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The 4-Hour Work Day

And The Explosion Of Creativity Way

US maverick Tim Ferriss shocked the business world when he launched a manifesto for a smarter way to work back in 2007 — in his New York Times bestselling book The 4-Hour Work Week.

James Wallman, Future Gazers report

If only. The truth is, of course, there are very few people who work four hours a week. Too many of us — especially small business owners — are not working 40- hour, Monday to Friday, weeks, but far longer hours.

We believe that’s set to change, and quite radically, because of the robots, cobots and Hollywood way of working. We may not quite achieve the 15-hour work weeks that economist John Maynard Keynes predicted we’d have by now back in the 1930s. But we will work shorter hours each week and each day.

It’s important to understand that the current work day was set up to squeeze as much as possible out of workers when they performed routine tasks in factories and offices (albeit in a humane way: previously, 100-hour weeks had not been uncommon). But since in the future the routine tasks will be performed by machines and humans will climb the value chain, instead of factory or knowledge workers, we will all become high-touch, high-value creative workers and experience creators.

And emerging research strongly suggests that 8-hour days are a suboptimal way to work — and that the optimum is far closer to 4 hours per day. This conclusion comes from a few sources. First, there is the observation which Silicon Valley futurist Alex Soojung-kim Pang makes in his recent book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, that creative geniuses from the past tended to work four-hours per day. Examples he cites include scientist Charles Darwin, mathematician Henri Poincaré, lawmaker Thomas Jefferson, and writers Alice Munro and John le Carré.

More importantly, there is science backing the idea. When Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson studied the schedules of violinists, he found the best performers conduct their practice in chunks of four hours or less.

Many worry what would happen if we worked fewer hours — or if it will really be possible.

“The big tension here,” says Guardian critic Oliver Burkeman, “is of course that those four hours of deep creative work are usually reliant on a whole lot of other hours of admin work… As the economy changes, and it becomes more important for more of us to focus for a few good hours on deep thought and creativity, there doesn’t seem to have been any concomitant decrease in the amount of Other Stuff we have to handle.”

In today’s world, Burkeman has a very good point. But we believe that in the future much more of the Other Stuff will be handled by automated assistants. These will be next generation of services like X.ai, the AI-driven virtual assistant which organises your diary. Of course, instead of “programming” your assistant this via a chatbot style interchange, in the future we’ll manage this through a voice user interface. It’ll be just like talking to your real-world assistant today.

But if we work fewer hours, won’t that mean our company gets left behind and makes less money? Some experiments by a few pioneering firms suggest the opposite. In 2015, entrepreneur Stephan Aarstol moved his whole company to a five-hour workday where everyone works from 8am to 1pm1.
“The results,” as Aarstol wrote in an article for Fast Company, “have been astounding. We’ve been named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest growing companies the past two years (we ranked #239 in 2015). This year, our 10-person team will generate $9 million in revenue.”

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has been continuing his investigations into the best way to work and the length of the workday. After talking with companies from London to New York who work shorter hours — including Swedish game company Filimundus, US media company Skift, and Edinburgh-based software company Administrate — Pang believes that besides the obvious benefits to shorter working hours, “they also offer unexpected or counterintuitive benefits—greater creativity, higher levels of productivity, and more not less time to work on difficult problems.”

As cobots take away the drabber aspects of our working lives, and as creativity becomes ever more important, we believe that business will move away from long, drawn-out working hours, and that the Four-Hour Work Day will unleash a wave of human happiness, and productivity and creativity at work.

Cultural change of this magnitude will take decades . For now, there are only a handful of innovators around the world working shorter hours. As the data about these companies becomes wider and researchers like Soojung-Kim Pang investigate further — for this report, he gave us access to an unpublished white paper and he is working on a book about the idea — the idea will catch on and more firms will try this.

Our estimate, based on our reading of the diffusion of innovations and the relevant macro-environmental factors (such as the introduction of AI and cobots to do the basic repetitive tasks), and on money becoming easier to manage, is that this will move from the innovators to a few early adopters in the mid to late 2020s, and it will hit an early tipping point as work changes in the early to mid 2030s. As it becomes clearer that humans need to be creative to be valuable, they will work fewer, but more productive hours. By the early 2040s, most businesses will be working far shorter hours.

So, instead of working long and late, small businesses will work shorter days, and finish earlier. We may well still check messages while on holiday, but we’ll do this in a time-managed way, so that we can refresh our minds, and always approach work ready to be creative.

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1. Stephan Aarstol, “What Happened When I Moved My Company To a 5 Hour Work Day”, 30 August 2016.