How to switch to a 4-day work week

By now you’ve probably seen dozens of news articles and podcasts about workplaces switching to 4-day work weeks. Last year, we at RescueTime made the switch officially ourselves. I’ll go into detail about the results we saw for ourselves in a bit, but suffice to say they were good. More importantly, most of us didn’t really notice the difference productivity-wise. And we should know, we’ve spent over a decade measuring it.

When the idea of switching to 4 days was proposed at RescueTime, I had little doubt about it, myself. The honest truth is I haven’t worked many 40 hour weeks in my career. Sure, I may have been in the office that long, or in front of my computer for longer, but ever since I started using RescueTime in 2008, after analyzing my own data, I realized that I worked best when I was done working when I hit between 3 and 4 hours of focus work per day.

One reason for this is that for me, I knew that it was counterproductive to work more than 4-5 hours on focus work per day for any period of time. I could see it in my data - focusing longer than that put me into substantial focus debt (meaning it was rare that I would reach 3 hours of focus work) in the weeks to come. The payback period was longer than the extra time I gained, so it was never really worth it.

When I left RescueTime sometime in 2011 I knew how to optimize my work habits and was spoiled by a work environment that let me work the way I was most productive, so it was jarring to commute to workplaces that expected that I was actually working for 40, 50, or 60 hours per week. From my experience and understanding the data we’ve collected at RescueTime, I knew that was unrealistic to expect, but I usually found myself conforming to the expectations of the company I was in. At least in terms of what it looked like.

I’ve been doing this for a while

I’ll admit it - the entire period between 2011 and 2019 before I came back to RescueTime I continued to work the way that was best for me: 3-4 hours of focused work per day. And when I hit that goal, I stopped working. It was easier to pull off when I worked at remote-friendly companies, or when I had something like a private workspace. But even in the world of open office workspaces, I still did it; I just found ways of doing other things with the extra time I was supposed to be around. At one workplace I started the practice of “Meta Friday” - where I mostly just talked to people about non-work related things. Sometimes I had the confidence to not worry about appearances and sometimes I didn’t. But for the most part I was consistently good at performing at my job and it was never a problem.

Practically for me, getting to 3-4 hours of focused work a day can take me something approaching 32 hours per week (and sometimes it’s honestly less). Partly because of meetings, partly because of communication like Slack and email, partly because of needing to manage other aspects of my life, and partly because I need to go for walks to clear my head multiple times per day. So when RescueTime decided to be a trailblazer and officially switch to a 4-day (32 hour) work week, I knew it wasn’t going to be a problem for me. I’d already been doing it for my entire career.

And I’m not alone! Our data shows this is actually quite common for knowledge workers. And in fact, the average case is actually 3 hours or less of focused time per day in (presumably) 5-day (40+ hour) week workplaces. Especially when it comes to larger companies, 3 hours per day of focused work on average is the best you can expect from a worker, and that’s been the case since well before the pandemic, reaching (at least as far as we can tell using our data) all the way back to the late 2000s across work roles and industries.

It’s not any scarier than remote work

RescueTime has been a remote-friendly, often fully-remote workplace since we started. Until last year, most companies were nervous of the idea of fully-remote teams, despite the reasons and data that showed it was often a better option. One thing that was missing was a critical mass of empathy for the idea of remote work. Like most things that people don’t have personal experience with, managers mostly took a fear-based reaction to the idea, worrying that there was no way to know if their workers were taking advantage. Something about the optics of physical presence made people feel safer.

During the pandemic, when suddenly every knowledge worker was working from home, people suddenly acquired a personal sense for what it felt like and how remote work operated. They were able to see the tradeoffs and benefits for themselves. Since there was no real choice but to trust their workers, the anxiety of remote work went away and the majority opinion shifted. It’s pretty safe to say that most companies have some kind of remote-friendly policy now, and most have realized the benefits and are doubling down.

If I made it work, maybe everyone can

I realize there’s privilege in my position as a company founder to be able to out myself as someone who doesn’t typically work 40 hours a week. And some might say maybe I would be more successful if I worked more hours. I can tell you that I’ve worked alongside people who have “worked” many more hours than me and are in no better position. And I’ve worked with people who have been able to make much better use of less time. Achieving your goals (whatever they happen to be) is rarely a race that can be won in the long term by grinding yourself to burnout. The most creative solutions to problems come from a well-balanced, well-rested mind. Balance and efficiency are more important than hours. But until now people haven’t really been having serious conversations in public about these topics.

So I’m asking you to try an experiment. If you’re someone who spends their day working from a computer, set yourself a goal of 3-4 hours of focused work per day (or 2 if you’re a manager who spends a lot of time in meetings). When you reach that goal, stop working and look at what time of the day it is. Think about what it would be like if you were able to spend the rest of the day on things that were important to you and your family. And if you feel safe about it, try disconnecting to do those things. 4 days of 3-4 hour focused work weeks is more than the average focused work most people get done in 5 days, so you can feel guilt-free about taking more time to yourself. If you’re not sure how to measure it, the good news is we’ve spent the last 14 years building software to do it for you. And in fact, when you sign up we even personalize your Focus Work goal so that even if you configured a 32-hour a week schedule, you’d still outperform most of the knowledge workers on the planet.

The wave is happening, why wait?

Just like remote work, the less-than 40 hour work week movement is happening. People are already doing it, whether they acknowledge it or not. Why not take control of the movement for yourself? If you’re honest about meeting your focused work goals, there’s no reason why you won’t be able to do your job at least as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were able to do it better.

Our Results

Oh and since I promised them above, here is what happened when RescueTime switched to a 32 hour work week:

  • We launched our biggest product overhaul in a decade.
  • We’ve met our quarterly roadmap goals.
  • We’ve become much more organized about project management and bug triage.
  • We implemented no-meeting Wednesdays.

Overall it’s been a success and we haven’t even considered switching back.