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Stop Working Like It’s 1899 and Do These 4 Things Instead

Are you overworked, uninspired, and wrung dry? It's probably because your day at the office is better suited to a factory worker from the turn of the century! Learn how we got there and how to make your workday work for you.
by Tim Metz | Jan 30 2019

Since the dawn of the new millennium, our way of work and life has been greatly altered by digital and mobile technologies. Yet despite these innovations, we still work according to old ideas from the Industrial Age. As a result, we’re tired, overworked, and always busy.

If you’re thinking that there has to be a better way, you’re right. At the end of this article, you’ll also find four simple ideas for shifting your working habits so you don’t feel spread quite so thin. But first, to really appreciate how much better it can be, let’s explore how we got to this overtaxed point.

How did we get here?

When Industrialization swept over the Western world in the 1800s, grueling work weeks became the norm. Farmers had always spent most of their waking hours working their lands, with a bit of leisure and family time mixed in. The arrival of factories dramatically changed things. As Ilana E. Straus writes in “Would a Work-Free World Be So Bad”:

“Factory owners created a more rigidly scheduled environment that clearly divided work from play. Meanwhile, clocks—which were becoming widespread at that time—began to give life a quicker pace…”

Factory work was harsh and unhealthy. Nevertheless, people (including children) were expected to put in the same amount of hours as they did on the farm: 12 hours or more per day, at least six days per week, but now with fewer breaks and stricter schedules. This changed during the next 50 or so years, but at a painfully slow pace. Over the course of nearly a century, the biggest improvements were a 56.5 hour work week and no work for women and children before 6 am and after 6 pm!

The next hundred years

In the USA, the 40-hour workweek didn’t become the norm until the early 20th century. While government workers in certain cities and states had already been granted this “privilege” in the late 1800s, the Ford Motor Company was the first large industrial force to double workers’ wages, while simultaneously initiating eight-hour work days with a 40-hour per week maximum.

Henry Ford launched his initiative in 1914 for factory workers. Since then, many of us have moved to offices and work on computers. We’re connected to the entire world 24/7 by the Internet, mainly through devices we carry in our pockets. And yet, our calendars still center around the 40-hour workweek Mr. Ford proposed over a century ago.

Workin’ like it’s 1899…

A modern-day knowledge worker’s pursuits don’t align well with Ford’s then-brilliant plan. For one, research shows that working in traditional eight hour, nine to five blocks is actually not optimal for peak performance from the human brain. Knowledge workers can benefit greatly from taking lots of short breaks throughout the day (every 60-90 minutes) and at least one longer one in the middle of the day. These breaks help keep the brain agile and creative, which is why they are so important in a knowledge-based economy.

But it doesn’t end with the office. Being glued to our screens from dawn to dusk turns us into screen zombies, as Arianna Huffington notes in her book The Sleep Revolution. The bright light from screens affects the ability to sleep. It also hinders our ability to think and reflect.

Checking your feeds first thing after you wake often causes us to forget the ideas that might have been brewing in the subconscious while we were asleep.

And now, the good news

When it comes to your daily patterns, there are simple ways you can bust out of Industrial Age habits and improve how you work, sleep, and live. Here are four ideas:

  • 1. Work in sprints: since your brain can only sustain attention for 60 – 90 minutes at a time, make sure you take breaks, no matter how busy you are. As a rule of thumb, take one minute of break for every five minutes that you worked.
  • 2. Break up the day: take a cue from elite violinists and take a larger break in the middle of your day. A half hour lunch break doesn’t cut it! Aim for at least 90 minutes, 120 is ideal. Go for a walk, take a nap, read a book, anything but work.
  • 3. Observe a screen sleep buffer: make sure you avoid screens at least one hour prior to going to bed, as this can affect your ability to sleep. To remember, try setting an alarm one hour before your intended bedtime.
  • 4. Apply the 9 to 9 rule: avoid any “reactive” communication channels (e.g., email, WhatsApp, social media) before 9 am and after 9 pm. This ensures you don’t wake up in your inbox, or go to sleep with work on your mind.

Read more about revamping the way that you work in these books:

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