May 1st, 2020

Shorter by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

We live in a world in which business operates 24/7, the global economy never stops, and competition is relentless. And even if you can become productive enough to finish early, customers and bosses still expect you to be available at all hours.1.

With that thought, Alex Soojun-Kim Pang, opens up his follow up to Rest2. Where Rest was all about the benefits of taking time for yourself, Shorter is a manual for how to do that in a business and one of the key insights is found in the quote above.

Typically, any increase in productivity of the worker has accrued to the owner of the business and the worker looses that extra productivity to more work for the same wages. Pang even cites the philosopher Bertrand Russell who felt that if all productivity benefits accrued to owners we'd live in a world where a few people have so much they don't even know what to do with it while the rest struggle and starve3.

With COVID-19 decimating employment around the world, as my friend Justin pointed out, regular workers bear the brunt and take the longest to recover. The only restaurants that may survive are chains. CEO's make millions while many of their workers now make nothing. In short we're watching this exact paradigm play out in many capitalist societies as many struggle to get by at all while others donate millions and never notice the loss of dollars.

While Shorter doesn't have answers to all of those issues, it is a new way of thinking so that productivity benefits accrue to workers in the form of only working 4 days because they can get their work done in that time.

Pang structures the book according to the 6 phases of design thinking. He starts by framing the problem so that we understand it. Then he inspires readers by explaining the needs of the users (workers) in this problem. Third, he presents ideas about how to make a 4-day work week happen for your business. Fourth, he shows us some prototypes of these things working. Fifth, he shows us how companies went about testing a 4-day work week and what went wrong and how they worked through those issues. Finally, he encourages us to share our attempts at working less and allowing workers to keep some of the benefits to increased productivity.

I'm not going to follow his structure for this review, but pull out some highlights I've been pondering.

The Fears with a 4-day Work Week

The biggest fear that workers have when a 4-day week is suggested is that they'll be asked to do the same amount of work in 4 days, which seems obvious. The fear comes in when they also figure that the day off will be taken away and then they'll simply have to maintain that extra productivity with no increase in pay when they're back to a 5-day schedule4. Many employees are also concerned that if they don't get the same amount done, they'll need to take a salary cut or find a new job.

In businesses, the value created by efficiencies are captured by owners, not workers. Make the system more efficient and the system benefits. under these circumstances, most of us would prefer to match the tasks we have to the time we have to do them, rather than learn to do them faster, work more effectively, and risk increasing our workloads.5

Ultimately what employees don't see is the benefits that employers may get from the changed situation outside of hours and money. We'll come to those in a bit.

On the employer front, most are afraid that the new 4-day work week will be seen as a right, instead of a privilege for extra productivity6. Wharton has an interesting article on the feelings that employees get when perks are given and then taken away.

“Once you have the perk, to take it away is seen as a violation of a psychological contract you have with your employee,” says Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard.

To address this point up front, Pang suggests that you make it clear this is a working experiment and that the company profitability needs to stay the same. If it does, then employees get the benefit of their extra productivity. If it doesn't, then 5-days will be coming back. I'm not sure his idea is going to work, but it's an idea to talk with employees about as you bring forward the idea of 4-day work weeks.

Benefits of a 4-day Week

What the researchers found was that happiness and well-being peak at around eight hours of employment per week and do not rise higher when people add more hours to their workweek. Having a job reduces a person's risk of developing mental health issues, but working forty hours won't make you twice as happy as working twenty.7

How physically demanding is chess? Oh I'm sure you think it's mentally demanding, but did you know that most of the top chess players have physical training mixed in with their chess practice? Did you know that calories burned in a long day of competitive matches gets close to a full body workout? Knowledge workers sifting through a hard brain bending problem are dealing with the same physical drain, and yet few worry about their physical health or taking any type of recovery from long days spent thinking.

We highly underestimate the physical drain of knowledge work8. Moving to a 4-day work week gives staff more time to take their physical well-being into account. No more squeezing in runs or workouts, they can spend that day off doing some physical activity without giving up a large chunk of their weekend. They can spend that day mentally recharging to be ready to apply focus again on Monday.

In fields that prize extrovert tendencies9, extroverts are drained and not performing their best. Going to a 4-day work week gives them an extra day to recharge so that they can give their full attention to work the rest of the week10.

The 4-day work week can also act as a recruitment tool11. Same salary, same benefits but one less day of being in the office. I know where I'd prefer to work.

A shorter work week also helps parents be good parents without the business stigma of not being committed to work12. We saw this in All In by Josh Levs when he said:

Millions of stay-at-home moms want to get back to work and advance their careers. Millions of working dads want more time at home to raise their kids. But society doesn't allow it.

Josh showed readers that there is a huge penalty for a dad being a dad. Take more than a day of parental leave when you have a new baby, well your career just stalled and you're seen as entirely uncommitted to the company. Want to head out on a field trip, clearly that's a mom thing and not something a dad should be doing...career points deducted.

Moving to a 4-day work week can help both parents fight this trap. Where they want to be good parents, but know that they'll suffer at work if they spend the time they want to with their family.

Implementing the 4-day Week

Traditionally, businesses organize the working day with the tacit assumption that our energy and attention levels don't wary throughout the day, and that every hour is essentially interchangable.13

In Daniel Pink's excellent book When, he spent the entire book addressing the topic of the ebb and flow of our focus. This single quote summarizes it well:

First our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the sixteen or so hours we’re awake, they change — often in a regular, foreseeable manner. We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others.

This is one of the key insights you need to embrace if you're going to start a 4-day work week. You can't simply expect to do your work with the same old methods that were used in a company that had 5-days to work. You must recognize the ebb and flow of your employee creativity and organize your day properly.

That usually means, quiet focused work without interruptions...office wide...for the first 2 - 3 hours of the day. No meetings. No stopping by the desk to ask a quick question. Just quiet focused work. Then, take a break and let some meetings and interruptions happen. Take lunch and start the afternoon with some focused work again before ending with some admin and tasks that don't take a bunch of mental focus.

I call this The Mullet Method of Deep Work. Focus up front, and distraction in the back, and it's how I've organized my day for years. Most days I start before 6am and work till around 9am. Then I take a run or hang out with my kids while my wife runs. I spent three hours disconnected from screens and do something to let my brain recharge. Then I get back at work for 3 - 5 hours of focus.

The hour at the end of the day is left for basic admin tasks, like answering email and prepping for the next day. That doesn't mean I don't check email in the day, but that any other email time is focused around a client I'm working for. So searching for and replying to their emails not randomly looking at and dealing with any email.

To start thinking about work like this in your company ask yourself, what is the most creative time of day for your employees14? Are you using that for their most focused work?

The counter point to this question is, what is your least productive day of the week? Why are you even working it in the first place15? My least productive day is Friday, so I don't bother to do much with it. I'll learn some stuff for myself. Do some extra reading, visit the local used bookstore if it's open. Record some videos and edit them if If you dropped your least productive workday, would you really loose much?

Why are most meetings scheduled for an hour? Mostly because that's the default setting for calendaring programs16. It has nothing to do with efficiency. Recently with more online meetings happening people have been praising Zoom's 40-minute "free" meeting default. In almost every case you're going to get just as much done in a 40-minute meeting as a 60-minute meeting. If you're going to move to a 4-day work week, then you're going to have to rethink all your defaults and turn everything in to the most effective version of itself.

Should You Read Shorter by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

My favourite ideas from this book revolve around changing the dynamics of where efficiency accrues in a business. I'm lucky that I work for myself and any benefits to getting my work done faster or better accrue to me17. Most people working don't have this benefit though, and worker productivity has risen for decades without any of that productivity being seen by the workers themselves.

If that strikes you as wrong, then Shorter is going to give you ideas about how to change this dynamic.

If you're looking for a recruiting tool in a market where there is hard competition for workers, then a 4-day work week is a good tool to use.

If you're looking to have employees feel greater ownership for the company, then a 4-day work week can accomplish that.

If you're looking to have some of your views changed regarding why we work the amount we do in the first place, then Shorter is a good read.

Purchase Shorter: Independent Publisher | Amazon


  1. Page 5 

  2. Read my review of Rest 

  3. Page 6, 7 

  4. Page 75 

  5. Page 123 

  6. Page 112 

  7. Page 78 

  8. Page 220 

  9. Pretty much every field as we learned in Quiet 

  10. Page 171 

  11. Page 182 

  12. Page 188 

  13. Page 136 

  14. Page 126 

  15. Page 118 

  16. Page 128