I've always wondered this: when people say they work 40 hours a week, do they really put in 40 hours of work?
A long time ago, when I used to work at a souvenir store on Robson Street in Vancouver's downtown, my bosses made sure I did my $6.25/hr worth of a job. So, yes, back then when I clocked in 35 hours a week, I did work solid 35 hours.
Then I got into office jobs where people were allowed to stop their typing hands, and chat with their colleagues whenever they felt like. Everyone, myself and managers included, checked their personal email messages on the work computer, surfed the net, and did other non-work related activities while they were on the clock.
This office work ethics (or lack thereof) served me well since it was impossible for me to stay productive more than five hours on any given day. For the rest of the day, I would look at various news and shopping websites, make frequent trips to the washroom, spend six bucks on an unsweeten soy green tea latte and get a bag of chips to kill time until I could leave the office at 4:45 p.m.
So, I've always worked 25 hours a week since I started my career, and continue to do so while working from home. I've rarely asked for a task deadline extension before, and I'm still good at sticking to a schedule and getting things done on time.
Maybe a 25-hour work week isn't realistic for you. But maybe you're looking for a way to reduce your time spent working. Anyway, here is how I do it.
Don't bite off more than you can chew
If you can't stay focused on work more than five hours a day, then don't take in jobs that will take longer than that to complete. It's simple as that.
I was always careful not to take on more tasks than can be completed during my 25-hour work week. I would solicit the help of my colleagues if more work needed to be done.
I put in about the same amount of hours as a small business owner working from home, except now I don't have to pretend to be working when I'm not. I do work more than 25 hours a week occasionally but not on a regular basis.
The point here is not about hacking your day so you can cram ten hours worth of work into five hours; it's about knowing your productivity limit and making the most of it. I could work more than my limit, but I won't be producing anything good so why bother?
Have a routine but be flexible
Here is my routine. I get up around 9:00 a.m., take a shower, eat breakfast and start working around 10:00 a.m. I take a quick break around 1:30 p.m. and generally finish working around 3:30. Having a routine helps to keep me in check.
But I'm super flexible. I don't keep a clear boundary between work hour and fun time, so, sometimes I go out for a long lunch with friends or go out hiking during the day and work at night instead. Sometimes I stay up late to write blog posts since I'm the most creative late at night. Then I get up a little later than usual the next day to catch up on sleep.
The key is to be in tune with my mood and work on tasks best suited to that particular mood. Not surprisingly, I am most productive when I enjoy working and end up spending less energy and time on tasks.
I've written a whole blog post on this topic so I will skip the details here.
Obviously, the more efficient you are, the more work you get done. If you were serious about working fewer hours, invest the time to come up with a strategy to do so. The key is to avoid using band-aid solutions for recurring tasks.
Combine personal and work tasks
I've never been a follower of the strict life-work balance, and now that I work from home, the boundary is ever so blurry. These days, I make a conscious effort to combine personal and business tasks to save time and effort.
For example, when I do bookkeeping for my husband's business, I check my husband's and my personal banking data as well. I reply to business and personal email messages back to back. By combining similar tasks, you will increase your efficiency and complete them in less time than doing them separately.
Use an accessible to-do list
I have a really simple to-do list system which is just a bunch of lists saved in Simplenote and a Google calendar. It tracks both personal and business related tasks.
My to-do lists are accessible on my phone, and so I can check it anywhere, anytime. If there were a long lineup at the grocery checkout, I can check the lists and complete a few tasks while I wait. Spend ten minutes each day completing a task in a similar manner, and you just completed almost an hour worth of work after a week.
So that's how I stick to the 25-hour work week. I understand that you might need to work more, but I believe that there is always a way to improve our current habit or the system to get more out of our time and effort.
But perhaps your biggest challenge would be to denounce the cult of busyness. Your work should be measured by the outcome and not how many hours you'd put in; being busy doesn't always correlate with being productive or being a good person.