A Swedish Lesson in Working Less


If there’s one subject I’ve written about more than any other in this blog it’s work/life balance. I make no apology for that. I hope everything I do is directed at two simple ends: helping you build a successful business – and making sure that you stay in control of the business, not the other way round. How many men have said, “I missed my children growing up?” No business is worth that: there has to be balance to make the journey and the destination worthwhile.

But where work/life balance is concerned, I’m only a beginner.

Compared to the Swedes – and their national obsession with the subject – I’m a rank amateur. But even I thought they were taking it a bit far when I saw this article on the BBC website.

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A six hour working day? How can you possibly achieve anything in a six working day?

But company boss Jimmy Nilsson doesn’t have any doubts. Quoted on the BBC he says: “It’s difficult to be focused at work for eight hours. But with six hours you can be more focused and get things done more quickly.”

His team work from 8/30 to 11/30: take an hour for lunch and then start another three hours at 12/30. Crucially they’re asked to stay away from social media in the office and to leave any personal calls or e-mails until the end of the day.

Do people want to work fewer hours? Of course they do. Look at the stellar success of the 4 Hour Work Week. But in my experience what people really want is to work more efficiently and more productively.

We all have days at work when everything goes perfectly; everything’s crossed off your to-do list, everyone’s in when you call. Result: you go home at the end of the day with more energy than when you rolled into the office at 8/30. And then there’s the other day: nothing gets done, constant interruptions, constant problems. You drag yourself through the front door and collapse on the sofa, beyond exhausted.

Maybe we’re the architects of our own exhaustion – and maybe Jimmy Nilsson is right about social media. How many of us ‘work’ with Cricinfo open so we can check the cricket score? Or quickly check the fan’s forum to see if our team has signed anyone? According to a recent article in the Telegraph, the average worker wastes an hour a day on Facebook, online shopping and browsing holiday sites.

Small wonder that many business owners are increasingly favouring part-time staff – and reporting that they get as much done between 9/30 and 2/30 as their full time colleagues do in eight hours. No doubt part of that is people responding positively to work hours which really suit their lifestyle and family circumstances. But as Nilsson suggests, maybe the shorter working hours lead to increased focus as well.

After all, what’s the one day in the year when you get the most done? When you’re totally, one hundred per cent focused and you sail straight through your to-do list? We all know the answer: the day before you go on holiday.

As I’ve said many times, we’re in the results business, not the hours business. All too often longer hours simply mean lower productivity per hour. The average British worker does 1,647 hours in a year: the average German, 1,408 – and yet there’s no doubt which country has the higher productivity.

The same holds good if you’re running a business. It’s not hours you need to throw at a problem, it’s focus – and that means absolute focus. Your profit and loss account will never reflect the hours you spent in the office – or the hours you missed spending with your family. It will reflect your focus – and your results.

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