Productivity series: How working fewer hours can improve your productivity

Want to work fewer hours, but get more done? There’s a popular productivity theory that says that working fewer hours actually makes you more efficient. 

But is this just a theory? Or is there proof that working fewer hours really does result in greater productivity?

Where does the theory come from?

Parkinson’s Law states that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This means that if you work intensely for a shorter period of time, you actually achieve more than if you work on the same task for a number of days and allow yourself to get distracted. It was first proposed in The Economist in 1955 by historian, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, after observing the inefficiencies in large bureaucracies like the British Civil Service. 

Parkinson wasn’t the first to suggest the theory, but he popularised it in his article.

Is it true?

Evidence seems to suggest so. report that Mexico have the longest working hours (41.2 hours per week) but is the least productive country out of the 38 countries listed by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). Luxembourg on the other hand, who work 29 hours per week on average, are the most productive country.

The UK rank 15th on the list, with an average of 31.9 hours per week.

How short does your work week need to be?

Is there a science-backed number of hours that produces the best results? 

“People who work 35 hours per week are half as productive as those who only work 20,” shows some research.

‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ is a 2007 New York Times Bestseller by Tim Ferriss that describes how the author escaped the 9 to 5 lifestyle by focussing on spending 20% of his time doing the tasks that produced 80% of the results, i.e. focussing on the few things that will lead to the most progress. Ferriss also attributes his success to outsourcing all of his menial tasks and charging a premium to his clients. 

It sounds ideal, but isn’t a realistic option for everyone. 

So what’s the happy medium?

Ferriss’ overarching point is that cutting down or streamlining the unimportant tasks frees up time to spend on the more meaningful ones, a lesson we can all benefit from. 

What can you do now?

There are a few ways in which you can put Parkinson’s Law into practice and get more done whilst working less hours, without suddenly demanding a 20-hour work week from your boss.

Stop multitasking, as this dilutes your attention. Focus on doing one task really well, then move onto the next, instead of doing a mediocre job of several tasks.
Move around throughout the day to restrict your time. For instance, if you spend two hours a day working at your desk, in a coffee shop and then the library, and give yourself specific tasks to complete at each location, you can break up your time into manageable slots and stop yourself from getting bored by mixing up your surroundings.
Make a to-do list at the start of each day. Instead of saying you will do each thing ‘today,’ say you will do one thing by 10am, the next thing by 11am, and so on. Giving yourself mini deadlines prevents one task from accidentally taking over your whole day.
Be more ruthless with the time you spend reading and answering emails each day. One way to do this is to not look at your emails until you have completed your most important task of the day, as it risks you getting bogged down in smaller, less-vital problems.

A final thought

Being more productive is not necessarily about working a set amount of hours and waiting for the productivity magic to happen, but creating a culture where the work you produce is valued more than the time you spend toiling at your desk. It’s also about employers realising that work-life balance leads to happier workers, which in turn leads to improved focus, creativity and yes, efficiency.