they can rely on you even if you don’t deliver on a task immediately. As long as you provide clarity on the timeline and then deliver on the promise, you are a star employee every company wants to have.
You can do the same when responding to emails that require at least an hour of your time:
“Hi John, I just want to let you know that I have received your email. The question you are asking will require some time for me to answer. I have checked my schedule and I will have time to work on this project on Thursday afternoon. You can expect to hear from me by the end of the day Thursday.”
Imagine yourself in the shoes of the recipient of this email. Doesn’t it sound professional? Doesn’t it put you at ease when someone responds that way? Doesn’t it make people respect your time more?
What do you do during these blocked-off mornings?
- Don’t check your emails.
- Work hard on important things that move the needle. This is not your regular “busy” work. This is the work where you actually create something new and of high value.
- Work on your One Thing that makes everything else easier or unnecessary (check out ‘The One Thing’ book for more details).
- Work on tasks that move your career forward. You can think of new initiatives and proposals that can increase sales or cut expenses. You can think of ways to streamline operational processes. Maybe you can create new workflows. You can dig through data to find some insights into sales trends and what might be causing them.
- If you are a manager, you can create training materials for staff. You might think of how you can be a better leader. You can focus on delegating. Delegating is an investment that requires a lot of thought and time upfront. But it frees up your time in the long-term.
3. Batch tasks
At every job I had, I practiced batching tasks. I looked at all the repeating tasks I had to do during the week. And then I would batch similar tasks together and do them all at once.
Here are some examples from my recent Supply Chain Manager role:
- I did all the inventory purchasing on Tuesdays.
- I created all my reports on Fridays.
- I reviewed onboarding documents from suppliers every afternoon from 1.30 - 3 pm (unless there was a meeting scheduled during that time).
- Returns of damaged products - done on Thursdays.
- Follow ups with suppliers on outstanding issues and documents - done on Mondays.
- Catching up on less important emails I didn’t get a chance to respond during the week - done on Fridays.
What helps is creating folders in your inbox. You can sort emails you get throughout the week to these folders (e.g., Purchasing, Supplier Onboarding, Returns & Damages, etc.) I even created filters that would send emails with specific subject lines to a dedicated folder.
Many organizations don’t have that. You get reports when you ask for them. You send POs whenever you run out of products. You follow up on your requests whenever you remember to do so. It happens haphazardly.
When you start batching tasks and doing them at a specific time every week or every day, it brings a certain rhythm to an organization. After some time, your colleagues will know that you send reports on Fridays and there is no need to ask for it on Wednesday. Suppliers will know that you send your purchase orders on Tuesdays. It brings clarity and calm. Things run a lot smoother. And the number of emails you get drop dramatically.
Plus when you batch things, you are already developing a workflow. By processing a lot of the same things in a short period of time, you start seeing some patterns and ways to improve things. You create new processes for every batch. And once you have a clear process that works, you can delegate it easily.
4. Time block your 9-5 & Schedule Inbox Processing
As you will see from the books recommendation below, I am a big fan of Cal Newport’s work. He has a good video on how to do time blocking. You can do this method with a simple $2 notebook. This is the time blocking method I use. And I swear it works.
Schedule inbox processing. Don’t keep your email open. Turn off beeping notifications. Establish the time when you check your email. This is how I had it in my last job:
- 11-11.30 am
- 1-1.30 pm
- 4-4.30 pm
If you implement other recommendations, inbox processing shouldn’t take too much time.
Every email you get can be sorted into these 5 piles:
- Batch task folder. Those get processed once a week or once a day (see my previous point).
- If an email takes 20+ minutes to respond, schedule it. Respond with a quick note of when it will be done (see an email template above)
- Save to “respond later” folder which you process once a week on Friday afternoons. Not all the emails should be responded to right away. If this is a low-priority email but you can’t archive without responding, respond to it on Friday. Very few things are truly urgent and important.
- Respond right away.
Don’t know where to start with your time blocking?
I recommend using a tool such as Rize.io for a few weeks to get an eye-bird view on how you spend your time now. It will relieve some activities that you can cut on in order to spend more time on the tasks that truly matter.
5. Leave your work laptop in your office.
I am a huge advocate of having a dedicated office space in your home if you are working from home. I usually prefer it to be in the basement because I don’t want to be reminded of work in the evenings and on weekends. When I am done with my work day at 5 pm, I leave my laptop in the basement. I don’t bring it with me upstairs. This acts as a physical barrier. It’s just another clue for your brain that says “You are done with work.”
These are my favourite books on the subject:
- Cal Newport’s books. I recommend all of them. These books will teach that having your email open at all times is the worst thing you can do to your productivity. They will introduce you to the benefits of deep work and what it actually takes to be a top performer in any field.
- The One Thing by Garry Keller and Jay Papasan. It will teach how to prioritize your time.
- The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. It will help you brainstorm ways to batch tasks and streamline your workflows.
Having a balanced life starts with having balanced priorities. Your family, health, friends, mental health, quality rest are equally as important as your work. Yet, we allow our work to steal away our energy and time from these activities. Having fixed working hours is the best thing you can do to establish clear boundaries between your work life and your home life.
By having a limited number of hours you can dedicate to work every day, you are forced to learn new skills of prioritization, saying ‘no’, time management, and process optimization. I’m yet to meet a person who hasn't benefited from these skills in their career.
I think it’s time we look at our overworked and overwhelmed work culture as a cultural sickness. It is not healthy. It’s not worth it. And the most ironic thing is that it’s not even productive. It’s time we work less but better. It’s time to accept the fact that not everything matters equally. Not every task will move your career forward. Not every task is important to an organization. Not every email should be answered. Not every initiative should be acted upon. And not everything as urgent as it seems. It’s time to focus on what’s truly urgent and important. And it’s only a handful of things. Find yours.
Photo by Ocean Ng
Polina Bee is the founder of Monthly Method - an agile-based productivity method that leads to intentional and balanced life.