This afternoon I quit working at 3 pm.
I finished everything I had to do. Knowing that 3–5 pm is my least effective work time, I’ve set the goal to stop working at 2 or 3 pm each day.
Using my time to play video games, get on a video call my sister in Argentina, and write some overdue message responses to friends, I felt a lot more fulfilled.
But it wasn’t always this way.
A year ago, I was working in the typical 9–5 job. Every afternoon I found myself struggling to keep going. I remember beating myself up over how unproductive I was.
But I couldn’t let myself take a break because I was on the clock, and that would be dishonest.
I’ve learned, over the last year, that our 40-hour work week schedule is a catalyst for unproductive work hours. The biggest problem is that this pattern stems from industrial-age, effort-based thinking.
But regardless of what position you are in, effort alone doesn’t earn your company money, results do.
The reason you’re unhappy working until 5 pm is that you weren’t meant to work like this. Not in the information age when you can probably finish most of your work in less than eight hours each day.
Combine this with the fact that the afternoon is when our energy and willpower levels dip, and you have a recipe for productivity disaster.
The peak-end rule states that how you end any activity is what your overall view of it becomes. When you finish your workday frustrated because your last two hours were unproductive, well, it’s no wonder you hate your job.
So if you’re doomed working until 5 pm, what can you do about it? Here are a few things that I’ve changed to help me become more productive in fewer hours to finish each workday by 2 or 3 pm.
Track Results Instead of Hours
A few weeks ago, I began tracking personal key indicators to stay accountable as I worked to reach my goals. I included weight loss, quality time with my family, and hours worked on various projects I’ve got going on right now.
After just six weeks, however, I could tell that my work goals weren’t going very well. I became more productive overall, but I still felt unsatisfied with my workday efforts and results.
That was until I hired a coach who told me to track my results instead of just work hours.
Now, I mostly track metrics like “jobs completed” and “articles written,” rather than “hours worked.”
The problem with tracking hours is that however long you give yourself to do something, that’s how long it will take.
Even if you can write a blog post in two hours, if you give yourself four, you’ll end up getting distracted in the middle and wasting your time on social media instead.
When you track results, however, you also see how long it takes you to complete each task. This lets you determine how long everything will take you, but more importantly, helps you understand how fast you can get your work done.
There’s no need to work 8 hours if you can get all your work done in 5 or 6. Results-based tracking of your work is how to get more done in less hours.
Focus Hard for Short Amounts of Time, then Relax
Last week I decided to run on the treadmill a few mornings. We were staying in hotels multiple days throughout the week on our way up to Banff, Canada for a Family reunion.
One morning, for my 10-minute run, I decided I was going to pick up the pace. Excitedly, I maintained the pace of 7-minutes per mile for two minutes straight, which is fast for where I’m at right now as a runner.
While I would love to run this pace consistently for a Marathon, realistically I couldn’t do that without a lot of deliberate practice. The same is true for my workday.
If I wanted to maintain laser-like focus while working, I couldn’t do it for more than 25–50 minutes at a time, at least for now. Even those who use deep work sessions don’t spend more than a few hours at a time doing so.
To avoid unproductively trying to work until 5 pm, practice intense work sessions for just a few minutes at a time.
I use the Pomodoro technique, and which consists of 25 to 50-minute work sessions with 5–10 minute breaks in-between. My Fitbit has a stopwatch function, which I use to track how long I’ve been working each time.
When I know I’m tracking my time, I work harder to complete my jobs faster. This is especially easier now that I’m results-based instead of hours-based. My change in accountability helps me get my work done much quicker.
Deep work sessions like these also promote me to finish faster so I can get to my more flexible afternoon schedule. It’s easier to continue working hard when you know that you don’t have to maintain the same level of effort for a long time.
Those who try to work eight hours each day know that most of the time, you end up wasting a lot of that time being distracted.
Most likely, you’re not actually working a full eight hours.
Focusing in the morning and relaxing in the afternoon lets you have the best of both worlds, without feeling bad about it. This pattern also helps you feel more focused while working and more relaxed when taking your afternoon break.
Be Flexible and Use Deliberate Practice to Improve
And if you do excel as a novice, you might find yourself falling prey to the fixed-mindset of belief in talent.
When you begin to re-arrange your schedule to meet your needs better, you will experience opposition, but that’s not a sign you should quit.
In Angela Duckworth’s Grit, she gives the formula for deliberate practice. Experts who have achieved their true 10,000 hours know to push themselves to do what they can’t, seek feedback, receive a lot of correction, and try again.
Those who eventually succeed in anything exude the growth mindset attitude of “that didn’t work, let’s try another way!” or “that was hard, it was great!”
When you first try to improve your productivity by working less but better hours, you’re going to stumble. While you might figure it out for a time, eventually you’ll have a few days where you don’t feel like working hard in the morning so you can take a break in the afternoon.
To become truly great at productivity, you must be deliberate as you practice it.
Becoming intentional with your practice requires tracking your efforts and progress, but also means that it will get messy. You will fail time and again, and you will probably want to quit.
It’s the mess and frustration that are signals that you are on the right track.
But if you persist by having patience with yourself as you learn, then become consistent at it, you will become one who doesn’t have to slog through until 5 pm every day unproductively.
You can be happier and more productive, working fewer hours each day, you just have to get up and try.