Increase Your Productivity By Shortening Your Work Day

Increase Freelancer Productivity with Shorter Work Day

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

That is Parkinson’s Law, first published in The Economist in 1955 to describe the tendency of British civil service to increase in manpower even when the amount of work remained the same.

What does that have to do with freelancers?

In this post, we’re going to explore how freelancers can use Parkinson’s Law to increase our productivity.

If we accept Parkinson’s Law, then it follows that freelancers can get more things done by shortening our work days.

How a Shorter Work Day Makes You More Productive

The rationale behind a short but ultra-productive work day stems from the psychology of deadlines. Whether you love or hate deadlines, they can helps us get more productive, for several reasons.

First, deadlines force us to focus on the most essential tasks. When you’re under time pressure to finish a project, you can’t be bothered with trivial details. Your mind goes into hyper-drive to pick out the most crucial elements of the task at hand, and you focus your energies on those. In short, deadlines make you more efficient.

Deadlines motivate you to resist distractions. Notice how much easier it is to resist Facebook, the TV or your ref when a client deadline is looming? Yet when you have plenty of time to complete a project, every little thing can distract you.

Another way deadlines make us more productive is through their biological effect. Deadlines stimulate our bodies to produce adrenaline, a hormone that pumps up our nervous system. It makes us more alert–ready for anything–and gives us the energy we need to finish the work. It comes in handy when we have to forgo sleep, just to meet a deadline.

Deadlines are also useful for silencing the perfectionist in us. As a writer, I can produce a blog post in 15 minutes… or 15 days. If I gave myself all the time to make a post “perfect,” then I could always find some way to make this paragraph better, or craft that sentence in a clearer way. And don’t even get me started on finding the “perfect” image for the blog post!

But because I have deadlines, I can’t allow myself to listen to Ms. Perfect. As my husband and I always say to our kids, “Almost done is not done.” And “almost done” doesn’t make you money. Another thing: good enough is, well, Good. Enough.

Finally, deadlines help keep you “fresh.” When I was still an office worker, I didn’t believe in working overtime. I told my colleagues, “You’re cheating the company, because you’re getting paid the same after 5 pm, but the quality of your work is no longer as good as it was this morning.”

The truth is, we’re tired, slow, and less creative after working eight hours straight. Deadlines are good, because they force you to stop.

How to Shorten Your Work Day

Are you convinced that giving yourself less time to work will help you actually get more work done? If so, here are some tips for implementing a shorter work day while enhancing your productivity:

  1. Give yourself a deadline for every task. Most likely, you have a deadline for client projects. If it’s a big project, a deadline that’s several weeks away can feel like a really long time. It’s important to break down each project into smaller tasks and give yourself a deadline for each one. Take note that there are two types of deadlines: public and private. A public deadline is the one you’ve agreed on with your client. A private deadline is your own deadline, for yourself. Ideally, your private deadline is “padded.” That is, it’s ahead of your public deadline and gives you leeway for delays or unexpected problems that could come up. For example, my public deadline for a sales page could be on June 30, but my private deadline is June 28. If I get sick and am unable to work for a day or two, I won’t panic, because I know I have that “extra” time to meet the public deadline.
  2. Keep your deadlines challenging but realistic. A too-generous deadline won’t make you more productive. On the other hand, a deadline that’s impossible to meet is counter-productive as well. When you feel you’re too late for something, it can de-motivate you from working faster and more efficiently. So you want a deadline that puts pressure on you, but is still humanly manageable.
  3. Identify the key tasks to be done. As you set deadlines, take note of the most essential elements of each task. For example, when I’m on a time crunch, I can’t spend an hour brainstorming 50 headlines for a sales letter. Or looking for the perfect bullet point graphic. Separate the “must-have” from the “nice-to-have” and use your time accordingly.
  4. Reward yourself for meeting deadlines. Imagine all the other things you could do, if you had a shorter work day. You could go to the gym, hang out with friends, play video games, work on your novel. What would you do if you didn’t have to work? Plan to do some of that after your work is completed every day. And I mean put it in your schedule. Make it an item on your to-do list. Type it into your Google calendar. That’s the only way it will get done.
  5. Stick to your deadlines–but remain flexible. Of course, deadlines only work if you actually stick to them. Yet at the same time, you need to have some flexibility. Unexpected things come up, often through no fault of yours. You know what they say, stuff happens. If it’s necessary, adjust your deadline and let your client know right away. (Click here for Freelance Folder’s free template for when you can’t deliver on a client project.)

What’s Your Relationship with Deadlines?

Do you love deadlines? Or hate them? Do you think a shorter work day would make you more productive? Or would it be impossible?

Share your thoughts and experiences below.

Image by fotologic


  1. says

    Always appreciate your articles, although they are definitely targeted more towards writing (which makes sense considering thats what you do). There are only so many revisions you can do to a marketing piece.

    As a web designer I find that deadlines make me work longer because I am rarely happy with the design. I usually end up cramming 10-12 hour sessions and then stepping away for a day to come back with a fresh perspective.

    I definitely think shorter work days and getting rid of the “grind” helps increase productivity.

  2. says

    Lexie, you are SO right! If I have 20 things to do before I can go to a happy hour, you bet I’ll get them all done in time. but if i have only 1 thing to do, you bet that it’ll take me just as long to do it as it would to do the 20 things. That’s why I’d much rather have a lot of work than just 1 or 2 things going on.

    People say they work better under pressure…but I think it’s just Parkinson’s Law…you work better when there is a deadline.

  3. says

    I tend to schedule my day in 2-hour blocks. The shorter timeframes force me to really think about how long it will take to accomplish various tasks, so I don’t over-schedule; and the mini-deadlines are very helpful.

    The days I don’t do this, I find myself definitely taking longer to get work done…and I am less productive overall.

  4. says

    I accidentally just started doing this. In to work at 11am and off by about 3pm. Then I work on personal projects.

    Very cool article! Great information to share with others.

  5. says

    Another excellent article! Yes, it is very true–especially if your home office is across the hall from your bedroom and very especially if you have a global clientele–you feel as if someone is always “awake” somewhere in the world..

    I could spend all day in front of my computer and get hardly anything done. I have since changed my work habits and also “booked myself” in 2-hour blocks like @Stephan.

    It is also unhealthy to sit all day. You MUST get up and move around every couple of hours–doing that also recharges your brain.

    I really try to stay out of my office until I am up, dressed, workout done, dogs walked, breakfast finished. I finally realized that NOTHING will crash before 9:30 – 10:00 am.

    Every once in a while I do have to work in my client’s/student’s timezone for a particular project/deadline/conference call, but that is rare. They knew MY timezone when they hired me!

    Love Freelance Folder!

  6. says

    I have seen Parkinson’s law in action time and time again, and I like your idea of trying to use it in reverse to your advantage. You just need to be careful not to take it too far. Yes, it’s easy to over-revise your work, but it’s also possible to under-revise it. “Good enough is, well, Good. Enough.” may be good for productivity, but while good gets you paid, great gets you more work.

  7. says

    Well said, Lexi. One of the biggest benefits of a shorter workday (for me, anyway) is reduced risk of burnout. A few days of working 7A to 9P, which can easily happen if you succumb to distraction, take a serious toll on one’s mental health.

    Thanks for the excellent post!


  8. says

    Great post here, I also find it incredibly helpful to think about what I could be doing instead, if I were to just get done with my work. I’ve also successfully trained myself to worry more about what I need to get done if I’m doing something more fun at the time. (Which never use to be the case, I used to rather procrastinate by doing other jobs or fun things I shouldn’t be doing yet, rather than the task at hand.)

    If I tell myself I can play a video game when I finish up Project A for today, can get ready to go out tonight as long as I make x amount of progress on Project B, things get done far more quickly.

  9. says

    Hey, great article!
    I found that 5-6 hors of work a day is the healthy amount for me. After that, or before that, I deal with personal projects. THese help me get that spark we all need to be able to stay focused.

  10. says

    Lexi, your post is reminding me of my addiction to deadlines… and working the last minute just pumps up my creativity and push it to hyper-drive. I don’t know if it’s psychological, but I really love working on a project when it’s like less than 24 hours before the deadliest deadline – like I’ve taken some magic pill that makes me work like a maniac (laughs). I wonder how can your tips work for someone like me, really.. perhaps, I should pretend that everyday is a D-day?

  11. says

    @Kayla – funny how treating ourselves like 6-year-olds can work wonders…I think I’m going to try this out on myself, I already know how well the approach works on my own 6-year-old!

    Angry birds will have to wait ;)

  12. TLC says

    I used to cite Parkinson’s law to co-workers as to why I wouldn’t work overtime as part of my routine. They never got it. At least when you’re getting paid by the hour, you get paid for all that overtime!

    Working at home is always more productive for me. No commute, fewer interruptions, and no office politics mean getting 8 hours of office work done in 4 to 6 hours. I love it!

  13. says

    Another great post Lexi. I completely agree with the notion of breaking projects down into bite-size chunks, purely thinking “What’s the next thing I need to do to progress this?” It really helps avoid procrastination.

  14. says

    Nice post.
    Agree on most of your ideas.

    On thing I’ve found out is to never schedule too much time a day.
    If your normal working day is (supposed) to be 8-hours, never schedule tasks for more than 5-6 hours :)

  15. says

    Well said.

    I try not to work more than six or seven hours a day, and prefer five when possible. I’m juggling so many different projects at once (as all of us do!) that I find it very hard to focus, and if I don’t allot time every day to them all (promote new book; write proposal for next book; find an assistant!; get more writing assignments; reach out for possible speaking gigs), it all falls apart.

    The less time you spend, the more productive you’re forced to become.

  16. says

    I am essentially adopting all your suggestions using the pomodoro technique. It’s glad to see that time and focus are strictly related.

  17. says

    Absolutely, I find myself without a part-time/full-time job right now and I struggle to be productive because I have an abundance of time. This same issue persisted as I was in my semester studying Calculus/Physics.

    You really need discipline if you have a lot of time on your hands. Find some way to restrict how long you have, and your productivity and double or even triple.

  18. says

    my time management has gone for a fly recently…and i think this is really timely and inspiring article..really look forward to give this a test

  19. says

    I like what you guys are usually up too. Such clever work
    and coverage! Keep up the great works guys I’ve incorporated you guys to my blogroll.


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