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What I learned from taking Fridays off

It seemed wildly hedonistic to consider at first, but there are serious productivity (and quality of life) lessons to be learned from a four-day workweek.

What I learned from taking Fridays off
[Photo: DisobeyArt/iStock]
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A year into the pandemic, the lines between “work” and “not work” are blurrier than ever, especially for professionals operating virtually. During the first few months of the pandemic, when it seemed plausible that the entire economy would collapse forever, I threw myself into work projects, trying to vacuum up all possible revenue because I feared the chance would never come around again.

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I wasn’t alone: Studies have shown that, contrary to most expectations, productivity actually increased during the COVID-19 crisis last year. Those of us lucky enough to be working have hustled to grow revenue, land more clients, and simultaneously build our brands. But after so many months of sprinting, many of us wonder: Somehow, might it be possible to work just a little less hard? And what do we actually want our work lives to look like, anyway?

That’s why, last September, I decided to commit to a goal I’d long talked about but had never operationalized: taking Fridays off. It seemed wildly hedonistic to consider, and impractical as I thought about my typical Friday routine, filled with client calls, meetings, and triaging my inbox. But for six months, I’ve managed to keep my resolution, and I intend to make it an ongoing feature of how I do business moving forward.

To be sure, as an entrepreneur, I have more control over my schedule than most professionals who report to a boss. But even inside the corporate world, there’s a new movement to question the standard workweek; major companies such as Unilever and Microsoft have run four-day workweek experiments, and the government of Spain is considering a proposal to incentivize the practice.

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Even if your company isn’t prepared to embrace an extra day off just yet, you can still apply these strategies to argue for the benefits of “summer Fridays” or, as one client of mine adopted, “meeting-free Fridays” that allow for deeper and more productive work, even if it’s not a full day off.

Here are four things I learned in the course of carving out—and, even harder, maintaining—a “Fridays off” policy. It’s my hope that you can apply them to claim more personal time in your own schedule, or at least lay the groundwork for a better and less frenzied way of working.

Set your start date well in advance

As I learned when I took an entire month off in 2011, the idea of taking a break often feels impossible because we look at our overstuffed calendars, conclude that we can’t move or cancel the activities, and promptly give up. The key is to start planning at the “horizon line” where nothing is scheduled. In my case, when I took a month off, I made the plan a full year in advance and warned clients, “I’ll be away next November.” With that much notice, no one objected.

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Taking one day off a week didn’t require that much lead time, but I had Friday activities planned about six weeks into the future, so I identified the first completely open date—in my case, Friday, September 11—and declared that as my start date, after which I would not book any work engagements on Fridays.

Build in “admin time” on Thursdays

One early mistake I made was cramming in too many meetings on Thursdays, before my day off. With a back-to-back schedule, I didn’t have time to attend to my email, and I’d head into my three-day weekend with a guilty conscience, worried about what lurked in my inbox and the people awaiting responses from me.

I’ve now learned to schedule more meetings earlier in the week, so that I can spend a good chunk of Thursday cleaning out messages and handling any paperwork or obligations that demand a response or might cause me stress over the weekend. That small scheduling change has made an enormous difference in my ability to enjoy the weekend.

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Identify how you want to spend the time

Even if we fantasize about more time off, the truth is, many professionals don’t fully know how to relax when we’re given the opportunity. To avoid “slippage”—responding to email, for instance, even when we’ve declared a day off—it’s important to identify other compelling activities that we’re excited to do. (If you haven’t made a plan and are aimlessly scrolling through social media, work may actually feel like the best option.)

I identified Friday as my self-care day, and I try whenever possible to schedule doctor appointments, physical therapy sessions, and haircuts on that day. I’ll sometimes book lunch with friends or work on creative projects such as writing musicals. I even started a new hobby, taking a ping-pong lesson every Friday afternoon.

Know when to stand firm and when to be flexible

Almost immediately after declaring my “Fridays off” policy, the universe decided to test me. A client wanted to talk on Friday, and a new prospect also suggested that day for a call. It would have been easy to bend—and I would have, had either been an emergency—but instead, I gently pushed back and suggested an alternative. “I’m glad to talk on Friday if it’s important,” I said, “but Thursday or Monday would work much better, if possible. Please let me know?” It wasn’t a problem to shift the date.

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On the other hand, I have broken my “Fridays off” vow a handful of times if the logistics truly demand it. For instance, on one occasion, a client in India wanted a three-day online communication training for their staff, and finding three consecutive days when we were both free, and which worked with the radically different time zones, was challenging. When one of the potential dates fell on a Friday, I booked it without hesitation. I was well compensated for the training, and the hassle of finding another date would have been enormous. If the payoff is worth it, I’ve learned to be flexible, but I’ll fight back against almost all other incursions.

Since announcing my “Fridays off” policy, multiple friends and colleagues have told me they’ve been inspired too. One is also beginning to take Fridays off; another is starting small with one day off per month. The research is clear that these small breaks enable us to be less stressed and more productive, not to mention, they make life far more enjoyable. But as I describe in my book Entrepreneurial You, too many of us, shackled to a “hustle hard” ethos of success, fail to reap the rewards of our hard work and instead keep pressing on relentlessly.

If you’ve been pushing hard—perhaps too hard—and feel ready to make a positive change, Fridays off may be worth considering for you, too.

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Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. She is the author of Entrepreneurial YouReinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out self-assessment.