expands to fill the space it's given
I’m back on Lummi Island this week, a place I’ve written about in the newsletter before. I took the week to drill down on final edits for my book, and Lummi is the perfect place to stare out the window, stare at your edits, stare out the window some more, and then go walk the dogs. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat.
These last two months, when I’ve devoted all of my weekends and vacation days to these final edits, I’ve felt myself inching ever-closer to the Melissa Gregg’s definition of productivity: “a form of training through which workers become capable of the ever more daring acts of solitude and ruthlessness necessary to produce career competence.” Daring acts of solitude and ruthlessness! Is that the right phrase to describe how I’ve refused to open my work email?
But I don’t know if I’ve been that productive, per se. Let me rephrase that: I’ve done all the things that I needed to do. But a lot of that involved the freedom to sit and stare at my draft, to read sentences aloud, to re-read an article and think if there was a way to include it, and ultimately not. Most of the times when I’ve found myself embarrassed about a piece of (formal) writing are times when it hasn’t had some time, no matter how brief, to marinate. (Blogging, which is what I’m doing when I write this newsletter, is different — it’s a different mode, with a different purpose, and I’m always fine with the raggedness).
With that said, I’m keenly aware of time during each of these days that isn’t wasted so much as taken for granted. Could I have done the work of seven days in six days? Definitely. In five? Probably. Work expands to fill the space it’s given. That idea is at the heart of the renewed drive for the four-day work week — the proposal that we could do all the things our job requires of us in four days, instead of five, and still get paid as if we worked for those full five days. Not by working four ten-hour days. Working normal hours, but fewer of them.
It’s worked in New Zealand — not at a hip start-up, but at a good old fashioned wills and trusts company. It’s worked at Microsoft Japan. It’s currently being trialed in multiple places in the UK and, I’ve been told, under the radar in the United States. In Germany, one company successfully moved to a five-hour work-day (but still works five days a week). It’s obvious that worker happiness would go up. But so, too, did productivity: with the promise of a day off if their work was done, people started hacking the waste out of their days. But they did it collaboratively: the premise, particularly in New Zealand, was that the privilege of the day off was contingent upon your team completing the week’s tasks.
It wasn’t about one person being ruthless with their productivity, but a team deciding what wasn’t actually necessary to create that productivity. In their case: a lot of unnecessary attendance at meetings, inefficient communication, and aimless internet time. Their work had expanded to fill the five days it had been allotted. But that didn’t mean it needed to take five days. One key difference, too, was that the day off is always conceived of as a benefit, not a given. If and when the productivity levels fall, it can be taken away. Otherwise, they’ve found, workers will just fall into the same style of work from before, only do it four days a week instead of five.
I’ve long heard people with kids — and women with kids in particular — talk about how their sense of time and its possibilities change after those kids arrive. An hour set aside for writing changes its character, its urgency. In America, at least, many women transition back to the workplace by asking for a four-day week — a means, at the very least, to save on one day of expensive childcare. 80% of their previous work, the agreement goes, at 80% of their previous pay. But they also almost always end up doing 100% of the work — with 80% of their previous pay.
One of the women involved in the New Zealand experiment told me that she tells women, when coming back to the workplace, to ask the following: Can you tell me what 80% of my work responsibilities are? Okay, can you tell me what 100% of my work responsibilities are? And then ask: If I complete 100% of my responsibilities in four days, can I still be paid 100%?
I’m going to be writing a lot more about the four-day week — and how three days of time off somehow completely shifts the paradigm of what’s possible, leisure-wise — in the weeks to come, especially thinking through how it can be applied outside of the traditional arenas of “knowledge work.” But I’d love to hear from you, and your thoughts about how/whether your work could be compressed. There’s a survey here, which I’m also using for my thinking/writing on leisure for the book, because the two questions are incredibly interlinked. You can also just respond to this email, if you have even more detailed thoughts on what the four-day work week would like for you. As always, I’ll never publish any of your thoughts without your permission.
One thing to keep in mind: a lot of people hear about the idea and think that’s great, but it could never work for me. There’s an immediate reticence, at least for some people, to immediately dismiss the possibility. If that’s you, think about why that might be — and just play with the thought of it being otherwise. If you could make it work, what would it look like? And how, in turn, could it transform your life and everyone’s around you?
Things I’m watching and loving: Sex Education, Season 2 (Netflix)
Thing I Wrote This Week: On Cheer and why all sorts of people find themselves in cheerleading for all sorts of reasons (including me)
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
On who can afford to waste food
A journalism tragedy in three acts
Millennials loves Zillow because they’ll never own a home
Johns Hopkins makes the (very compelling) case for ending legacy admissions
There’s a lot going on in this profile of Michael Barbaro
The best piece I’ve read on the aesthetics and compulsions of Instagram
Go watch the trailer for Normal People
This week’s just trust me
If you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe (and find the shareable online version) here. You can find me on Twitter here, and on Instagram here. Please excuse any typos or weird sentences; inattention to detail is what allows me to make the mental space to write this thing.