A Leaner Workday: Freeing Time to Build Your Personal Capital

When I posted a blog about books, journals and podcasts that I think provides ideas useful in business, several people I spoke to asked me where people are supposed to find the time to read.

Here are two thoughts:

First, a lot of time each day is spent on discretionary activities often related to our smartphones i.e. checking our Facebook page, scanning the sports scores, grooming our email accounts etc. One study revealed that many people looked at their phones 85 times per day. So consider turning off your phone or putting it into airline mode for a good chunk of the day. In a blog on Deep Work,author and professor Cal Newport revealed that he does not use social media at all in order to be more productive. If that is too drastic for you at least turn off the phone for periods of time or turn off your notifications.

Second, teams and organizations have set-up a system where the Actual Productive Work + Low and Non-value Added Work = the traditional 8-hour day.

An interesting interview with Stephan Aarstol by Nora Young on CBC’s The Spark highlights the opportunity for radically leaning-out the traditional workday. Aarstol an entrepreneur and the CEO of a company called Tower Paddle Boards decided to move his company to a five-hour workday.

“If you go into most workplaces,” says Stephan, “you come into work, you get coffee, maybe have breakfast at your desk, you go on Facebook, maybe do some online shopping…there’s all of this waste built into it. When we rolled it out, we went from 8am to 1pm straight through. No lunch.

“The ask in return was that everybody would be as productive as they were before, if not more. And if they couldn’t, they’d be fired.

“In every office, there’s people that work 3 times the speed of everyone else. We want those people. And we want to repel the people that just sort of work slow.”

Stephan’s expectations are high: with a 5-hour workday ending at 1:00, there’s plenty of time in the afternoon to check Facebook, socialize, or go to appointments. According to Stephan, that means, “when we come into work, we’re like the Navy Seals.”


Tower Paddle Boards is, at the moment, a small company of $10 million in sales. Some might say that very large organizations are much more complex. But when organizations get large we’re supposed to create things called “process” which, along with things like “governance” are meant to manage this “complexity” efficiently and effectively; if an organization doesn’t create these mechanisms they end up doing everything all over again each and every day and then go bankrupt (unless you’re in monopoly, an oligopoly, or are the government).

The point of mentioning the idea of the 5-hour workday is that there is a lot of time in the workday spent on (a) personal fiddling with distractions like social media and (b) institutional drags on time for thing like unnecessary meetings, meetings that go on too long, the creation of thick decks to show how hard we’re working and so on.

Some other ideas:

  • Block off time for personal development in your calendar and use that time to pursue selected reading that will make you a better employee;
  • Reduce the amount of unproductive time in your work day (Stephan Aarstol’s company has some tools you can download to help).
  • If you’re the head of the company, have your managers do a zero-base house-cleaning of all the meetings and reports that clog up the day. Why are we having the meeting? Why are we creating this report? If we need this report what is the value-add part of the report as opposed to the stuff that got added-on over the years to pad it out? Have your people zero-base their use of email. Define the productive uses of email for your organization and stop the unproductive uses such as the practice of one sentence emails, “reply all” and unbelievably long email trails. (Consider providing stats on the amount of email traffic sent by people until the use goes down.)
  • I’ve noticed that many meetings are not to get something done e.g. make a decision but to inform people of things they could have learned if they did some reading, that is, actually read the material someone spent time preparing but did not get read because the bosses are too busy going to meetings. If you’re the leader set a new example: spend more time reading and less time meeting.

Finally, if your job is to organize management off sites, rather than having a bunch of expensive speakers talk about the latest buzzword (and hand out copies of a doorstop business book), consider selecting a good article or book (or 3 or 4 chapters of a good book) and program time at the offsite for people to read the material and then have guided discussions on what people read.