Those of you who work an eight-hour day, be honest: how many of those hours are spent doing engaged, focused work?
Three hours? Four, maybe? Whatever your answer, I know it is not eight hours. And I know the answer is not eight hours because the eight-hour work day is based on math — dividing the day into thirds for work, recreation and rest — and not on how human brains function optimally.
I’ll also bet those three to four hours of productivity are in the morning. Maybe they are at night, if you’re a night owl.
But I can tell you when they are not. They are not in the late afternoon.
Nothing good happens between the hours of 3 and 5 p.m., a chunk of time I refer to as Garbage Standard Time.
Garbage Standard Time is when you feel your most sluggish. Your brain is congealed mashed potatoes, or maybe a single goldfish swimming in an otherwise empty bowl. You find yourself mindlessly scrolling or mindlessly snacking or mindlessly drinking an ill-advised afternoon coffee. Even answering email during GST feels like a bridge too far. Garbage Standard Time drags. All the energy evaporates from your body. If you’ve ever been in a meeting after 3 p.m., you know it’s a bit punchy — after 4 p.m.? Unhinged.
“Why do I feel bad in the afternoon?” is a common Google. Allow me: you feel bad because it’s Garbage Standard Time. (I will acknowledge that GST may be different for you, depending on your work start time. Some of you might start work later, making your 'afternoon slump' fall at a different part of the day entirely. If you work what my friend Erin calls The Other 9-to-5, tell me when your personal GST is.)
The usual prescription for the afternoon slump is to drink more water and maybe add in some exercise — the adult equivalent of a burp and a nap — but what if we just didn’t do anything between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.? What if our workdays simply ended earlier?
There is research suggesting that they probably should.
Sweden famously experimented with a six-hour work day — which, I will note, would end before the start of Garbage Standard Time, presuming a 9 a.m. start time — with trial runs a few years ago. A digital production company who participated in the trial encouraged workers to stay off social media and delay checking personal email until the end of the day. At the end of the Swedish trials, many workers reported feeling less stressed, more productive, and the quality of their work improved.
It stands to reason: isn’t six good hours better than eight medium ones?
Corralling email may be central to this experiment. The modern office is a distracted one — doubly so for those returning after months of WFH. I was chatty in the office before (sorry to any colleagues reading this) and now, not only am I chatty but I have no idea how to be in public anymore. White-collar workers also spend exorbitant amounts of time on email. In 2019, Adobe, the software company, did an email usage survey and found that workers spend an average of five hours a day checking email. Millennial workers are particularly guilty.
A lot of six-hour workday talk — this newsletter included — tilts toward knowledge workers, though I’d argue that shift and scheduling reforms could be made in other industries as well. Work that can’t be left at work tends to bleed into other parts of the day, owing to a culture that not only expects us to be available, but responsive — even though we know that there are diminishing returns in extending the work day.
The pandemic showed us that work can be different, that people still got what they needed to get done — I expect because of focus returned to getting their work done and not meeting a quota of hours worked. Or “worked.”
Many people will insist that this can’t possibly work. But what if people didn’t have to work so long? What if we rejected our 24-hour, on-demand, drive-thru culture that insists we accumulate more, more, more and just, I don’t know, took a nap?
If the standard workday can’t end at 3 p.m. — which, p.s., is also more aligned with the school day — then perhaps we can at least observe Garbage Standard Time and agree that no meetings or deep-think work should be scheduled at that time. Repeat after me: nothing good happens during GST!
Jen Zoratti, Columnist