Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Freeing up Time: Beginning with a Different End in Mind

by Andre · 5 Comments

Dali ClockAny labor-saving technology offers two potentials, depending on the mindset of the user:

  • Reducing the amount of time needed to achieve a desired output
  • Increasing the amount of output within the previously required length of time

Since the average employed American works a 46-hour workweek, with 38 percent claiming to work more than 50 hours per week — despite enormous advances in technology — it’s pretty obvious that reducing the amount of time we spend at work isn’t the socially approved option.

We could dismiss fixed or increasing workweeks as a business conspiracy, with employees producing more for the same pay. But the bias toward more output isn’t limited to employers. The average workweek for entrepreneurs — those without bosses — is 70 hours. Even outside of the workplace, the same impulse prevails. Here’s a passage from Digital History on the evolution of housework:

Yet despite the introduction of electricity, running water, and “labor-saving” household appliances, time spent on housework did not decline. Indeed, the typical full-time housewife today spends just as much time on housework as her grandmother or great-grandmother. In 1924, a typical housewife spent about 52 hours a week in housework. Half a century later, the average full-time housewife devoted 55 hours to housework.

What happened?

As washing machines and dishwashers were introduced, the socially accepted standards for cleanliness were raised. Instead of spending less time on a load of laundry, housewives simply ran more loads of laundry to fill the void. The same pattern can be seen with any enabling technology. The average American walks almost the same number of miles in his lifetime as he did a century ago, despite the proliferation of cars. Urban sprawl metastasized in response to faster transport.

Notice that for increased output to be warranted, it has to be wanted. The more-is-better mindset actually increases the desire for the increased output, creating a mutually reinforcing escalation in production and consumption.

Valuing discretionary time like discretionary income

Most of us have specific income goals, either a target number or a general increase. The same aspiration can and should apply to time.

In a special for Danish television (embedded in this post), Tim Ferriss consulted with a pair of entrepreneurs and an employee to reduce their workweek. Most of the advice he gave were the usual hacks — batch email, shorten meetings, conduct an 80/20 time audit — but one of the most noteworthy points was a simple question he asked them: “So, how many hours, ideally, would you like to work each week?” It’s a question that most employees wouldn’t consider asking, either out of social taboo or a singular focus on income.

When discretionary time isn’t valued (or culturally devalued), employees compete on other playing fields, putting in more hours to impress employers (conspicuous production) or pursuing promotions that ultimately result in more hours at the office and a drop in income-per-hour. No employee feels safe arriving last or leaving first.

Diminishing returns vs. diminishing hours

Forbes, Lifehacker, and Signals vs. Noise have all recently discussed the most popular alternative to the standard five-day workweek of eight-hour days: the four-day workweek of 10-hour days. Signals vs. Noise took issue with Forbes’ critique of the four-and-ten workweek, insisting that Forbes “misses the point” of a real four-day workweek.

The point of the 4-day work week is about doing less work. It’s not about 4 10-hour days for the magical 40-hour work week. It’s about 4 normalish 8-hour days for the new and improved 32-hour work week. The numbers are just used to illustrate a point. Results, not hours, are what matter, but working longer hours doesn’t translate to better results. The law of diminishing returns kicks in quick when you’re overworked.

Which leads to one of the more progressive alternatives on the horizon: the results-only work environment (ROWE). Under ROWE, employees are free to work anywhere, not excluding the office, as long as they hit their assigned performance goals. Since results are the only standard of performance, the number of hours required to achieve them is entirely up to the employee. At Best Buy and Netflix, the first case studies of ROWE in action, employees typically find that 32 hours is the sweet spot for getting their assigned tasks done.

It’s possible that a standard like ROWE could come to replace the eight-hour workday fought for and won by trade unions, but the desire to spend less time for the same output has to come first. There’s no hack to bring about a different mindset, only continuous self-examination.

In the meantime, consider this: the next time you come across a great tool or tip to save time, ask yourself, “What will I do with the time I save?”

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Tags: Lifestyle Design · Productivity


  • VeredNo Gravatar // Aug 27, 2008 at 8:43 pm

    “the next time you come across a great tool or tip to save time, ask yourself, “What will I do with the time I save?”

    That’s brilliant and a very important question to ask.

    You would think that we would be less busy thanks to modern technology, but apparently, we are not.

  • SammyNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    This reminds me of “Why Things Bite Back” (see Amazon link below).

    The author contends that technology tends to solve problems by changing it from being severe and located into chronic and distributed.

    For example, before (American) football helmets, more athletes died from breaking their necks. Since they have been required, there have been almost no fatalities anually, but chronic back pain has become nearly universal among professional players.

    Before, most players were not as eager to ram their heads directly into others.

    Ironically, I had to rewrite this post because I did not enter an email address. I suppose the email requirement is there to ameliorate the problem with spam–which soaks up some of the advantage of email and blog responses…

  • Dan StrattonNo Gravatar // Aug 28, 2008 at 9:15 pm

    Interesting concept. I had a situation kind of like this when I finished my degree. I was working full time and attending school at night. When I graduated, I made a point of finding things to fill the time with rather than revert to TV. I started piano lessons!

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Aug 29, 2008 at 4:43 am

    @Vered: Thanks.
    @Sammy: Sorry. The comment fields in WordPress don’t appear to be optional from the admin page, short of hacking the theme to edit out the email blank.
    @Dan: It’s definitely smart to plan alternative activities deliberately. TV does have a tendency to create more time famine than entertainment.

  • J-MoNo Gravatar // Sep 3, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    ROWE would be a great, great thing. Only snag would be that payscales/salaries–that whole concept–would have to be reinvented.

    Like many others, I work a 40-hour work week, because I can’t afford (monetarily) NOT to.

    But yes. I’d definitely apply for work in such a workplace! That would rock!