In support of four day work weeks but they’re still not for me


Last week, one of my colleagues, a product engineer, asked me if they could officialy move to a four-day work week.

I supported their decision but was troubled by the fact that I didn’t want to work a four day week myself. There’s a certain point where less is not more and it’s just less. If I were forced to work one less day a week, I felt certain my total output would drop and I’d feel overwhelmed.

I’ve advocated for “less is more” when it comes to work for a long time. I find that shorter work days yield higher quality work, increased focus, and more fulfillment. I’ve found that I get more done with a shorter list of work in a day than a longer one. I try and focus primarily on only one context each day of my work week. It’s natural to think a shorter work week would have the same benefits but I couldn’t convince myself to do it even though I supported others in it.

Here’s how I convinced myself that a four day week isn’t for everyone.

Extra work days help me not drown in shallow work

50% of my work in a week is inbound work that comes from customers, colleagues, and administrative matters e.g. code reviews, support tickets, and bug reports. This inbound work, needs to be dealt with in a timely manner, never ends, and will accumulate if you don’t deal with it. If I were to work four days a week, I’d need to spread that same workload over less days and it would push me to the point that every day would be infected by so much shallow work that I’d have no time, energy, or interest in deep work. I’d eventually get sick of just doing shallow work, burn out, and lose motivation.

On the flip side, my colleague has significantly less shallow inbound work to do. Spreading that over four days instead of five days might mean a few more things from Friday to look over on Monday but not enough to ruin the whole day for deep work.

Paradoxically, the fifth day of work makes work less overwhelming for me.

Riding your flow state is dangerous but possibly worthwhile

If you do deep work, like writing software, riding out your flow state and tacking on an extra hour can be worth multiple hours the next day. In my colleagues case, that’s exactly the kind of work he does. He typically builds a single feature through the course of the week.

The danger of riding your flow state is that it’s easy to lose yourself in the work and start depleting your focus battery at a faster rate than usual. That extra hour of work while already in flow might be worth two hours of work tomorrow but when you’ve already had a full day, it can feel like it’s draining three hours of energy. When I ride the flow state wave hard at the end of a day, I’m guaranteeing that I won’t do anything substantial with my evening. I’ll just eat dinner and go to sleep. And in my low energy state I might be easily tempted by non-nourishing internet content. Reading and socializing would feel impossibly hard after a day like this. In case it’s not obvious, these numbers aren’t a scientific analysis of flow state, productivity, and energy they’re just my heuristics from years of observing my feelings and my output.

If we’re looking at “output” and if you’ll humor my flow state time-energy-output equation then there’s no actual downside to a four day week when you consistently ride out flow-state at the end of each day. In a four day week like this, that extra hour each day already accounts for a full extra day of work by the time Friday rolls around.

Output(one hour in flow now) = Output(two hours tomorrow)  — My flow state equation

The more interesting tradeoff is that the one extra hour is going to cut into your energy and enthusiasm for any kind of meaningful leisure. Do you want a bit of meaningful leisure each day or would you rather pack it all into one day? There’s no way to make that decision for everyone and I understand wanting longer flow state days. It’s exhausting but also deeply fulfilling. In my case, with an infant in the house, I want the energy to play and explore a little bit each day.

Great work takes years not weeks, optimize accordingly

If I’m being honest, I also had some residual greedy-capitalist thoughts about the whole four day work week.

Five years ago, I’m certain I would not have supported my colleagues decision.  At that time our goal was to produce something that could take off in three months before we ran out of money. For many years, I lived and worked with a “the company will die tomorrow if we don’t work hard” mindset. And through that lens, a four day work week still feels like certain failure. But now times have changed. Sunsama has  been around for years and plans to be around for years to come (yay profitability!) I can look at the four day week with perspective.

If you put on your rich-capitalist hat and take a multi-year view of an engineer’s contribution to a codebase, it’s pretty obvious that people make their best (and fastest) contributions after significant tenure. Once you accrue domain expertise, you can fix and build impressive things super fast. Even if we assume less does get built in a four-day week, if a shorter week improves long term retention, it’s well worth the gains in future productivity to ensure the engineer sticks around.

If you decide to just be a human being you realize what you are asking of an employee is enormous. You are asking them to share several years of their life with your company and work. Figuring out how to make that harmonious with their life must be a top priority. Through that lens, a four day work week feels like a minor and irrelevant affordance to offer and support.

Setting a company policy on work days

Instead of picking whether we’d be a four-day a week company or five-day a week company we ultimately decided that we’d leave that decision to each person. I don’t want the pressure of cramming all my work into four days and I don’t my colleague to feel like he can’t ride out his flow state just so he can ‘show up’ on Friday. There’s too much diversity in the type of work people do, how their focus/energy/attention drains and recharges, and the type of non-work responsibilities and obligations they have. I prefer to work in a way where each person has the autonomy to utilize their time, energy, and attention in a way that feels satisfying to them.

Facebook iconTwitter IconLinkedIn icon