The 3 Hour Workday: An Operating System for Knowledge Workers

The modern workplace is sick. Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn't a prerequisite for progress. Sitting in meetings all day isn't required for success. These are all perversions of work- side effects of broken models and follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let the suckers jump. - Jason Fried

Tim Ferriss published the The Four Hour Workweek almost 15 years ago. Since then, we've experienced unparalleled rates of innovation and progress. Things that took days take hours and things that took months take weeks. Software replaced many of his original recommendations that took human labor.


  • Tools like Zapier and Airtable make it possible to automate thousands of repetitive tasks. My friend Gareth Pronovost built a thriving business out of helping individuals and organizations automate repeteitive tasks. He saved a non-profit 7000 dollars in their first year and his work is saving me at least 10 hours a week. He also built a personal CRM for himself in an afternoon.
  • You can design a logo for your personal brand in minutes or create a website in under an hour
  • You can make incredible video content without an expensive videographer.
  • With tools like Adobe Spark (available for free), it takes longer to come up with content than it does to create it.


We have access to free or low-cost tools, resources, and distribution channels.

Yet, we're distracted, sleep-deprived, and more inefficient than we've ever been. We consume more than we create, and spectate more than we participate. On The Unmistakable Creative, Cal Newport said the following about modern knowledge work:

Our knowledge sector is not getting more productive.... The way that we're running knowledge work now is the way that they used to build cars before the assembly line, which is they would have different teams gather in a fixed spot in the factory floor, and each team would build a car in place. This was very instinctual. It was just trying to scale up the way that you would build something with a small group of people back at our Paleolithic history. It was easy to manage, everyone understood it, but it was a terribly inefficient way to produce cars.

We have this very simple, instinctual way of working that we're trying to scale up. It's costing us a fortune in lost productivity, we're producing proverbial cars way too slow, and we have to make the shift to the proverbial assembly line.

I publish 2 podcast episodes, 7 blog posts, and send 3 email newsletters each week. I do most of this in 3 hours a day. I've maintained this schedule even while I was writing a book. Publishing a blog post every day was something I added this year. I'm convinced that with the right framework, anybody could do this, even on the side of a demanding day job.

The way we do knowledge work today is broken. The productivity hacks that have brought us here will only get us so far. The number of things competing for our attention are only increasing. We can't just reboot the way we're working, or attempt to change cultural norms. We have to rewrite what Aaron Dignan refers to as our "organization operating system".

Rewriting the operating system lets you get more done in less time. It makes your work more enjoyable and you produce at a much higher level.


Part 1: Change the Narrative We Have About Work

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The 8 hour work day doesn't make sense. It hasn't for decades. It doesn't account for diminishing returns with our productivity and attention spans. We can work past the point of diminishing returns. Or come back when our output is at its peak. If we did the latter, we'd work less and get more done.

We have to challenge the dominant paradigms of how knowledge work gets done. The way we've always done things is a stupid reason to continue doing them the same way.

Knowledge workers aren't factory workers. There isn't a direct correlation between how much time they spend on the job and their output.

The 3 hour work day is not a formula, but a framework to increase efficiency for modern knowledge workers. It's a way to stop doing knowledge work the way that we built cars before the Industrial revolution. There are countless things we shouldn't, and don't have to be spending time on each day.

An Essentialist Approach to Knowledge Work

Before we can even think about rewriting the organization operating system, we have to consider what doesn't belong there in the first place. In a world filled with distractions and apps that social media celebs say "everyone should be on", it's hard to separate the signal from the noise, the trivial many from the important few.

The 3 Hour Workday: An Operating System for Knowledge Workers 2

We all have things that we do at our jobs or in our work that produce a disproportionate amount of value. For me, that's writing, interviewing people, and giving speeches. They are my essential priorities.

If we were all brutally honest about our essential priorities, we'd see that more than 80% of the way we spend our time doesn't support what we say matters most to us.

Quality of time vs Quantity of Time

Associating face time with productivity is insane. But the structure of most working environments punishes people for efficiency. It rewards them for looking busy.

At one of my last sales jobs, I helped a sales rep achieve a 150% of his quota his first quarter on the job. I helped to triple account revenue from some of our biggest clients. But a few weeks into the beginning of the next year, our VP of sales was visiting. I didn't have much to do on the day of his visit.

Because I didn't appear to be working, he put me on a performance improvement plan. He called me almost a month later to see how it was going. I knew it was a lost cause from the moment he put me on the plan. He'd made up his mind about me, so I started looking for another job and submitted my resignation. Appearances mattered more than results.

A salesperson could work an hour a day and generate millions of dollars. If they did, it would be stupid to insist they show up at an office for 8 hours. You could say this about anyone. We need to shift our focus from hours spent to results generated.

The quantity of time we put into something is not as important as the quality of time we put into something. You could spend 3 hours a day on a task that generate results. Or you can spend 8 hours task-switching between email and real work. The former is more valuable.

Parkinson's law states that we complete a given task in the time allotted for it. Whose to say we couldn't work three hours a day and finish everything we normally would in an eight hour work day? Punishing people for finding more efficient ways to do their job is crazy.


Part 2: Build the Right Environment

For the 3-hour work day to be feasible, you have to design an environment that's conducive to the person or organization you want to become. As Jim Bunch says in the video below, if you build the right environment, the environments will do the work for you.

All Behavior is the Result of Environment

Every one of our behaviors is a byproduct of our environment. A few weeks ago I had the genius idea to buy Trader Joe's dark chocolate peanut butter cups. I thought if I had small ones, I'd get my sugar fix without eating a whole chocolate bar.

But, within a few days, I hadn't followed the advice that I'd written about in my own damn book. I was eating 5 of them every night.

My environment was setup for me to fail.

  • If you have junk food in your fridge you'll be more likely to eat it.
  • If you have a thousand apps open you'll be more likely to to cave into a source of distraction.


Creativity is the precursor to innovation.

  • If your office is stale and sterile, it's unlikely people will be creative or innovative.
  • If you have a culture where people are expected to respond to email immediately, they'll never have time for deep thinking necessary for major breakthroughs.


Eliminate the Need for Willpower

Let's think of willpower like a bank balance. You start the day with 20 units.

For EVERY decision you make, you spend a unit. Every email you reply to, every link you click, every text message you read all deplete the willpower balance.

If you do all this before beginning your most important work of the day, you go out of the gate with a self-imposed handicap. By designing the right environment, you avoid depleting all of your willpower before you do the most important work of the day.


A Distraction Free Work Environment

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Anything that is unrelated to what you're working on at the moment is a distraction:

  • A book on you're desk you're not currently reading
  • A chat window, browser tab, etc.
  • An inbox that's open when you're not checking or responding to email

If two things are competing for your attention at the same time, one of them is a distraction.


3 Types of Distractions

1. Visual: Anything that you can see is visual distraction. If you're working in one application, and you see a notification for your inbox pop up, that's a visual distraction. This is one of the reasons I love distraction free tools like Notion. Once you start typing in it, the navigation and everything else disappear. A simple rule to reduce visual distractions: if you don't need it for the task at hand, close it.

2. Auditory: The next category of distraction is anything you can hear. Whether it's screaming kids, landscapers, or sirens blazing, anything you hear can be an auditory distraction. The simple fix for this is noise cancellation headphones and a techno track.

3. Kinesthetic: Anything you can feel is a kinesthetic distraction. If your chair is uncomfortable, or the temperature is too hot, that's a kinesthetic distraction.

All the above are either physical or digital distractions. If you want to increase your attention span, decrease the competition for it.


Distractions for Knowledge Workers

1. Email

Nobody ever changed the world by checking email, so it's insane that we spend so much time on it. At large Fortune 500 companies, employees spend upwards of 3-5 hours a day checking and responding to email. Assuming a salary of 100,000 dollars a year and 40 work week, companies pay their employees 300 dollars a day to check and respond to email. On a team of 30, email costs a company 9000 dollars a day.

The inbox is a rabbit hole as insidious as the internet. You go in with the intention of doing one thing. But, then you do a dozen other things. You delete spam and reply to emails. Tools like Superhuman have made email lightning fast. But no email client can address the fact that our attention has been derailed.


The fix is surprisingly simple.

  1. Compose the emails you plan to send in a tool other than your email client. This allows you to avoid your inbox when it's unnecessary.
  2. Setup separate email address: I have one email address that I use for subscriptions and new apps that I want to try out. If I choose to sign up as a paid customer, then I change it to my main email address.
  3. Batch process. Have set time times of day when you check your email. But have your email closed by default.


For the most part, nothing in our inboxes requires an instant response. "In almost every situation, an immediate response is an unreasonable expectation. Yet with more and more real time communication tools creeping into daily work- especially instant messaging tools and group chat- the expectation of an immediate response has become the new normal" say Basecamp founders DHH and Jason Fried.


2. Meetings

My last day job made me realized how bad we are at meetings. Every Monday, the CEO, the marketing team, and the developers would gather in a conference room. There was rarely a clear agenda, and we would sit in a meeting that took hours.

For the last 6 months of my job I worked from Costa Rica. When I dialed into a conference call, the CEO and the marketing team spent 45 minutes talking about the broken air conditioner in the office.

In our interview on The Unmistakable Creative, Aaron Dignan said he spoke to a team of C-Suite execs who were spending 40 hours a week in meetings. If these are the people that are ultimately responsible for the success of the company, this should be a cause for serious concern. If you're already paying employees 300 dollars a day to check email, paying top executives millions to attend meetings might very well be the death of your company.


3. Social media

For most modern knowledge workers, social media isn't more than an entertaining distraction. The opportunity cost is shorter attention spans and decreased productivity.

It might be tempting to think you need a social media footprint to build your brand. But as Oprah Winfrey said to Tom Brady about a teenage girl obsessed with her brand, "The brand comes from the work you do." You'd be amazed what you can accomplish by quitting social media for 30 days.

The modern day work environment is setup in such a way that task shifting is inevitable. When we shift our attention from task to task, instead of doing one thing well, we do many things poorly.

This doesn't just cost organizations and individuals lost productivity. It prevents deep work, flow states and creative breakthroughs. It limits insights and billions of dollars in innovative new product ideas.

Reducing the flow of information frees up their cognitive bandwidth for innovation.

Part 3: DOING THE WORK


Develop Awareness of How You Spend Your Time

The first thing I do when I work with a client is break down how they spend their day. I want to know how they spend their time: from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to sleep.

If you're resistant to tracking how you spend your time, it's because you know you'll be horrified by what you discover. But it's better to make that discovery now than a year from now.


  • Rescuetime allows you to track your time and block distractions.
  • Timely uses an AI tool that lives on your computer. It shows you in explicit detail how you're spending every minute. You can then assign those minutes to projects and categories.


If you know how you're spending your time, you'll also know how you're wasting it.


Managing Your Attention

Companies spend their employees' time and attention as if there were an infinite supply of both. As if they cost nothing. Yet employees' time and attention are among the scarcest resources we have. - Jason Fried

Don't Start Your Day On the Internet

There are two things will derail your ability to adopt the 3 hour work day framework.

  1. Starting your day on the internet
  2. Turning on your devices first thing in the morning.

This puts you into a frenzied rather than focused state at the the time of day when your brain is the most suggestible.

I do some of my best writing on the days when I start my writing by hand in a moleskine notebook. My most unproductive days are the ones where I turn on my laptop first thing in the morning.

For the first hour of a day, replace everything digital with something analog.

  • If you read books on your iPad or Kindle, start with a physical book.
  • If you use a to do list app, replace it with The Bullet Journal Method.
  • If you write in a word processor, switch to a notebook.


I've said before that attention is the currency of achievement, but I'm beginning to think it's also the currency of connection, love and everything that matters in our lives.

When my sister started dating my brother in law, she casually dropped in a conversation that she'd played the cello. For their 5th date, he bought tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma at the Hollywood bowl. My sister wasn't honestly much of a cellist (no offense, sis).

But she told that story to my dad, who shared it in his speech at their wedding. Attention was the currency of love, so just imagine what it learning to manage it could do for other parts of our lives.


2. Don't Start Your Day With Technology

Spending the first part of your day without technology will lead to greater levels of clarity and insight. It's hard to year your own thoughts when they are being drowned out by emails and notifications.

One of the best things you can do to improve your attention span is to the avoid starting the day with technology. If you start the day by grabbing your phone, checking your email, and scrolling through Facebook, you deplete your willpower before you've done any important work for the day, and start with a self imposed handicap. All of those small things are decisions, which cause decision fatigue. A simple way around this is to read physical books and write in a notebook.


3. Leave Your Phone Out of the Room

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There's only one reason to have your phone in the room for the first hour of the day. That's because you're using for a meditation app. After that, put it out of the room or out of sight. The presence of a phone when you're trying to focus is kryptonite for your attention span.


4. Increase Your Attention Span with Interval Training

If you've spent the last 2 years swiping left on Bumble, updating your status every hour, checking email 300 times a day, and uploading every moment of your life to instagram, don't expect that you'll be able to focus with unbroken concentration for an hour.

What you want to do is use interval training to increase your attention span. Start with 10 minutes, then 20, and progressively work your way up to an hour. That being said, there's a caveat. What you do when you're not trying to focus matters.

One of my friends says that the reason some people who join CrossFit don't lose any weight is because it becomes their excuse to eat like shit. I should know. I've justified more than my fair share of desserts with the excuse that, "It doesn't matter because I went to CrossFit". What does this have to do with your attention span?

If you spend your unfocused time letting your attention shift from one stimulus to another, it will undo all the gains from your interval training, making you the cognitive equivalent of an athlete who smokes.


Developing The Right Working Habits

Habits are the compound interest of self improvement. As you stack more and more of them on top of each other, you'll be able to get more done and work less.

Minimum Viable Actions

In my experience, the number one reason habits don't stick is because people attempt to make drastic unsustainable changes. I've seen it in myself, the clients I work with and friends of mine. By making small sustainable changes, you're able to build the identity of the person you want to become.

  • Break a habit into pieces.
  • Do the first step of Identity-Based Habits
  • Example: Instead of writing 1,000 words, just sit at your desk with pen and paper.
  • What is the behavior of the type of person who does x?


Track Your Progress

Typically, we measure outcomes and overlook progress. As a result, we believe we're not making any and do ourselves a great disservice. According to the work of Teresa Amabile, author of the Progress Principle, visible progress is one of our greatest motivators. Fortunately, we can measure all of our progress in a way that we can control.

One of the biggest reasons I track my daily word count as a writer is because I know it will increase my motivation and it's completely in my control. Another way to measure progress is with something like the "don't break the chain" method. While I've applied this in the context of writing, it can be used to track almost any habit.


Regardless of what method you use to track your progress, consider the following three questions:

  1. Is it in your control?
  2. Is it measurable?
  3. Is it sustainable?

If you track your progress, you'll find that you feel motivated to keep showing up day after day.


Flow

According to Steven Kotler, it takes 90 minutes of uninterrupted creation and singular focus on one task to reach flow. By tapping into the power of flow, we get a 500% increase in productivity and substantial gains in performance.

Let's use writing as an example. Let's say that it takes you1 hour to write 1000 words.

  • At 100 percent increase in your productivity, you'd the same 1000 words in 30 minutes.
  • At a 200 percent increase you'd write the same 1000 words in 20 minutes.
  • At a 500 percent increase you'd manage to write that same 1000 words in 12 minutes.

When you're in flow, both the quantity and quality of your creative output go through the roof. To make the 3-hour workday a reality, you have to be able to spend time in flow each day.

But flow isn't like a light switch. You can't just turn it on or off. Instead, it follows what's known as the "Flow Cycle". Even a simple interruption like an instant message kicks you out of flow and causes the whole cycle to start all over again.

The flow cycle begins with complete concentration on one task. When I'm writing, I work in full screen mode and use a distraction free writing tool. Nothing else is competing for my attention. It might take anywhere between 200 to 500 words before I get from concentration to the edge of flow.

Don't quit at the struggle. As I was writing this, I was struggling to get words on the page. My thoughts were all over the place and my ideas weren't flowing. Then I remembered that struggle was a sign that I was probably on the edge of getting into flow. Shortly after that, words just poured on to the page.

At some point, what was once a struggle will begin to feel effortless. The biggest mistake you could make is to stop working when you hit this point. This is where you step on the gas pedal. I've cranked out 1,500 word blog posts in 20 minutes while I was in flow.

To optimize for flow, you have to have some clear boundaries. Close the door, put on some headphones, put your phone in do not disturb, and put a sign on your door or your cubicle that says "Don't fu@# with me. I'm flowing."

At his "Zero To Dangerous" event in Miami, Steven Kotler told us a story about one his books. When he turned the first draft into the editor, she asked him to rewrite almost 200 pages. He procrastinated for months.

When he managed to finally sit down and get into flow, he cranked out the 200 pages in two weeks. His editor had one comment. In the world of publishing that's unheard of. Steven won a Pulitzer for that book. That's the power of flow.

Unfortunately, the modern day work environment is setup in such a way that task shifting is inevitable. When we shift our attention from task to task, instead of doing one thing extremely well, we do multiple things poorly.

This doesn't just cost organizations and individuals in terms of lost productivity. It also prevents deep work, flow states and all of the precursors that ultimately lead to creative breakthroughs, insights and billions of dollars in innovative new product ideas.

To make the transition to a three hour work day, organizations have to create the conditions that lead to flow.


90-Minute Work Blocks

90-minute work blocks increase flow for two reasons. First, we have the right amount of time to get into flow. Second, 90 minutes is a clear goal, which is a flow trigger.

Consider something like writing. The first hour of my writing session is filled with false starts, incoherent ramblings and disjointed ideas. Sometimes it takes 1000 an hour to get to 1000 words. But when I reach a state of flow, I've managed to crank out clear, coherent, 1500 to 2000 word articles in 30 minutes. In a state a flow, I'm getting double the output in a third of the time.

Since you're only allocating two 90-minute work blocks, you have to choose your task for the day wisely. This requires you to focus on high impact activities. As a person who writes books and blog posts, writing is my high impact activity.

Most low impact activities (email, social media, etc.) can be dealt with in less than 30 minutes a day. I recommend that you don't take them into consideration when crafting your 3-hour workday.


High Value Breaks

You're not a robot, so it's important to take breaks from your work. To me the ideal time for that is between your two work blocks. But, not all breaks are created equal.

When I spoke with Adam Gazalley about the neuroscience of attention, he recommended simple breaks like getting up for a glass of water, looking out the window, or going for a quick walk.

But if you use your breaks to do a quick social media or email check, your attention gets fragmented, causing attention residue, resulting in a negative impact on what you were originally working on. Not only that, the whole cycle of getting yourself back into a flow-state starts all over again. You waste not only the 90 minutes it took you get into flow, but all of the time after.

Part 4: Define Your Workflow, Build Systems, and Automate With Software

The 4-Hour Workweek (Timothy Ferriss) was about outsourcing some of our most mundane tasks. The 3-hour work day is about automating them with software.

The authors of *Reinventing Jobs: A 4 Step Approach to Applying Automation To Work* recommend the following framework:

  1. Deconstruct jobs into component work.
  2. Assess the relationship between job performance and strategic value.
  3. Identify options for recombining tasks in the light of a new technology or process.
  4. Optimize work by putting it altogether to reinvent jobs.


Whether you realize it or not, artificial intelligence and automation are prevalent everywhere in your life. If you use tools like Calendly to schedule meetings, you've scratched the surface of what's possible with automation. When you combine multiple tools with your workflow, the productivity gains can add up to dozens of hours every week.


Defining Your Workflow

A workflow is step by step break down of the process that you use to complete any of you work. Chances are you have a workflow for all of the following:

  • Onboarding a new client/new hire
  • Recording a podcast
  • Following up after a team meeting

Any part of your work flow where data is collected can be automated. The power of automation is where the 3-hour work day goes from being a fantasy to a reality, and you will feel as if you have exponential superpowers. So how do you define your workflow?


3. Basic Components of Every Workflow

While I've done this in writing here, my friend who built what you're about to see recommends starting with a mind map.

Let's take something like producing an episode of "The Unmistakable Creative" Podcast. For every workflow, you want to ask yourself three questions.


1. What are the steps?

  • Guests send a pitch or I reach out them.
  • Every guest schedules their interview using Calendly.
  • I setup a URL in Zencastr for each interview.
  • I share the Zencastr link with the guest.
  • Once the interview is recorded, I pick an air date.
  • I decide on a title for the episode.
  • Once I have the title, I notify our artist so she can prepare the cover art.
  • I notify my audio editor which advertisers are the in the show.
  • From there my editor, puts it altogether and sets it up to be shared on WordPress.
  • After an interview is live, we notify our guests.


2.  What are the tools I use to execute the steps?

  • Calendly to schedule the interview
  • Zencastr to record the interview
  • Email to let my guests know their interview is live


3. What are the data points we need?

  • Guest name
  • Email address
  • Record date
  • Episode Title
  • Air date
  • Headshots
  • Advertisers


With answers to those three questions, you'll have what you need to build a system.


3. Build Systems

Multiple parts of the process are the same for every podcast. Any workflow that has repetition can be transformed into a system.

Once you know your workflow you can transform it into a system. For example, this 8-step daily routine I used to write 100's of articles and multiple books is system. And systems are essential if you want to increase your creative output.

When you build a system, you can focus on the most valuable parts of your work. While the terminology sounds complex, you already have systems in other parts of your daily life. You have systems for paying bills, buying groceries etc. Now let's get to the the real magic.


Automate With Software

If you have a system for any part of your work, there's a good chance you can probably automate it. My friend Gareth Pronovost is an expert at helping businesses automate manual and repetitive tasks using Airtable. After I explained the workflow of podcast production to him, we automated the overwhelming majority of this. Below I've included a video how we did this.

As my friend says, the future is going to belong to those employees who can automate the most repetitive and mundane parts of their job to focus on deep, meaningful work.


Part 5: Rest and Recovery

Sleep deprivation is not only all too common in the world we live in, but it decreases immunity, and increases symptoms of anxiety and depression. People wear sleep deprived 60-hour work weeks like badges of honor, yet sleep is where is one of the greatest performance enhancers we have.

When I wake up in the morning after a really good night of sleep, I’m more creative, productive and prolific.

Given what we've learned about the brain's capacity for deep focus and the tools at our disposal, the 8-hour workday is an antiquated operating system for modern knowledge workers and organizations.

It may very well be costing them billions of dollars in lost opportunities for innovation, breakthroughs and employee satisfaction. An organization that has the courage to take this leap might just find that a 3-hour workday is key to a happy workforce, innovative ideas, productivity and profit.

Maybe it's time we ditched the 8-hour workday and did knowledge work like we're living in 2019 instead of 1919.

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