A Four-Day Work Week isn’t as crazy as it sounds. I know because I had it for 8 years.
It was the year 2000. I was thirty years old and four years into a job with a boutique consulting firm. I had high-pressure days which began with a 1.5-hour drive to the client’s office and ended with a 2-hour drive home.
It was the year audiobooks and Leo Laporte’s podcasts saved my sanity, and my attempts to learn Instant Italian by CD kept me amused on my solitary commutes. I was loving the work, and my client was the kind that any consultant would give their right arm to have, but the brutal schedule was bringing me ever closer to burnout.
The funny thing was, I didn’t realize just how bad my routine had become. I was so wrapped up in my sense of accomplishment at work that I was oblivious to the way my life had been reduced to a daily breakfast-drive-client-drive-dinner-sleep routine.
I would have likely continued on with that unrelenting and unforgiving pace without a second thought if my boss hadn’t pulled me into a one-on-one meeting one sweltering day in July 2000, where he said the most unexpected thing:
“I’m putting you on a four-day work week.”
Wha-?! This is a joke, right? Was it something I did? Is this punishment? Surely, he’s gone off the deep end? Il mio capo è pazzo!
These thoughts and more were running through my head as I sat there staring mutely at him like he’d grown four horns.
“You can’t keep going at this pace.” He steepled his hands in a gesture that I recognized as him being dead serious. “You’re doing great work, but you’re going to burn yourself out. You don’t do anything but work. One day soon you’ll wake up and realize there’s nothing else in your life. When that day comes, you’ll blame me for not stopping you. And then you’ll quit.”
He could see that I was about to object, so he kept talking. “I’m serious about this. You now have every Thursday off. And no, this isn’t a cost-cutting measure because I’m also giving you a raise. Tomorrow, we’ll figure out what changes we need to make to keep our projects going. Today, your only duty is to think of the ways you’re going to fill your Thursdays.”
The first Thursdays off were tough. I would wake up late, and despite the late start, my entire day would stretch out ahead of me with nothing to break the monotony. I tried showing up at work once but found myself booted out of the office. I was at loose ends and literally had no idea what to do to occupy my time because I had nothing else.
As the weeks passed, it got easier. I began reaching out to friends I hadn’t seen in months and we’d meet over a cup of coffee or lunch or a leisurely dinner. I finished the trashy novels that I’d purchased but never got around to reading. I finally saw the movies that people had been raving about. I signed up for a pottery-making class. Then a watercolor painting class. I worked on a couple of paper tole projects. I tried golf and concluded it wasn’t for me. I joined a Bible study group. I registered with a local volunteering organization that did work at orphanages. I started exercising again.
A few months into this new life, I had this dawning realization that I was re-discovering pieces of myself that I’d been neglecting for so long I’d forgotten they existed. And you know what? It felt really good.
At work, things were also different. I became increasingly protective of my Thursdays, so I was a lot more motivated to do things that kept me from being the bottleneck on our projects.
For instance, I standardized our project repositories and was rabid about adding documentation to our wiki so people could easily find files and notes that used to only sit on my hard drive. I documented design and architecture decisions for projects a lot more thoroughly now, since I wouldn’t be around all the time to answer questions. I made an effort to write meeting notes that made sense even if the person reading them wasn’t in the meeting. I communicated changes to our project plans weeks earlier than I normally do. I made templates that team members could use for upcoming tasks, so they could make progress even if I wasn’t around to answer their ‘how-do-I-do-this’ questions.
To put it simply, I did things that were designed to make myself as dispensable as possible because I didn’t want to be disturbed on Thursdays or return to bedlam on Fridays. And while my motives for doing so were self-serving, my actions had the happy side-effect of making things better for the teams and the company. By making myself dispensable, I was actually making myself more valuable to the firm.
I stayed at that job and enjoyed four-day work weeks for another eight years. I don’t think I would have lasted that long or loved the job as much without that unusual perk.
My former boss was right; I would have burned out in a big way without his intervention. To this day, he continues to be a good friend and remains my favorite mentor because he recognized the unhealthy path I had been on and actually did something about it. He never talked about building a company that offered a work-life balance. He did something better; he created a work arrangement where a work-life balance was possible.
So the next time you see a news article talking about companies or countries considering a four-day work week, let me be the first to tell you that it’s not as crazy as it sounds. I enjoyed that schedule for eight years and it worked well not just for me but also for the company. Who knows? It might work for you too.
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