Instituting the four-day work week

January 16, 2010

I’m always experimenting with new structures and systems to make me more effective in what I do. It’s a big part of my DTO, obsessive organization thing.

Sometime last year, I read this post and was inspired to experiment with a four-day work week. To say it was a miserable failure is an understatement. It failed for a number of reasons, big and small.

In setting business and personal goals for 2010, I found that whole four-day work week lingering around. Apparently I wasn’t done with my experiment. There was a goal statement (someone else’s goal statement, in fact) that kept coming back to me: One day off every week. One week off every month. One month off every year. And if that’s the end goal, it seems like the first baby step is the one day off every week part.

This person might’ve been talking about one literal day off every week, not one “work day” off every week. But I’ve been feeling a strong (overwhelming, unavoidable) need to set boundaries and find balance. Like many solopreneurs, I do some kind of work every day, and I take phone calls/requests/meetings/etc. from clients when I really shouldn’t and everything in me is telling me not to. (Like when I’m in a hotel room, at 2 a.m. on a holiday, on a road trip. But I digress.) Clearly, I need some boundaries.

First, I needed to identify the reasons this work plan failed last time and take conscious, deliberate action to address those issues.

Problem #1: Friday.

When I worked an 8-to-5 job for someone else, Friday was the day when productivity was at its lowest. I rarely had meetings. Emails were slow. There may have even been an occasional two-hour lunch. You could take Friday off without doing too much suffering the next work day.

But in my business, Friday is often my busiest, most productive day. I thrive on going into the weekend with to-dos checked and emails answered. And it seems to work the same way for many of my clients as well. Trying to take Friday off was setting myself up for failure.

Monday, on the other hand, tends to be a very administrative day — billing, proposals, correspondence, planning. And while that all has to get done, I can fit it into the administrative time that I set aside from every other day. So the first problem had an easy solution: change the day. (Duh.)

Problem #2: Email.

If I read an email, I can’t stop thinking about it until the issue is resolved or a response is provided. I blame this on the spaghetti brain phenomenon. But no matter the reason, I can’t try to take the day off when I’m on my laptop or iPhone checking email all day. In fact, this was how my four-day work week died the first time around. I would come online “just to answer a few emails,” and before I knew it, I was revising design mock-ups and troubleshooting technical issues and I couldn’t quite figure out how it all happened.

Solution #2: Put the email aside. Post an auto-responder on my email account so the sender knows that I’m out of the office, and then leave the email alone.

Problem #3: Guilt.

Honestly, this is the biggest hurdle. I feel guilty when I’m not working. When I worked for someone else, I celebrated the days when I could leave work at the office. Now, I feel this strange insufficiency and fear of neglect when my work doesn’t cross my mind 85 times each evening and 324 times every weekend.

The solution for this one isn’t as easy as the first two. But I think it involves embracing the guilt for what it represents: that my business is important to me and my client relationships are valuable. (There’s also this little issue of me needing to be the best at everything and never wanting to let anyone down for any reason, even if they’re being completely unreasonable. But that’s a big work in progress, and a story for another day.)

Problem #4: Catch-up.

We all need a day to catch up from time to time. But I found that even my “day off” wasn’t sufficient for me to catch up because I was mired in daily stuff. And then I would feel inadequate and un-entrepreneur-ey because I couldn’t catch up. And then I’d think of all the other entrepreneur-ey things I “should” be doing, and add those to the impossibly long to-do list that needs catching up on. And repeat.

Addressing this problem is a big lesson in boundaries. I’m giving myself permission to use my extra day off to catch up, but I’m not giving myself permission to tell anyone that I’m in the office. As far as the world is concerned, I’m unavailable until Tuesday. This means that I can’t do anything that won’t give me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. In other words, using that day off for working has to feel worth it.

So, starting this Monday, I’m officially out of the office on Mondays. (I cheated a little since Monday is a national holiday, but we all have to start somewhere. I may be known for working holidays from time to time. Or regularly.)

New issues may arise this year, and they’ll need their own solutions. But for now, these are the ground rules, and I’m not making any excuses. (Okay, maybe one or two, but that’s it. Promise.)