Ah, the 9 to 5. Berated by the queen of Country music, yet still the norm. Despite increasing evidence that 8-hour days and 5 day weeks aren’t necessarily the best way to work, most office workers are still chained to their desks for most of the week.

Since going freelance, I’ve realised something. I very rarely sit and work for 8 hours. To begin with, I tried, and felt mildly guilty when I didn’t. But then, I started to realise that I was actually much more productive in shorter bursts, and when I allowed myself the freedom to incorporate other things I love into my ‘work’ days.

So why should be be ditching the standard working habits?

We rarely actually work for 8 hours solidly

And I mean no-one. Have you ever worked solidly for your full 8 hours at work? Maybe. How did you feel afterwards? Probably not great. A study found that the majority of UK workers only worked 2 hours and 53 minutes each day. Distractions included social media, making hot drinks, reading news websites – all forms of self-distraction designed to break up the monotony of long shifts in the office.

Long hours = worse work

One study showed that our attention spans start to decay at around the 20 minute mark onwards. So although you might be able to power through, it’s probably not your best work. It’s been well proven that the human brain isn’t good at multitasking, and offices are filled with distractions – email notifications, people ‘popping by’, urgent requests.

When we push beyond our ‘productive’ moments, that is, when our brains are functioning at their maximum, we start to indulge in habits that make our work worse (e.g. sloping off to scroll through your phone on the loo).

Prolonged sitting wreaks havoc on our bodies

I’m sure it’s not the first time you’ve heard this, but sitting at a desk is not what our bodies were designed to do. Research has showed that sitting for long periods in modern chairs causes our lower bodies to essentially switch off. The muscles often become weak and tight, having a knock on effect on everything from our posture to our moods (Read: The Surprising And Powerful Links Between Posture and Mood).

The lack of light in offices is also known to have a detrimental effect. Natural lighting is highly associated with improved mood, and sitting under fluorescent lighting all day seriously messes with us, both physiologically and physiologically.

Productivity in short bursts

Over the last few years, techniques like the Pomodoro technique (25 minute bursts with breaks) have grown in popularity – and for good reason. Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras found that breaks had a positive impact on focus:

“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness… deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused.”

When we’re concentrating, it is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain that is doing the work – the same part that also regulates willpower and logic. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty overworked in a busy office setting. Gazalley, author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, points out:

“This leaves little time for reflection, deep thinking, or even just simply sitting back and letting our random thoughts drive us places we might not have gone while immersed in directed thinking.”

When we take breaks where we don’t have a specific goal in mind, the PFC gets a break, and we’re more likely to experience creative ideas and have less decision fatigue.

Fulfilment outside of work

Ultimately, working shorter hours allows us to enjoy the things that really matter to us, and avoid falling into the trap of living for the weekend / for our next holiday. Some more forward-thinking companies have started to test the waters with flexible working, but to do so requires a high level of trust in employees, something that isn’t quite there in many companies yet.

Further reading:

The way we work is terrible for our brains: 5 ways to fight back: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/01/your-workplace-is-terrible-for-your-brain-5-ways-to-change-that/

This is how many minutes of breaks you need each day: https://www.fastcompany.com/40487419/this-is-how-many-minutes-of-breaks-you-need-each-day

How do work breaks help your brain?: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/changepower/201704/how-do-work-breaks-help-your-brain-5-surprising-answers

Forget the 9 to 5: research suggests there’s a case for the 3-hour work day: http://uk.businessinsider.com/8-hour-workday-may-be-5-hours-too-long-research-suggests-2017-9?r=US&IR=T