To Get More Done, Work Less
The counterintuitive magic of putting time limits on your tasks
For most of my working life, I lived by the principle I’d absorbed as a child, one I heard often both at home and at school: If you want to succeed, then put in more time. Long after my co-workers had gone home, I’d still be toiling away at my desk, convinced I was proving my value.
But when I eventually became a psychologist and started looking into the work habits of hundreds of entrepreneurs, I noticed something strange: The most successful people seemed to spend the fewest hours working. They’d spend a lot of time thinking about business strategies, sure, but they didn’t seem to value the 12-hour workdays or seven-day workweeks that hustle culture has long glorified. Instead, they’d use their extra time to pursue hobbies, spend time with their families, or simply let their minds wander. They were able to decouple time from results.
You may have heard of Parkinson’s law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” But is it true in practice? Can people actually get everything done when they have less time to do it?
All evidence points to yes. In 2019, Microsoft put the idea to the test with one of its subsidiaries in Japan: All employees took every Friday off, working only four days per week during the month of August. The change led to a nearly 40% increase in productivity, while employee satisfaction went up and office utility costs went down.
Why would this happen? Well, specific policy changes certainly contributed to the outcome, including capping all meetings at 30 minutes. But the larger reason is this: The longer we work, the less efficient we become. A study by the Stanford economics professor John Pencavel, published in the Economic Journal, examined the productivity of munitions-factory workers during World War I and found that their pace slowed significantly when they worked past a certain threshold. Whatever increase in output could be gained by stacking more hours onto the workday was offset by lost operational costs and unhappy employees.
The reason may have to do with mood and energy. A 23-month study of nurses in Gothenburg, Sweden, found that they were “happier, healthier, and more energetic” when working six-hour days instead of eight. Working hard and fast is easier when you have a long afternoon of relaxation and fun to look forward to. And in an eight-week experiment similar to Microsoft’s, the will-writing company Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand gave their nearly 200 employees an extra day off each week while keeping pay and other benefits unchanged. During the trial, worker productivity increased by 20%, and employees’ self-reported happiness went up as well. Perpetual Guardian chief executive Andrew Barnes called the experiment an “unmitigated success.”
Reduce your own working hours
Even if you work for yourself, or you doubt your own company will adopt a four-day workweek anytime soon, you can still get more done in less time. Here’s the key: Start small.
When I coach my clients, I typically start by asking them to break down their daily tasks into two groups:
- Maintenance tasks are the recurring daily activities necessary to maintain the operations of your business — tasks such as processing email, running payroll, and returning calls.
- Progress tasks are the growing edge of the business. These are the new products you’re trying to bring to market, or new systems you want to put in place to improve efficiency.
The goal is to shrink the time needed to get through your maintenance tasks, in order to increase the time for progress tasks that can move your business forward.
As an experiment, start with your maintenance tasks. See if you can get more done by reducing the time you allow yourself to spend on these items. Here are five steps:
- If you use to-do list software, create one folder for maintenance tasks and another for all your progress tasks.
- Start each day by blocking off the amount of time you’ll need to complete all your maintenance tasks.
- After a week, revise this estimate to make it a more accurate reflection of the time you actually spend on maintenance tasks.
- The next week, reduce the total time you allow yourself to work on the maintenance tasks. Trim it by about 20%. This is Parkinson’s law in action.
- Spend your extra time on something fun. Take a break. Go for a walk, play a mindless game, or call a friend.
When you squeeze your work into a smaller box, your efficiency will improve. Your mind will wander less and you’ll be more focused on the work at hand. “Success” in business isn’t about time at all — it is about creating something that other people value, in any amount of time. You can do it in less.