The Unexpected Freedom of an Eight-Hour Workday

Is a flexible work schedule really better? Here’s how one remote worker discovered the productivity, peace-of-mind, and surprising freedom that comes with the traditional 40-hour work week…

When I first started freelancing, I jumped to embrace the freedom of working whenever I wanted and having total flexibility. I couldn’t wait to throw the old eight-hour workday on the trash heap and embrace #remotelife.

I wasn’t looking for the Instagram fantasy of working in a hammock on the beach, but I had always entertained fond ideas of a life filled with hardworking sojourns to coffee shops punctuated with stretches of doing whatever I darn well pleased.

Walk the dog? Whenever I want. Go for a run? Whenever I want. Shower? Whenever I want. Since I had 24 hours during which to work, I would hardly feel like I was working at all if I worked in short 2 to 3-hour stretches whenever I was really feeling it, right?

Fast forward nine months, and I’ve gone right back to an eight-hour workday. Here’s how I paradoxically discovered the freedom, productivity, and peace-of-mind that comes with a 40-hour work week:

Phase 1: Rebellion against the 40-hour workweek

A-line 1913

The 40-hour work week is the standard for full-time work, but it wasn’t always that way. The history behind this arbitrary schedule is a fascinating tale of labor struggles, the assembly line, Henry Ford, and capitalist pragmatism.

Labor representatives were able to get some poorly enforced 8-hour workday laws on the books as early as the late 1800s. Then in 1926, Ford voluntarily implemented it in all of his automobile factories. Forty hours slowly became the accepted norm and then the law in 1940 through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fair Labor Standards Act.

Ford’s unexpectedly progressive policy was far from selfless. His idea was to limit the number of hours worked — at the time, 48 hours per week was the norm — but require the same level of output per employee. This would increase productivity while at the same time encouraging employees to spend their wages in the local economy during off-hours.

Flexible schedules are often seen as an employee benefit (and they are!), but they can be an employer benefit as well.

In short: the 40-hour work week put the focus on output rather than hours. If we keep following this idea to its logical conclusion, there’s no reason at all we need to be working 40 hours or 48 hours or any set number of hours at all.

Flexible schedules are often seen as an employee benefit (and they are!), but they can be an employer benefit as well. Workplaces offering employees the ability to shape their own work schedules see increases in productivity and declines in stress and absenteeism.

That evidence is leading to the 40-hour work week falling by the wayside even in industries where detractors say flexible work schedules would ruin productivity.

Companies like Haworth, a furniture manufacturer located in Holland, Michigan, are recognizing flexible scheduling as an asset. These so-called “blue collar” employers are experimenting with flexible shifts and managing tasks rather than hours because they too, recognize the benefits of schedule flexibility.

Industries of all kinds are recognizing that moving away from the 40-hour work week sets up far more opportunity for different schedule structures that can fit the ways we each work best. After all, isn’t it better to work when you’re feeling motivated and have the energy rather than forcing yourself to stick to an arbitrary schedule?

Going into my own flexible work life, I had absorbed all of that. I knew the ills of the arbitrary 40-hour work week, and I was ready to do away with all structure in my day when I took the plunge into remote freelancing.

The future of work, I thought, was working whenever I darn well pleased.

Phase 2: Grudging acceptance that structure does have benefits

Here's what working whenever I darn well pleased looked like for me:

I was working all the time

Every hour of the day became potential work time. I stopped using RescueTime because it frightened me how many hours a week I was working with high percentages of “productivity” — and somehow I still felt like I wasn’t making progress on the important things.

I had no boundaries between work and non-work

I fired off emails and checked Slack notifications from bed. I organized my Todoist tasks and Trello boards from the dog park. I developed a Pavlovian response to red bubble notifications as bad as my reaction to the blinking red notification light on my BlackBerry back in the day (RIP).

Because I always had something I could be doing, I felt like I should be doing it

I never relaxed the same way I could when leaving a shift at the restaurant where I worked in college, that sense of being completely and utterly done and without responsibilities until the next day.

I also faced a challenge particular to the remote worker: Not only did my job follow me home; my job was in my home. And in my phone. And in my computer, and everything else I used regularly for non-work activities. Creating a barrier was next to impossible.

When given the chance to choose flexible schedules, many employees push themselves too hard. Employees at Denver-based software company Never Settle LLC worked 52 hours a week on average when given the chance to choose their own schedules without the benefit of a firm structure or example in place.

Even in flexible work environments, too many people still use hours as a measure of output and measurement for advancement, an idea that has become ingrained in the American working experience.

The 52 hours a week number resonates for me because I ended up averaging about that many hours myself. I yearned for the structure of knowing when my day was supposed to be over.

Surprise, surprise! Turns out that a “flexible” work schedule for me meant going back to the 40-hour workweek.

work schedule

Phase 3: Creating structure that works

The dark side of the flexible schedule is that we often pay for it with 9 p.m. email checks and phone calls while waiting for our kids at baseball practice. The same technology and mindset that lets us stay flexible can also compel us to flex right back into work at any time.

Some professional services companies are moving toward the “firm 40,” or the idea that 40 hours of your week belong to your employer, full stop, no distractions. The rest of your time? That’s all yours, and aggressively so. Companies like United Shore Financial Services LLC require employees to unplug completely when they leave the office.

The result is an environment completely free of distractions while at work — no Facebook or too much idle chit chat — because employees know they only have 40 hours to complete their work for the week.

This idea translates well to structuring your individual workday.

If you know you have a finite number of hours to complete your work, you’re more likely to focus until reaching quittin’ time. When I allowed myself to look at a “workday” as any time between waking up and going to sleep, I could always put things off until “later,” because there was always a “later.”

Day Structure

So I went back to an eight-hour workday to provide myself:

  • Structure
  • Predictability
  • Permission to be “done” with the day and say “I’m doing that tomorrow”
  • Boundaries

How to structure an 8-hour day

Here's what my eight-hour workday looks like and some approaches you can steal for creating your own structure (if you’re like me and you need it!):

Create a set schedule, with a bit of flexibility built in

I work four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon, no matter what.

If I choose to take a longer or shorter lunch break, then I can start or “leave work” earlier or later. If I choose to take a walk in the afternoon, then I make it up on either end.

The rigid adherence to a total number of hours worked helps me to not overwork, and the slight flexibility built in helps me not have to use up too much willpower to stick to it. Being a little bit forgiving with yourself can make a huge difference in mindset.

Of course, there are days when I have to work more than eight hours. If I’m taking a Friday off for a long weekend or trying to get ahead because of travel, I’ll work more than eight hours.

The idea is to create a structured schedule where working too much or not producing enough are the exceptions, not the norm.

Use a task list where you can prioritize and physically move tasks

I keep a running to-do list in Todoist, with prioritized items that must be done that day in red, and other items of varying importance in orange or yellow. No red items are allowed to move to the next day, so I focus first on those and try to achieve a level of deep focus, working on one task at a time.

If I don’t get to the orange or yellow items within eight hours, I move those items to the next day, where some will become red, and so on. The act of physically moving those tasks to the next day’s list and seeing a clear to-do list at the end of eight hours goes a long way in helping me feel finished with work for the day.

Todoist Zero

There’s a lot of research out there about whether to-do lists are the best or worst things ever, and all of us will approach our to-do lists differently.

I’ve experimented with paper lists, digital lists, both, different strikethrough methods, no to-do list (that was short-lived!) and more. Take the time to experiment to figure out what works best for you -- trying to be productive is no fun when you’re fighting your own system.

Use timers and turn off notifications to achieve deeper focus

I use a Pomodoro timer set to 50 minutes, which is about as long as I can sustain deep focus without my brain wandering off. Then I give myself the 10 minutes to the hour to do whatever I want — checking social media, watching videos, texting, tossing the ball to the dog, etc. — as long as I get up and walk away from my desk while I’m doing it.

Science shows those breaks can boost your energy, reset your focus, and make it possible to get through the next stretch producing great work.

I also removed the most egregious of notification-spewing apps from my phone. This means I’m less tempted to check them on the go. Since my apps are pretty well-segregated between personal life and work, I’m able to do this with minimal disruption. I must be “in the office” to be available on work-related apps.

Of course, this won’t work for everyone, especially if you spend most of your day outside an office or you use programs for work and personal projects. But even turning off notifications that jump out at you can help you feel less urgency to check that Todoist message when you’re supposed to be on a break.

Yes, keeping “office hours” has resulted in less flexibility. I can’t contribute to a Slack discussion while in the waiting room at the doctor’s office anymore. But I also don’t have to contribute to a Slack discussion while in the waiting room at the doctor’s office anymore.

How Remote Workers Can Create Structure that Works

Certainly, many freelancers thrive as remote workers with no set schedules and can fully embrace the flexibility of working remote.

If you’re like me and you’re not that person, making the choice to create structure should feel just as freeing as making the choice to have no structure to your days. You’re still in an unconventional work arrangement (though freelancing is getting more conventional all the time), and you have the power to decide for yourself.

The point is that people should be free to choose their best schedules to produce their best work, even if that chosen schedule looks a lot like the arbitrary 40-hour work week.

For freelancers and remote workers, it's important to remember to:

  • Experiment, and often. What works for you today may not work in six months or a year when your circumstances change. Structure isn’t about embracing rigidity, so continually try different schedules to figure out how you work best.
  • Be okay with not carrying the standard for “the perfect freelance life.” I won’t lie -- when I switched back to the dreaded 40, I felt like I was betraying all the workers ahead of me who blazed the trail leading to flexible work schedules and remote work. I felt like I should either be on a beach in the middle of the day or working at night, or some other schedule showing huge contrast with a “normal” workday. But that’s why you’re looking for flexibility: to create the schedule that works for you. It doesn’t have to look like everyone’s (totally false) vision of what flexible work looks like.
  • Recognize what helps you, even if it’s a leftover. When I left a traditional office arrangement, I wanted to throw everything about that life out the window. Try to be more measured, and consider what elements of your previously inflexible arrangement actually helped. Things like structured schedules, weekly meetings and the social element of “the watercooler,” might have real value for you. You can find ways to bring those things forward to your more flexible arrangement.

How Remote Teams Can Create Structure that Works

Remote or fully distributed teams have an extra layer of difficulty. Trying to help teams all work toward common goals while accommodating everyone’s preferred workstyles and schedules can be a logistical nightmare, especially for international teams.

Some companies choose not to make that a hurdle at all and embrace asynchronous collaboration, or the idea that people in different time zones working at different hours can still be a productive team with the right tools.

Companies like Zapier, Crew, Buffer, and Doist itself work asynchronously and have no set schedules at all, with people working on their tasks when they prefer. As long as everyone is productive and a good culture fit for the team, there’s no requirements on length of workday.

Other teams like the folks at Trello and InVision have times when the team is encouraged to be “online” and overlap for more synchronous collaboration. Trello prefers its remote workers to overlap with their New York office and work between noon and 4 p.m. Eastern Time, and InVision encourages its team members to log into internal channels between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Eastern Time.

different work times

Even if your team has no set schedule, it’s usually a good idea to provide some structure, and to support team members who do choose to create schedules.

Structure in an hours-agnostic team will come from your project management system, how you set team goals and how you calculate team productivity.

Phase 4: Profit!

I can’t promise that creating some structure in your day will lead to riches (there’s a few more elements to that formula, after all). But if you’re someone who benefits from structure, trying something like an eight-hour workday (or seven, or six, or nine) will lead to a productivity and emotional windfall.

I went back to a 40-hour workweek, but I still believe measuring output by hours worked makes no sense in this day and age. Forty is just a number I settled on through experimentation. I understand there’s nothing in science that makes 40 hours better or worse than any other number. Even Henry Ford, the originator of the 40-hour workweek, did it to increase his own company’s productivity and provide employees more time off so they could go out and spend their wages.

But Ford might have been on to something, even if his motives were suspect. It turns out eight hours is an adequate amount of time for me to get enough work done to keep my business running while also allowing me plenty of time for re-energizing non-work activities.

The future might be to reduce those hours to 35, 32 or even 30 hours a week while still getting everything done. The official workweek in France is 35 hours per week, and the French are second in the world in productivity behind the Germans. In Sweden, the workday is trending toward just six hours.

In the end, the defense of the eight-hours-and-no-more workday is the same rallying cry as for flexible scheduling: we should all have as much freedom as possible to plan our days for success. As I discovered the hard way, that freedom isn’t always what you’d expect it to be.

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