The 8 hour work day is bad for everyone — this is our chance to change it.
The time to stop pretending we’re robots with an 8-hour long ability to focus is here.
For as long as I remember I have been afflicted with a curse that I’m sure many of you also struggle with: I am a nightowl.
Being a nightowl has been very uncomfortable in a society where most of the jobs I have wanted to do, and most of my social events have revolved around a 9–6 working pattern.
But the truth is, this weird 8 hour block working day really prevents all of us from doing our best work — no matter where we sit on the lark to nightowl spectrum.
Here’s a quick look at the science.
Below is a chart showing our energy levels throughout the day. You can also replace energy levels with ‘focus’ or ‘good mood’ as they look the same.
This study has been replicated a lot but I can answer it too from my own experience as a human. Its pretty clear that there’s a huge and predictable oscillation in all of our energies and moods every day.
We know this, and yet basically none of our lives in the knowledge work industry are planned to take advantage of it in any way — we simply force one ourselves to plough through a random mix of tasks and meetings all as one straight up block, pretending that we don’t feel as much of a difference in energy in ourselves as the evidence all shows.
The dream (work) day.
So what does this oscillation of energy throughout a day mean for how we would create the ideal work day.
Most people (non-nightowls) wake up and gradually our vibe climbs up to our most vigilant (ability to avoid distractions) and analytically able selves. We’re also pretty happy here. A great time for deep work requiring lots of thought, and good meetings.
Damn, this one hits me hard…. somewhere around 1–2 we have an energy and mood crash and this leaves us at our most open to distractions, unable to fully be creative and more likely to be grouchy too. This is a perfect time for activities not requiring too much of you at all — like chores, light exercise, laid back hobbies, routine admin, or casual socialising.
After a while the trough needs to end, and what replaces it is a rebound (also known as recovery) — here our mood and energy become high again, but interestingly not our vigilance. This makes it a perfect time for things which require creative thought and connecting with people, rather than the analytic attention to detail present in peak, as high energy but low vigilance is the ideal mindset for following new useful trains of thought.
So really, the optimal workday for most people is looking like getting started in the morning still (time up to you) and cracking on straight away with the work you need to pay the most attention to, then chilling for a few hour after lunch for maybe some life admin or socialising, before getting back into work around 4 or 5pm and building relationships or using your creativity, until wrapping up around 8–9ish for the rest of the evening.
Worth noting too that this chart is for the average person waking around 7 — you could adjust an hour or so either side for yourself and the exact lengths of the periods do differ slightly in everyone give or take an hour. If you’re a true night owl Peak and Rebound/Recovery start a little later and are the other way round.
The world has changed, now’s our chance.
I can completely see why that when a majority us have been travelling to workplaces, often commuting further and further from home, and fitting in life around kids at school too and the scheduled evening activities which have followed suit, we haven’t been able to take a few hours of the afternoon away from work, and return back to it a bit later as the evidence suggests is best.
However — life looks pretty different now than it has done for the last years. We are suddenly all required to work from home, externally organised activities are off and parents no longer have to do the school run either.
No longer having to fit these things around our workdays suddenly does present us with a huge opportunity to structure things much more in line with our own personal daily rhythms, as above.
Imagine how much better your day could be if you had lunch and then spent some time with one of the few social contacts you were allowed, went on a walk in the sunlight, or got your chores out of the way instead of feeling unenergised in front of a laptop, and then how satisfying it would be to slip into the glorious flow a bit later and truly get your most insightful work done.
Had some really interesting thoughts and feedback on the ideas here, and this has been the most common question:
I get a lot out of knowing that my colleagues and I working on something together- it motivates me to feel I’m not doing it alone. How do you think that would be if we all worked schedules that suited ourselves?
It’s a very valid point! I didn’t go into much depth and I totally agree, that feeling of synchronisation is also an important part of work and being part of a team, and no future of work ambition of mine has us all siloed away working completely alone and disjointed.
So I think there’s two initial ways that you can use the evidence around daily cycles to make organisational tweaks:
a) Think less around start and finish times, and more around when certain tasks and activities are done. For the majority of people having meetings requiring any creative response should be held after 4pm, and mornings should be used for the very concentrated work, or meetings require careful attention to detail.
b) Even though people (on average — extreme night owls and larks will likely require some compromise) might feel in gear at slightly staggered hours, there’s really key data to say no-one pretty much is doing their best work in the early afternoon. So sacking that off, say 1–3 or 4 for all would be an interesting place to start. Likewise, whether someone in the team starts at half 8 and the other at half 10 you still end up with many overlapping hours and time together, and perhaps there is a chance to be creative with leaving notes from the person finishing later for the person starting earlier to feel welcomed to the day.
It won’t work for everyone, because nothing ever does. And it needs at least full organisational buy-in to help align people who do need to be working on similar tasks at the same time, or to feel that camaraderie.
But it seems that the evidence base is so strong that it is worth willing people, companies and organisations testing out as far as possible with personal little tweaks like core meeting hours, to see if a difference can be made to people’s quality of life and work.
For further reading on this topic check out Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I read it in 2018 and changed my life around it, and things were better.