When it comes to “solutions” for work-life balance, we’ve been told to do everything from meditating to tracking our time. For the most part, employers have put the burden on employees to figure it out for themselves. However, in recent years, companies have recognized the productivity benefits they can gain from investing in employees’ work-life balance. In addition to corporate wellness programs, some have implemented the four-day workweek.
To me, the idea of a four-day work week seemed more like a fantasy than a plausible reality, mainly because I didn’t see how on earth I’d be able to finish all my work before Friday. But when I was reflecting on how my 2017 went professionally, I realized that I didn’t allocate as much time as I’d like on long-term projects. I wanted that to change in 2018.
I realized that most of the tasks I scrambled to finish on a Friday could be done ahead of time, with a little discipline and ruthless prioritization. So I decided to try and do my own version of a four-day workweek, where I’d try to finish my routine and important/urgent tasks on a Thursday, and keep Fridays for thinking and strategy work. Here’s how it went.
Week One: Catching Up And Prioritizing
The day before I returned to the office from vacation, I made a conscious effort to spend my afternoon planning out what my week at work was going to look like. I realized that before I even started, I was already facing an obstacle–a short week. I had three days instead of four to do what I usually do across five days (not to mention catching up on things I didn’t quite get to during the last week of December.)
So the first step I did was sliced my goals in half–something I experimented with last year but have struggled to make a habit due to my tendency to overcommit. My new planner, the Full Focus Planner, made it a little easier since it was set up for me to write the three must-complete tasks of the day (rather than six, which I usually write.) However, I also made the mistake of including three extra “do if I have spare time” items, which of course, I never ended up doing.
My second obstacle was the “bomb cyclone” that hit the East Coast that week, forcing me to stay home and work. I did manage to do all my “urgent and important work” before Friday, by choosing to forego the quest of inbox zero–after all, 99% of the emails I receive are mere time-suck and of no productive value. I attempted to commit to a full day of deep work on Friday–editing a story, working on new story ideas, and strategizing how I can improve and grow our newsletters. However, I felt like my productivity level was at 50%. Some people work fine from home, but I’m just always less productive.
Week Two: Derailed By Unforeseen Sickness
I was determined to start week two with a bang, but toward the end of Monday, I started getting flu-like symptoms–which deteriorated into a full-on illness pretty quickly. I was out for two days, worked a not-so-productive day from home on Thursday, and when I was back in the office on Friday, I was–once again, playing catch-up. Surprisingly, while some of my long-term projects fell by the wayside, I did complete all my day-to-day obligations. The thing I let slide again? Achieving inbox zero.
Week Three: Another Scheduled Short Week
By week three, I was mostly recovered from the flu, but faced a challenge of another short week. Our office was closed that Monday for MLK day. I had a vacation scheduled for that Thursday and Friday to celebrate my wedding anniversary. That left me with…two days to do five days of work.
By this time, I had already figured out what my time-sucking tasks were, so I either did them first in the morning to get it out of the way–or when it came to my inbox, I got through as much as I could and made more use of the “delete” button. Because I wasn’t in the office on Friday, I didn’t have a dedicated “deep work” day that week, but I did finish all my routine tasks and met my deadlines for the stories I was filing.
Week Four: Success At Last
I realized on Sunday night that week four was my last week of experimenting. I started wondering if it was worth carrying on another week. It hadn’t been a complete failure, but I only achieved my goal of deep-work only once, and that Friday wasn’t the most productive. Then I reminded myself that what I was doing was an experiment and not a goal–it was a strategy I wanted to try using to achieve my objective of doing more deep work.
I actually ended up achieving more in the last week than I did my entire experiment–because I finally had a five-day workweek to work with. I did have extra obligations that week, so I spent the first two hours of my Friday doing routine tasks before I moved on to my meaty projects. I found myself being even more hard-fisted about what I put on my to-do list, only writing down items that were truly important, whether they were urgent or not. I also started implementing procrastination breaks again–when I found myself slipping back into old, sporadic Twitter-checking habits. I might not have had the most successful start to this experiment, but by week four, I felt like I was getting the hang of it.
I Was More Stressed, But I Developed Better Work Habits And Practices
At the end of my experiment, I felt conflicted about the four-day workweek. First, it made me more stressed. Unpredictable work came up, other tasks got pushed to the bottom of my to-do pile, but at some point, they still needed to be done. As a result, I ended up working longer hours to fit everything into my four-day deadline. Some days, that was worth doing, but other days, I just felt exhausted or annoyed that I had to cancel my evening plans.
That being said, my failures forced me to take a closer look at my work habits, and be a lot more rigorous about planning, reflecting, and readjusting my plans when last-minute work comes up. I now dedicate Sunday evenings to reflect on the progress that I made the week before, and use those insights to plan out how I’m going to tackle the upcoming workweek. Also, now I never leave work without writing my to-do list for the next day (which gives me no choice but to look at my progress, or lack of progress), for that day.
The Limitations Of A Four-Day Workweek
I have no doubts that a four-day workweek can work for some organizations. But since I work in a field that requires a degree of reactive work, it’s not always easy to plan ahead and cram five days of work in four days.
That said, I might have written a completely different article if I tried it during a time when my workload was light, and when I wasn’t hit with an unexpected illness. When our office tried summer Fridays during the slower month of July and August (we ended the workday at 2 p.m.), I didn’t feel overwhelmed. Going forward, I think I will still plan my week so that I can reserve Friday for deep work, but I’m not going to stress if I don’t finish everything by Thursday.