As of this week, I officially work Tuesdays through Fridays. Standard eight-hour days, but only four of them. Every weekend is now a three-day weekend, and I am thrilled!
This wasn’t a decision that I took lightly, and the process revealed a few surprises. It took several months from the time I started thinking about it to actually make a formal request, and a couple more months for it to be made official. Here’s some of what I learned over the course of those months (about myself, about my relationship, and about The System), and what it took to make it happen. I’m writing this all out in hopes that it might serve as inspiration for anyone else who is thinking of reducing their working hours, and also provide some perspective that’s a little deeper than what can be conveyed in a headline.
The company I work for was not the barrier. Xero has verrrrrry flexible policies when it comes to working hours. They even have a series of internal publications showcasing people’s flexible work arrangements. People have reduced their hours for reasons as varied as wanting to avoid rush-hour traffic, to wanting to spend more time with their kids (temporarily or permanently), to training for and representing their country at international sporting events. (We’re hiring, wanna move to New Zealand?! Or Singapore or Melbourne or Denver or…? Let me know if there’s a role you’re interested in and I can send you the internal referral link!)
Benefits weren’t a factor. Everyone who lives in New Zealand, either permanently or on a visa that’s longer than 24 months, is covered by the national health care system, and all other benefits (vacation, sick time) would be prorated according to my new schedule.
I worried a bit about letting my team down, but the truth of the matter is that my working fewer hours would bring our workflows into much better alignment, as the person who does a lot of the post-production on the videos we make together is also on a four-day schedule! Without exception, everyone on my team cheered me on as soon as I told them what I was hoping to do.
My partner wasn’t holding things back, either. Quite the opposite, Scott’s been encouraging me to reduce my working hours for ages. Though he did cover an extra day per week for a colleague for a couple weeks in July, he hasn’t worked more than four days a week in years. One of the things I really appreciate about him is how clear he is about what he values, and how he has always organized his life to prioritize those things.
Nor were financials the main issue, though it took me a long time — not to mention several different number-crunching sessions with Pocketsmith, the app I use to obsess over where the money is going, plus a re-reading of Your Money Or Your Life — to convince myself that this was the case! My tendency has been to invent unnecessary stress over money, but Scott patiently talked some sense into me, pointing out that even if we couldn’t afford it over the long term (we can), we have enough saved to do if for several months, if not longer; furthermore, we could always move into a far less expensive place if need be.
No, the primary bottleneck to making this happen was my own attitude. There is so much I could say here about how I can let my identity get so caught up in my work, and how it never feels like I can do “enough” work, or have “enough” saved away for a rainy day… and I know I am not alone in these feelings.
In addition to having a supportive partner, I have no doubt the several months of practicing mindfulness and kindness meditation in community with the sangha at the Auckland Buddhist Centre (not to mention the psychotherapist that one of my teachers there recommended) are what allowed me to finally feel a sense of contentment, a sense of knowing that everything will be fine, even if I can’t control or predict exactly how. That, and I found it nearly impossible to have glimpsed what a bit of internal S P A C E feels like, and the creative energy that comes with, and not want to cultivate even more of that in my external experience.
This was the tipping point for me. Once I felt committed to deepening my connection to my Buddhist sangha and dedicating more space to creativity, it wasn’t just about working less, without any plans for what I might do with that extra time; it was about wanting to spend more time in that community, and with the practices that were really feeding me. I made up my mind to talk to my boss.
Around the same time, in early June, a string of health issues drove home the importance of not wasting any more time working more hours than I felt comfortable with, not because I don’t love my job, but because I’m just not convinced I’m cut out for a 9-5, for this many years in a row! After burning through several sick days to deal with several manifestations of a burnt-out body, I finally asked my boss if I could move to a four-day schedule.
He had no issue with this, but we’d have to wait until he could talk to his boss, and there were a few things that it would make sense to finish up first…
While we were waiting, a few interesting things popped up. First, I found this Twitter thread from Ellen Pao, in which she recounts the price her own body paid for her history of overworking, which never amounted to the career payoff she imagined. Because of her tweets I also discovered an article by Valeria Aurora (a diversity and inclusion consultant I started following after taking one of her ally workshops last year), In praise of the 30-hour work week:
If you are a salaried professional in the U.S. who works 40 hours a week or more, there’s a pretty good chance you could also be working fewer hours, possibly even for more money.
She systematically busts several of the myths that we tell ourselves about overwork: that our careers will suffer, that we’ll lose our benefits, that we’re lazy if we work fewer than forty hours a week, etc. She even gets into a critique of capitalism, and offers tips for those interested in reducing their number of working hours.
Then in July, a bunch of articles came out about a trustee and estate planning company right here in Auckland that tried a company-wide experiment: all employees would work only four days a week, but be paid the same as usual. They invited researchers to study what happened.
The results were so impressive that the company is looking into making the shift permanent. Here’s what the chief executive told the New Zealand Herald:
What we’ve seen is a massive increase in engagement and staff satisfaction about the work they do, a massive increase in staff intention to continue to work with the company and we’ve seen no drop in productivity.
While my boss and I did joke about the possibility, I ultimately decided not to ask to be paid my full salary, mostly because I didn’t want to sign up for the work that making this case would have entailed; the whole point was to work LESS, after all! And because of all my number-crunching, I knew we didn’t need the money. I had more important things to plan, such as choosing which of the upcoming Buddhist retreats to attend.
While we waited for his boss to return from his vacation, I set about lining everything up with the human resources department. There was a brief moment of panic when we couldn’t immediately determine whether I would still meet the requirements of my work visa — without this visa, Scott and I would not be able to stay in the country — if I went down to 32 hours a week. Turns out 30 hours a week is the minimum requirement. Phew!
Then I had to decide which day to take off, a puzzle that Scott and I worked on together. We discussed my taking Wednesdays off, which would break up my work week, and give us another day off together (he works Sundays). But as interesting as that sounded (my friend Mandy is a huge fan of this schedule), having three days off in a row felt more appealing to me. Furthermore, as Scott and I continued to ask ourselves what was most important to us in a weekly routine, we realized that we both preferred the idea of having two whole days alone, giving us plenty of time to focus on our creative projects while refilling our introvert tanks. I ended up choosing Mondays off instead of Fridays primarily because lots of fun things happen in the office on Fridays (team lunches, game nights, etc) and I didn’t want to miss out.
Finally finally finally, everyone was back in the office, the paperwork was put together properly and signed by all required parties, and presto! Three-day weekends are my new normal. I know it will take a few months of checking the finances to convince me that it’s working, but I’m confident that we’ll be fine. And I can’t wait to discover what a better work-life balance feels like.