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How to work a 4-day week without overloading on meetings

An extra day off is wonderful, but not when it means you’re stuck in back-to-back meetings the other four days. Here’s how to find time to work.

How to work a 4-day week without overloading on meetings
[Photo: Marko Klaric/Pexels]

You start with excitement at the accomplishment of getting your new schedule approved: “Yes! I negotiated a four-day workweek. This will give me the opportunity to have a bit more breathing room on my extra day off.”

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Then disillusionment sets in: Why can’t I get all of my work done? Why does it feel like all I do is attend meetings? How is it that I often end up working five days when I’m supposed to have an extra day off?

If these statements sound familiar, you may need some help adjusting five-day’s worth of meetings and tasks into four-day’s worth of time. You may feel you have so many responsibilities to cram into your shortened work week, you don’t have any time to get work done.

As a time management coach, I help my clients think about how to invest their time strategically so that they can maximize their productivity within the hours they want to work.

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Here are my top five tips for working a four-day week and having time for more than just sitting in meetings.

Step 1: Define your hours

Start by defining your goal according to your desired number of hours. If you’ve transitioned from five, 8-hour days to four, 10-hour days, the scope of your work hasn’t likely changed too much. But if your intention with working four days a week is to only spend 80% of your week on work, then you’re also looking to change your schedule, in addition to changing your workload. With a reduced weekly schedule, you should not only be changing your hours and also the quantity of your work.

To shift both, it may require you to take certain responsibilities off of your plate. Or, it could look like reducing the expectations from your superior on turnaround, so that you can work at a slower pace.

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Step 2: Block your time

If you are working according to four, 10-hour days, I recommend blocking the very beginning and end of your days, at minimum, so that no one can schedule meetings with you. For example, you could block 8-9 a.m. and 5-6 p.m. Not only does this reserve time for you to get things done, but it decreases the probability that people in your meetings will just be waking up or exhausted from working a full day.

Another strategy that can work well is to block the first half of your day when you’re at your desk as “on ramp up” time, and the then the last half of the day on your final work day as “wrap up” time. For instance, you can use Monday until 11 a.m. for on ramp time, and Thursday’s after 4 p.m. as wrap up time.

However, if you know you have a big project on your docket, you’ll likely need to block additional time. For example, you might want to block an hour or two on a Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to really get some traction without your time being punctuated by meetings.

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Whether you’re working reduced hours or simply a shortened-day schedule, these buffers can give you the opportunity to ease into your workweek and to end without feeling like you have a lot of loose ends.

Step 3: Reduce recurring meetings

Moving to a four-day workweek offers a good opportunity to step back and re-evaluate all of your recurring meetings and ask yourself the question: Does this meeting really need to be on my schedule?

In particular, think about which meetings you’re in where it feels like there’s not a lot of new information to talk about each week, you don’t gain or give much, or where there is redundancy with multiple individuals from your team present. See if you can eliminate these meetings from your schedule entirely. Or, if this is not possible, consider shortening the length of the meetings or reducing their frequency. A 60-minute, weekly meeting reduced down to a 30-minute, twice-a-week meeting can take the monthly time cost from four hours to just one. This in turn frees up more time to get your independent work done.

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Also, if you have some say in when recurring meetings are scheduled, try to group them together so you have certain segments of the day that are heavier on meetings and other parts of the day that are naturally more open to get things done.

Step 4: Reject ad hoc meetings

Some ad hoc meetings can provide tremendous value. Sometimes, a few minutes on the phone or in the hallway can help you solve more than a mountain of emails. However, some impromptu meetings are less necessary and fracture your day into broken and inefficient portions of time.

In my world, I try to get myself out of as many of these meetings as possible, since I know even the briefest of chats can add up. If someone emails me, particularly from outside my business, and wants to set up a meeting to explain something, I’ll reply by first asking for more information. Usually, I can skim through what they send through in less than a minute at a convenient time for me, instead of having to take 15 minutes to talk when I could be focusing on a complex task.

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I take a similar approach when someone asks to set up when someone would like my thoughts or impression. Recently, I had someone request to set up a 30-minute meeting with me to get my perspective on a particular topic. I replied back by saying:

“It’s good to hear from you. I don’t have a lot of thoughts to share so I’m not sure a call makes sense. 

But off the top of my head, . . .”

I then wrote a few simple sentences and accomplish what needed to be done. Use this strategy as much as possible so that you’re only attending high-impact meetings.

Step 5: Run meetings efficiently

Especially with returning back to the office, it’s nice to have some time during meetings to catch up with one another. Yes, not every minute of meetings needs to be the epitome of efficiency, but it is good to run meetings in an effective and efficient manner. That means going into meetings understanding the objective, sticking to the main points, and getting clarity on next steps by the end of the meeting. And as a bonus, it’s helpful to have someone write down the meeting notes and share them with the group so people can remember and act on what was discussed.

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When accomplished well, a four-day week can truly mean four days of work instead of four days of meetings with your work crammed into your “day off.” Using the discussed strategies can help you achieve this schedule.

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