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Stephan Aarstol is an evangelist for the five-hour day. He believes the 9-to-5 grind has created a culture of workaholics. He put his money where his mouth is, declaring a five-hour day for his paddleboard online sales company.

“The results have been astounding. Last year, we were named the fastest-growing private company in San Diego,” he writes on Thrive Global.

By opting for 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., one of the hours he eliminated was lunch hour. But he feels overall productivity was maintained because humans are not machines and these days are probably only accomplishing two to three hours of actual work anyway. As well, studies show happier employees are more productive and working fewer hours makes them happier. His third argument: The new time constraints pushes people to be pickier and develop priorities.

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Steve Glaveski experimented for two weeks with a six-hour day for his Melbourne corporate innovation consultancy. “The shorter workday forced the team to prioritize effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day. The team maintained, and in some cases increased, its quantity and quality of work, with people reporting an improved mental state, and that they had more time for rest, family, friends and other endeavours,” he reports in Harvard Business Review.

When he announced the experiment on LinkedIn, somebody retorted it was “nice in theory, but I can’t finish all of my tasks in six hours!” Mr. Glaveski insists that’s faulty thinking, assuming all tasks were created equally. The Pareto principle suggests that 20 per cent of our tasks create 80 per cent of our output’s value. So focusing better can smooth the transition. He advises cutting wasted time, for example by changing the default time for meetings from 60 minutes to 30 minutes.

Adam Grant, a prolifically productive professor and author of Give and Take, supports trimming back work hours. “It’s crazy that the school day ends two hours before the workday. But instead of making school days longer, let’s make work days shorter: They should finish at 3 p.m. We can be as productive and creative in six focused hours as in eight unfocused hours,” he wrote on LinkedIn. He argues productivity is less about time management and more about attention management, adding that “the more complex and creative jobs are, the less it makes sense to pay attention to hours at all.”

But what works for paddleboard marketers, consultants and professors may not work for all. It’s a complex world, including people who wish they could work more hours to earn more money. In a gig economy, many people find fluctuating work means at times they have more work than available hours. Managers often find their burden immense, the day wasted in meetings, and thus a need to work extra hours to tackle the non-meeting stuff. Other folks prize 12-hour shifts that allow shorter workweeks. Our hospitals and manufacturing plants usually run 24 hours a day and Pareto can’t change that.

The eight-hour day, as Mr. Glaveski notes, is a product of “19th century socialism,” when an upper limit was sought to fight the long hours in factories and mines. Any 21st century burst of equivalent socialism would run headlong into a significant crunch: Employers would want to cut back wages, to match the cut in hours, and although some people might accept that trade-off, far more would see their current lifestyle threatened and want the same remuneration even if hours were reduced.

The improved productivity in the situations I described may just be a “Hawthorne effect,” like the early 19th century studies at the Hawthorne Works in Illinois that in the end were more about the workers being paid attention to in an experiment than the actual changes to work structures. Working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily give us more time to think great thoughts; most of us will bury ourselves in other activities.

At the same time, one has to ask why the eight-hour day – or something close to it – is still standard more than 80 years after it was first legislated, in an era when computers, robots and other productivity tools are at hand. Constraints are often celebrated by management gurus because they force us to change our ways and can produce breakthroughs, so why not on work hours? Recent research found that when managers are overworked they treat employees less fairly. Maybe individually (many of us employ ourselves, after all) and collectively we need to consider cutting back on work hours and using the time in other ways.

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  • The most important question to ask when considering promoting a leader, says consultant Karin Hurt, is would you want your child working for that person?
  • Strategy is like poker, not golf, says McKinsey & Co. consultant Sven Smit: In golf, skill essentially determines the outcome but in poker (and strategy) success is uncertain and it’s vital to know the odds.
  • Whether golfer or poker player, you also want a touch of the plumber. Consultant Terry St. Marie says leaders deal with high pressure all the time and like plumbers need to be familiar with safety valves and cleaning drains.

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