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How to change the world on 8 hours a day

In a UK-wide stress survey from 2018, a staggering 74% of UK adults suggested that they felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Whenever we reveal this statistic in our Sustainable Excellence course, there tends to be a general nod of understanding and a reluctant acceptance that this insight seems entirely believable.

Yet that is almost three quarters of us, feeling unable to cope, in a typical year.

Since this survey took place, the turbulent waters of our working world have become choppier. We’ve added a pandemic, a cost of living crisis and an unsettled geopolitical scene to pick just three. Against this backdrop, we are also wrestling with the day-to-day grind of our to do list, mounting unread emails and competing work demands. A challenging prospect at the best of times.

There is one silver bullet to the unrelenting demand that we like to think provides a simple answer. Something that if we had a little more of it, then the waters would calm and our output would improve; time.

A little more time would help to reduce our stress and prevent that sensation of overwhelm.

We tell ourselves that with more time, we would complete the thing, read the book, catch back up or achieve the goal.

Despite generations of time saving technological advances, we’ve continued to increase the hours we put into our work in our attempts to solve the challenges of our workloads with the silver bullet of time. Every technological advance from the mobile phone to the Blackberry and laptops through Teams and Slack have made it easier to work from anywhere at any time and has led to a measurable increase in our average working hours.

Our culture has long celebrated long hours, falsely equating presence and a full calendar with productive output. A common articulation of what constitutes a productive person is someone who is constantly busy, a has long to-do list and is always online or in the office.

The notion of long hours directly correlating with success is compounded by our veneration of figures such as Elon Musk, who when discussing Tesla’s success famously noted that “there are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. The logic follows that should we follow Elon’s blueprint and we too will be able to change the world. More hours in, more work out, more success.

Suggesting otherwise opens you up to accusations of laziness and naivety (and while it’s a nice thought that we could all become tech billionaires if we just put a few more hours in, Elon Musk’s top 0.01% IQ might also be a differentiating factor in his success!).

Even if you think you are resistant to these perspectives, you probably still feel the familiar twinge of guilt when you log-off, step away from your desk or engage in an activity that isn’t ‘work’. You ask yourself; “Am I being productive enough with my time?”

We would like to offer an alternative perspective. Surprisingly, this counter-view stems from the cradle of capitalism in the form of one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America - Benjamin Franklin.

It is fair to say that Franklin is broadly considered to be one of the most productive people of all time. This reputation was well-earned. As well as drafting the American Declaration of Independence and being one of the Founding Fathers of America, he also invented bifocal lenses, the lightning rod, a low-energy stove that brought affordable heat to the poorest Americans, and other ground-breaking inventions. He created the US postal service and launched Philadelphia's first fire department. He worked as a printer, an author, a newspaper editor, a scientist and a diplomat. He was also an avid chess player and spoke three languages.

It’s fair to suggest that most of us could achieve just one of these things and consider our careers to have been highly productive.

How did Benjamin Franklin do all this?!

By any objective measure, Franklin changed the world. And he did so on a strict 8 hours per day, with a 2 hour lunch-break and a clear end to his endeavours at 5pm.

It turns out that despite popular belief (and Elon Musk’s insistence), the modern world has been changed on a solid 40 hour working week. If public services, communication systems and scientific advances can be made by one man eking out every last bit of potential from an 8 hour day, perhaps we too could reimagine our relationship with time. It can be our ally, rather than something we constantly fight for and against. Lamenting a lack of time is easy to do. It gives us a simple way out. Utilising the time we have more effectively is something towards which we should devote more energy. Can we better use what we already have?

Franklin demonstrated that hard work is not synonymous with long-work. When we make the case that the only way to advance is to engage in minimum 50 hour weeks, lost weekends and evenings, constant connectivity and an ever-present guilt for not working to exhaustion, perhaps we should consider and learn a little from Franklin’s relationship with time.

And if we focus on that, we can start to reduce the horrendous statistic that nearly three quarters of the UK’s working population feel unable to cope each year.

4and20Million run Sustainable Excellence, a course designed to help people unlock their productivity, without resorting to longer hours and unnecessary stress. For full details, further information and learning more about how to boost your career prospects, please contact:

Benjamin Franklin's daily routine

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