sunday life: how to work a four-day week

This week I share how I take Thursdays off. I call it a Clear Day. A day for floating…


If you were to put your ear to the ground and listen carefully, this is what the Zeitgeist would rumble back at you: right now, in 2010, we’re feeling like little canoes thundering down a gorge. Every iota of us wants to paddle over to one of the placid little pools that we glimpse in our flurry downstream. So we can get our breath and check we’re heading down the right river. But we keep getting swooped into the current (nagging emails, to-do detritus), don’t we. Or thrown a series of rapids (late parking fees to pay, kids’ tuba lessons). And so the calm pool of reflection eludes us.

You know, it’s not so much that we yearn less work or less responsibilities. Self-help types often get this wrong. Mostly, if you listen to the hum and drum of the collective, we yearn more space between the work and responsibilities, from which to prioritise and appreciate. Lately, when I email my busy colleagues I preface things with “when you come up for air, would you mind….”.  When I talk inside my own head, I say things like, “I’ll get around to mapping out my five-year plan, or cooking that rabbit stifado, when I clear some space in my diary”.

But how do we get that space? How do we clear a path to that calm pool? My friends: you don’t wait for something to give; you create it yourself.

Creating your own parameters… it’s become a theme on this page. Last month I wrote about taking Sunday off to rest. Yep, it’s hard to switch off these days. But it’s only hard. In Grandad’s day, work and rest were delineated clearly for us. The shops were shut on weekends, for instance. Difference now is we have to carve out our parameters ourselves, proactively turning off email on a Friday at 6pm and scheduling meditation appointments with ourselves under the desk in the afternoon (um, don’t you?).

And having Clear Days. Yes, Clear Days (a word I’ve just invented and put in Capitals Which Makes it Seem More Authentic). For the past few months I’ve set aside Thursdays to read, reflect and flesh out creative ideas.

Google does the same. It’s called 20 Per Cent Time and allows employees to spend a day a week working on side projects. Google News and Gmail both emerged from this “space”. Ditto Post-It Notes when 3M instigated something similar. Here in Australia, software company Atlassian, run by two barely-30 kids and reportedly raking in $35 million a year, have “Fedex days” in which staff work on “crazy big ideas” they must deliver in 24 hours.

To be honest, my Clear Days have been frightfully flabby efforts so far. My parameters have been rather porous – I’ve sneaked in emails, booked in dentist appointments and done favours for friends who think I’m having a Day Off. But this week I decided to get firm.

On Monday I chatted to Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes. The key to getting clear, he shared, is to use the space for “looking up”. That is, it’s for working on stuff that’s got nothing to do with what you do day-to-day. I also spoke to Madisyn Taylor from DailyOM, a blog I’ve followed for three years. Each day she posts poignant wisdoms from her office in California. How does she get inspired? She takes Tuesdays off. She begins by buttressing her parameters: “I turn my phone off and get the house ready by clearing clutter. I don’t leave the house all day. Then I meditate with a notebook next to me, to record ideas as they come up. I’m firm about it.”

Finally, as deadline for this column loomed, I came across an article by productivity guru Steve Pavlina espousing the “one week on, one week off” approach. He works full-throttle for 7 days – pushing himself to 80-100 hours, completely focused and not bothering to have life balance. “Recycle your dirty clothes if you must,” he says. Then, the next 7 days you walk away completely and get perspective, dream, doodle, travel. Sprint, rest, sprint, rest. His tip: it doesn’t matter how long the cycle, so long as the distinction between sprinting and resting is firm. Yes, firm. This is my lesson.

I realise most people can’t wake up and announce to the boss they’re taking Thursdays off. But we can all clear some space somewhere, even if it’s 15 minutes either side of every entry in your diary (my PA during my magazine editing days used to do this for me). The value is in creating the parameters and buttressing it firmly. Then you can step into the space safely and place everything that’s been held in it – the tuba lessons, the rabbit stifado, the….

And I should update you: I am STILL only working four days a week…it’s taken a lot of false starts and discipline. But it’s paying off. The biggest hurdle? That feeling that “this relaxation thing should be more enjoyable”…like when you’re on holiday and you finally stop and sit by the pool and the feeling isn’t nearly as good as the brochure intimated. I’ve combatted this by launching into my Thursdays with this simple intention: let’s just see what happens.

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