How long can you concentrate on something? I mean really concentrate, channel every shred of energy and centre your thoughts on one particular task. I imagine, after the last year, it’s not very long at all. The pandemic brain fog descended quickly and our attention spans dwindled along with our social lives. The New York Times declared that we were 'languishing'. But even before coronavirus, there were limits to how long we could focus. One figure often quoted is from a 2010 study that showed we spend 46.9% of our time thinking about something other than what we’re doing.
That data might be a decade old but it’s not as old as the concept of the eight hour work day. Working 9-5 to make a living has been ingrained deeply in us, as much a part of adult life as paying taxes and ruing not wearing SPF in our early twenties. But if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that the scaffolding on which work culture was built is not as immovable as it once seemed. Amongst the newly reconsidered remote working, flexible hours and the often-touted four-day week, is the five-hour working day. Emma Stewart, founder of flexible working consultancy Timewise, says: “For most people this last year has brought the freedom to adapt where they work, but far less on how much they work …whether a four day week, a five hour day or simply working part time. The UK still has some of the longest working hours in Europe.”
But experiments have been carried out in Germany, in Australia, in Sweden and in Liverpool, with proponents suggesting that five hours of focused work (no lengthy meetings or covert online shopping) is enough for us to get our jobs done.
I’ve worked in offices where the most important thing was to be at your desk, where the prevailing culture was that the longer you’re in the office, the better. This kind of presenteeism cripples creativity because an open-ended work day is like a blank page: difficult to fill with anything worthwhile. Condensing the work day from eight to five hours might seem daunting but constraints force us to be creative with our time and thoughts.
Harriet Minter, author of WFH: How to Build a Career You Love When You’re Not in the Office, is in favour of the idea. “We really overestimate the amount of time we can properly focus for,” she says. For the rest of our time, she continues, “we either fluff it – we have a coffee with someone or go and hang out at a colleague’s desk. Or we really push our concentration and force ourselves to go beyond our limits. What happens when we do that is that we produce bad work: we make mistakes, we get things wrong, we let things slip through the cracks.”
The eight hour working day was never designed for creative thinking or for so-called “desk jobs”. It is a legacy of the industrial revolution and it has overstayed its welcome. In 1817, the Welsh labour rights activist, Robert Owen called for “eight hours’ labor, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest” as a way to protect exploited workers. In 1926, Henry Ford brought in the now ubiquitous 9-5, 40 hour working week, later adopted by US Congress.
So much about our social lives, health, families and homes looks radically different compared to a hundred years ago and yet our working practices have remained broadly the same. We have retrofitted our work into a system that doesn’t support it. Of course, much of this theorising is only relevant to certain types of jobs, namely those that are office based. There are countless roles – in healthcare, transport, education, hospitality and retail – where simply reducing hours is not a straightforward option. But for the large volume of people who work in offices, that arbitrary 40-hour number has been rendered irrelevant, especially by technology. On the one hand, many tasks can now be performed much more quickly; on the other, we can be contacted anywhere at any time.
When I went freelance, being in charge of my own time forced me to re-examine the way I work. It meant discovering that I have to warm up to creative tasks by using my mornings for admin and box-ticking. That I get most done in the late afternoon and early evening, and if I’m on a roll, I like to work late. When sitting around doing nothing also pays nothing, efficiency matters more than ever: a well-paid job becomes precisely the opposite if you drag your feet over it. Without colleagues to distract me, I’ve become much more familiar with how long I can actually concentrate for. I often fall back on the Pomodoro technique – working in 25 minute blocks with 5 minute breaks – to help keep me focused. When lockdown restrictions over the past year allowed, another freelance friend and I tried spending one day a week at each other’s flats and used the time to work through niggling issues that needed another brain to solve before returning to our solo spaces.
Changing up the way I work is a luxury that comes with becoming self-employed but we should all have that opportunity. As Minter says: “Now that we’re aware that there’s a different way of working, what we don’t actually have is any definitive ‘this is the best way’. Where we should be now is in a space of creativity and experimentation”.
A five hour work day is unlikely to be the solution for everyone but it may well be the perfect option for some. We won’t know until we try it.