I cut back my work hours for 2 weeks and discovered some surprising benefits -- and drawbacks

Drinking matchaShana Lebowitz/Business InsiderIt was still light outside when I left work to buy a matcha latte one evening.

Let me start with a confession.

Around 5:15 p.m. every workday, I lose steam. As in, I try to write a story and can’t think of a synonym for “manager.” I try to respond to emails, and I learn it takes way too much energy to check my calendar and let someone’s PR person know when I’m available for a phone call.

After a few minutes of forcing myself to buckle down, I give up. I walk to the office kitchen and back. I log onto The New York Times website and half-skim an article about the presidential elections. At 5:50 p.m., I try again to write a few paragraphs, to no avail.

At some point, it’s 6 p.m., and I’ve acknowledged the uselessness of the struggle. I pack up my bags and leave.

To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule. If I’m really engrossed in a story or I’ve got a ton of research left to do before the following day, I stick it out — sometimes until 7 p.m. or so.

But generally, I can count on my brain turning against me at a quarter past 5. Resistance is futile.

Business insider newsroomDaniel GoodmanThe Business Insider newsroom.

So when a Business Insider editor approached me to see if I’d be interested in trying out a shorter workday and writing about the results, I was more than a little suspicious.

Were they onto me?

But the prospect of freedom — of not having to wage a battle against mental exhaustion on a daily basis — was too tantalising to refuse. I agreed to take on the assignment.

Typically, I get to work around 9 a.m. and spend my lunch break reading a work-related book. According to the “rules” of this experiment, each day for two weeks, I’d work a 9-5 schedule, including a half-hour lunch break. That meant I’d be cutting my work hours by about 17%, from 45 hours a week to 37.5 hours. Whenever I wasn’t working, I wasn’t supposed to be thinking about work, either.

Over the course of the past two weeks, there have been some surprises about working fewer hours (I felt lonely) and some more predictable outcomes (I felt rushed). I’ve learned a lot about myself and about how I work best.

Below I’ve described some of the key takeaways of this experiment, and how I hope to draw on them going forward.

I was just as productive.

Here are some articles I wrote during the experiment.

Perhaps the most important -- and most concerning -- finding from this experiment was that I was about as productive as I was during weeks when I worked longer hours. (BI's analytics director pulled my stats from the last 15 weeks, so I could compare the last two weeks to the ones preceding.)

I wrote just as many articles and generated approximately the same amount of readership on those articles as usual. In fact, my editor told me that my articles were up to my usual standards and she hardly noticed I was around less than the rest of the team.

The obvious question here is: What could I possibly have been doing with that extra 1.5 hours a day before the start of the experiment? At least half of that time must have been devoted to the helpless struggle to concentrate, damn it! that I mentioned earlier. And the other half? The honest answer is, I have no idea what I'd been using those 45 minutes for.

At the same time, I'm hardly the first person to document the relationship between working shorter hours and increased productivity.

I recently found data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Data (OECD), which reveal that, in the years 1990-2012, people in OECD countries produced more work per hour when they were working fewer hours. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean total output was necessarily higher when people worked fewer hours.

But it is enticing to know you may be getting more bang for your buck per hour when you're working a shorter day.

In fact, not all high earners are logging 60- or 80-hour workweeks. Laura Vanderkam, the author of several books on productivity and time use, found that professional women who earn $100,000 or more report working 44-hour weeks on average. That's slightly less than the average American employed full-time, who works 47 hours a week, according to 2014 Gallup data.

In my case, I don't think working 45-hour weeks was hurting my productivity -- after all, I didn't find I published more stories or generated more readership than usual in these last two weeks. But those extra 1.5 hours may not have been helping me, either.

I felt more focused -- and more rushed.

I was so rushed, and so focused on writing, that I didn't have time to organise my desk.

The first few days of the experiment, before I'd learned that I could in fact squeeze 9 hours worth of work into 7.5, I was in a constant state of panic. What if I couldn't finish my stories before 5 p.m.? The rules of this experiment dictated that I couldn't work, or even think about work, after that, meaning that I'd fall behind on my goals for the week, disappointing myself and my editor.

At the same time, I imagine that constantly feeling stressed and panicked can have some negative psychological and physiological consequences. Fortunately, these feelings subsided around the middle of the experiment.

I felt incredibly guilty.

Shana Lebowitz/Business Insider
This is the view from the top of the BI office building, where I often ate lunch.

A BI editor recently asked me if I'd decided to switch permanently to a 7.5-hour workday. The answer is probably not.

Sure, I'd discovered that 17% of my workday was essentially wasted, and that I could accomplish everything I needed to in less time.

But the guilt. Oy, the guilt. No matter that this experiment was sanctioned by multiple BI editors -- I could never fully enjoy myself on those lunch breaks that I spent getting some sun on the roof while my coworkers toiled away in a stuffy newsroom.

There were several evenings when I left at 5:15, 5:20, 5:30, instead of 5, simply because I couldn't bring myself to get up and walk to the elevator in front of the rest of the hardworking staff.

I recently came across an article in The Washington Post that quoted a Danish worker on the topic of productivity: 'Here, if you can't get your work done in the standard 37 hours a week, you're seen as inefficient.'

But this is the US, and I don't think we reward efficiency as much as endurance. As I've previously reported, working long hours has become something of a status symbol. My fear (while perhaps unfounded) was that when coworkers who didn't know about my experiment saw me leaving at 5, they would perceive me as a slacker -- not as an efficiency guru.

I discovered that we undervalue 'me' time.

Shana Lebowitz/Business Insider
On the first day of the experiment, I bought a matcha latte and read a magazine after work.

I felt especially guilty about working shorter hours since I don't yet have kids to pick up from school, or another 'serious' responsibility that would obligate me to leave the office on the early side. I told a coworker that I'd spent my first evening 'off' sipping a matcha latte and reading a magazine.

His response: 'That's what you did when you left early?'

Immediately, I was ashamed of myself. Shouldn't I have done something more interesting, more substantial, more productive than that?

I don't think we've reached a point in our society where 'personal time' and 'self care' -- i.e. doing whatever makes you happy and relaxed -- are seen as important as professional work. It's kind of sad when you think about it.

I felt slightly lonely, and I spent more money.

Shana Lebowitz/Business Insider
One day I sat alone in the park and watched dogs and kids pass by.

There were days when I truly didn't know what to do with myself during my lunch break or my extra hour at the end of the day. As far as I know, none of my friends leave work at 5 or take lunch in the middle of the day, so no one was around to hang out or even talk on the phone.

One day, while killing time until dinner plans at 7:30 p.m., I got a cup of tea and sat in Washington Square Park watching dogs and kids and skateboarders pass by. It was a rare moment of peace, but also one of loneliness. To my surprise, I maybe, sort of wished I were back in the newsroom with my coworkers, feeling like I was part of a team with a mission.

And about that cup of tea: Throughout this experiment, I ended up spending a few more dollars every day on tea and sandwiches and magazines. It was a way to entertain myself while I sat in the park or walked around the city (and couldn't avail myself of the snack options at the BI office).

I learned that flexibility is key.

Business Insider
I invited a coworker to lunch in the BI kitchen.

Although I technically wasn't supposed to think about work during my 'off' times, I did. A lot. During lunch one day, I came across an advertisement in Marie Claire magazine that sparked a great idea for a BI story (stay tuned!).

Twice, I had lunch with coworkers and we ended up talking about our stories the entire time. I didn't mind, though. I happen to enjoy and derive a lot of satisfaction from my job -- and thinking or talking about it is rarely a burden.

Monday was my first day back to 'real' life after my experiment. After posting a few stories earlier in the day, I started working on this article at around 5:30 p.m. Donald Trump was being interviewed on television; the newsroom was unbearably hot; and as usual, my mental reserves were depleted. I kept writing sentences and deleting them until eventually, at 6:10 p.m., I left the office in a huff.

I'm still figuring out how best to organise my workday going forward. Should I save relatively menial tasks, like responding to emails and making to-do lists, for the end of the day when I'm feeling uninspired? Should I try to start leaving at 5, like I did during the experiment, and cope with the accompanying feelings of guilt? I'm not sure there's one 'right' answer. But it's worth contemplating.

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