As one of the leading voices in reducing working hours, Alex is optimistic that we can create a future where people can spend more time with family and friends, do healthy activities, discover new hobbies, and ultimately make the world a better place.
Overwork and burnout – so prevalent in today’s society that over 60% of employees around the globe suffer from workplace stress, creating billions of additional health costs annually. By re-examining how we work and reducing the number of working hours each week, we can greatly reduce this additional stress and financial burden.
Dr. Alex Pang is the Global Programs and Research Manager for 4 Day Week Global, a non-profit community advocating the 4-day work week, and the Founder of the Silicon Valley-based consulting company Strategy and Rest. Alex has written books that illustrate how individuals and organizations can integrate rest, creativity, and focus. His latest book is "Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less–Here's How."
In today's episode, Cory and Alex talk about the idea of restructuring our overwork and burnout work culture into working fewer hours with more focus and discipline. Alex describes how the future of work can be better if we implement one extra day to rest and recharge.
As one of the leading voices in reducing working hours, Alex is optimistic that we can create a future where people can spend more time with family and friends, do healthy activities, discover new hobbies, and ultimately make the world a better place.
The Better World Weekly is a weekly newsletter written and published by Grow Ensemble Founder and Podcast Host, Cory Ames. For the latest insights, analysis, and inspiration for building a better world, join the 1000s of changemakers and social entrepreneurs from all sectors all over the globe who get this email in their inbox every Monday.
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Cory Ames 0:00
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Alex Pang 1:00
The thing about overwork and burnout is that there were a whole bunch of different layers to it. You know, there are historical causes, there's macroeconomic stuff, there is stuff having to do with the structure of careers now, there are social incentives or pressures. And so that makes it really difficult to resist. But, I think that the important thing is to understand that it is actually possible to construct other ways of thinking about the relationship between your time and your professional commitment and your passion on one hand, and the way that you design your working life on the other, that does not inevitably lead you to overwork and burnout. There is a better way, and I think we know what it looks like.
Cory Ames 1:48
Hey, y'all, it's Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. Today we are talking about reinventing the workweek. And to do so I'm joined by Alex Pang, the head of Global Programs for Four Day Week Global, a nonprofit that's evangelizing the four day workweek all over the world. Alex has written a trilogy of books with "Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less--Here's How", which was published in 2020. And then "Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less", published in 2016, and "The Distraction Addiction" published in 2013. All these books show how companies and individuals can better integrate rest, creativity, and focus into digital age lives in work.
Alex has been a senior consultant at the Institute for the Future and Strategic Business Insights, and a visiting scholar at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Oxford University, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley. Alex received a PhD in history and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Really excited for you to jump into this conversation that I have here with Alex. We talk about restructuring your daily work routine. Perhaps as well, the challenges for those who may not have the ability to control their day to day schedule. How as well, we can integrate rest into our work lives and still advocate for it on a wider more systemic or organizational level.
And then lastly, we talk about, perhaps the biggest selling point the four day workweek. What the benefits are of a workweek of this nature, what benefits there could be at supreme scale of implementing one extra day of rests back into our week to week schedules, and we talk about any difficulties or challenges that Alex has noticed in the implementation of the shorter work week in all different sectors all over the globe. Of course, before we dive into this chat with Alex, I want to invite you to sign up for my Better World Weekly newsletter. It's my weekly newsletter that I write, curate and publish myself, send out every single Monday. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. That's growensemble.com backslash newsletter.
Alex Pang 4:30
Thanks for having me on. I'm Alex Pang and I work as the Global Programs Manager for a nonprofit called Four Day Week Global, which not surprisingly, evangelizes for the four day workweek in companies, nonprofits, schools, governments. And I also am the author of a couple of books including a book about the global four day week movement called Shorter, and then a book before then called Rest, which is about the hidden role that rest plays in the lives of, sort of, super creative and prolific people. Before writing these books, I worked as a technology forecaster and futurist here in Silicon Valley where I've been for about 20 years or so. And my background is in history of science and technology, that I did a doctorate in that and taught that for a few years before making the move over into consulting. So that's pretty much everything anyone needs to know about me.
Cory Ames 5:33
Excellent. Well, the book I spent the most time with, which I mentioned before we hit record here, was Rest, which I highly recommend folks pick up and we'll have links to it in the show post attached, and looking forward to diving deeper into Shorter, myself. But Alex, the thing that stands out to me right from the get go about you, your work, and your story, is the hyper contrast between being based in Silicon Valley and what sounds like your track record before. And that kind of, you know, builds some images of maybe the top echelon of a fast paced work culture and environment, maybe, next to Wall Street in New York, to some degree, and what you're advocating for, what you've really dove deep into is slowing down to some degree in the way in which we approach our work. So I'm wondering, how did that come about, especially in the environment in which it seems you've worked historically, where it which has that reputation for being so fast paced?
Alex Pang 6:27
Yeah, well, I think that to some degree, my work is a reaction against the environment that I've been working on for so long. But, you know, Silicon Valley is, you know, for better or worse, it is an exemplar of a place in which culture of long hours and overwork and careers as a sort of arms race against your own obsolescence and your body's ability to tolerate 90 hour weeks, is, you know, we're an exemplar of that, but we're no longer an outlier. Overwork and burnout are now effectively a global health problem rather than something confined to particular places, or particular professions.
And, it is very much the case that for most of my career, I actually really bought into all of that. I was working as a consultant here, part of the appeal of it is the sense of being part of an industry that's making history, that's changing the world, that's doing-- that's operating at a very fast pace. As a futurist, you have a sense that Silicon Valley is where the future is being made, and you want to be able to keep up with that. But, you know, the downside is that, especially as a consultant, there's always more stuff to be done for clients. You have high but vague expectations, which means that it's really difficult to kind of figure out when to stop working, when to kind of turn off.
It's also a cyclical profession, right. So there are periods where there's a lot of work, and then in a downturn, all of a sudden, there's nothing, and so you feel like you really got to get everything while you can. And all of that makes it really easy for someone who is ambitious, or someone who really is, you know, engaged by this work, to really overdo it, whether they intend to or not. Now, what I'm describing is what you see in lots of fields now. Plenty of professions operate this way. I think, you know, what I just described is what most entrepreneurs, whether they are Series A funded tech startups or whether you have a chain of restaurants in the Midwest, are going to listen to that and say, "yeah, that's my life." Or, you know, if you're running a nonprofit.
And, the change for me came when I had a chance to, sort of back away from this and go to England for a little while. And I was a fellow at Microsoft Research at their laboratory in Cambridge. And about halfway through my sabbatical there, I had this epiphany that I was reading lots of cool stuff, I was writing really well, I was having some of the best ideas and best, kind of, intellectual engagements I'd had in my entire life. But I didn't feel the kind of time pressure and sort of sense of constantly being sort of half a step behind where I where I ought to be. And that made me think, maybe our ideas about the relationship between overwork and achievement, or our faith in the necessity of going right up to the edge of our capabilities in order to do good work - maybe that's actually completely backwards.
Maybe, in order to do the work that we really love, we need to slow it down, and to sort of develop other ways of working, that better incorporate work and rest. And this started me on intellectual journey that eventually took me back into history of science. Looking at the lives of lots of Nobel laureates and other famous scientists, looking at their daily routines, when they worked, looking at their hobbies, which is something that most historians don't really pay attention to. And then doing the same thing for politicians and business people in the past, some Generals, musicians, etc. And then also looking at neuroscience and work in psychology that has explored the role that mind wandering, or the default mode network, what happens in our minds when we do nothing at all, and how it turns out that those periods play a really important role in helping us solve problems and boost creativity.
And so putting all that together in the book was an effort to kind of, you know, bring together work from history, bring together work from science, to help show how it is that rest, when properly understood and properly exercised, can actually help us do better work, do work that's more profound, and allow us to have longer professional lives, but also have more balanced, happier lives. So that's the story.
Cory Ames 11:42
And I was very curious, wondering what the personal transformation was like for you side by side in perhaps doing the research and assembling for this book? I'm not sure who exactly has said it, but something to the effect of "you write the book sometimes that you most personally need." And to some degree, it sounds like that was a transformation that you went through yourself. But yeah, I'm wondering what was that like side by side, as you're in this, kind of meta scenario, working on a book, something very intensive, and doing the research that might encourage you to do it in a particular style?
Alex Pang 12:18
Yep. So I think it's certainly-- nobody is going to write a book that they don't need. The only question I think, is really just how much do you actually need it, while you're writing it? For me, we can look at the comparison, mainly through the lens of kind of working life and daily routine. So, you know, certainly, in college and graduate school, I was one of those people who started homework at like, 11 o'clock, right, like after Letterman, because I had terrible time management skills, but also because that's what, you know, that's what geniuses did, right?
And even if I wasn't one, you can at least play one on TV. Inspiration is something that happens in the middle of the night after ingestion of a lot of caffeine, you get the flash of insight, and that's what drives you to do a lot of really good work. And, basically, I was able to get away with that. It worked just often enough to convince me that this was how I should continue to work. By the time I started work on Rest - and actually, its predecessor, a book on technology and distraction called The Distraction Addiction - I had a family, I had a real job, and I really couldn't work that way any longer.
And, part of what I had discovered in the previous couple years, was that my own ability to do like super late nights and start work on stuff for clients in the 11th hour, that that was increasingly a dumb way for me to work. It just, it wasn't producing the kinds of results that I was happy with. And it was taking a toll on me, physically. So, when I started working on The Distraction Addiction a couple years before Rest, I couldn't start work on the book late at night. And, you know, my old habits really weren't serving me. Out of desperation, I tried flipping the day. I tried getting up at like, 5am, instead of starting work at 10pm, and trying to write then.
It took a couple of weeks, right? I have a nice, warm bed. There's always good reasons that you want to sleep a little bit longer. But eventually, I started to develop the habit. And as a night owl, this was not an easy thing for me. But after a few weeks, I realized this is actually transformative. I was writing really great stuff, I was doing really good work. I had a couple clear hours before the kids were up or I really had to start the day. And it was just, it was one of the keys to my success as a writer. One of the other things I discovered also, was that in order to have a good morning, you actually have to set everything up the night before.
And so I became incredibly deliberate about setting up literally everything that I needed. Putting up the clothes, setting up the coffee pot so that it will go off before I was up, thinking about what work I was going to do the next morning. The level of like, the end of the previous day, putting on a post-it the three things that I would work on first, and leaving open on the computer the window with the document where I was writing, so that when 5am rolled around, all I had to do - I didn't have to make any decisions. I didn't have any rationalization, or go back to sleep because I hadn't done all those things, right. I'm eliminating all of the excuses, eliminating all the decisions, so that all I have to do is roll out of bed, grab the clothes, kind of zombie my way over to the coffee, pour that, lift the laptop, and the first thing I've got to think about is what's the next sentence that I write.
And that turns out to be really valuable, both as a way of kind of forcing yourself to actually get up and do the work, but also, it turns out to prime your mind to think of overnight about some of the stuff you're going to be working on the next day. And that in turn, that for me was an important lesson in the value of our kind of creative subconscious, of what neuroscientists called the "default mode network", as a really important contributor to our creative lives. And, in addition to working in the super early mornings, I have two dogs who I then take out for a long walk, and I carry a notebook with me.
I'll often write down one or two things that I'm still working on, one or two questions that are-- or how to do a transition between this idea and this other idea, right? You know, the sort of craft stuff that writers obsess over. And in the course of walking the dogs, I often find that all of a sudden, the answer will come to me. There's an approach I haven't tried, sometimes it's just a turn of phrase that will allow you to connect this one thing with this other thing in, you hope, a kind of elegant way. So I carry the notebook and I write that stuff down immediately, because I have learned otherwise, I'll forget it by the time I get home. Come back, do another hour, maybe hour and a half of writing. And then that's the bulk of my work on a book for the day.
In the afternoon, you do some other reading, you sort of prepare some other things. But that, let's say four hour period with that break in between, is when I get 90% of the really valuable work done. And part of the reason that I work this way is that it's a pattern that I borrow from the people I write about in Rest. So one of the really striking things in the book is that when you look at the lives of highly creative, accomplished people, these are people who organize their whole lives around their work, right? They make choices about where to live, some of them make choices about who to marry, influenced in part by sort of their ambition or their desire to do really big things in the world. But when you look at their daily routines, it turns out, these people who've organized their lives around their work, don't actually spend their entire days working.
The 12 hour day that we think is essential in order to, you know, do world changing work - none of them do this. Instead, they work in a highly focused disciplined way for about four hours or so. And that is pretty much it. Furthermore, they spend an awful lot of time doing stuff that we would regard as, like, an unproductive waste of time: going on long walks, doing other physically strenuous stuff like gardening, sports, you know, training for a marathon, et cetera. And they're really disciplined about this. What it turns out is that these periods - or this practice - of layering periods of really intensive work with these deliberate breaks is valuable because it gives you a kind of clear space in which you can do what Cal Newport calls "deep work".
But the breaks also offer an opportunity for your creative mind to keep turning over unsolved problems that you haven't been able to solve when you've been really focused. And when you take those breaks immediately after one of these, sort of, intensive work sessions, you've still got a lot of stuff running around in your mind, right? There's a lot of, you know-- the wheels are still kind of turning in your head. But what you're doing when you take that break is giving your creative mind and opportunity to kind of run with ideas on their own.
And so when I'm out with the dogs, I have this very clear sense of things going on kind of under the surface, that I'm not really in control of. And I've learned that just giving that time and letting it develop, will generate ideas that either I couldn't come up with myself, or it would take me a really long time to come up with. And what I see creative people doing over and over again, is layering these periods of really focused work and deliberate rest on a daily basis, that allows them both to be more productive and disciplined in very predictable ways. But also create space for those kinds of creative insights and those aha moments that we so treasure.
Another thing that I do that is different from my previous work in life is I'm a big fan of naps. There's a whole literature about why naps are good for us. Why both physically, but also how they're good for us psychologically or cognitively. I also exercise more. And again, because there are both benefits to it if you're someone who does work that's largely sedentary, like me, but also, because again, it turns out that there are benefits across a whole bunch of different dimensions of having serious physical pursuits.
Many, many of the people I write about in the book are not just world class composers, or are great mathematicians. They're also, like, nationally ranked climbers, or Olympic level athletes. And it turns out that there are great synergies between these two kinds of activities that we often think of, not only as quite different, but almost as antithetical, right? In America, the perception of the athlete as someone who is not intellectual, and intellectuals as people who are just, you know, sort of a amorphous blobs, really does a disservice to both, and I think encourages us to downplay the importance of exercise and sports in the lives of creative or professional people. And number two, discourages us from taking those seriously, either as students or later on in our lives.
And then I think that, between the morning routine, naps, taking exercise more seriously, thinking about my work day in terms of periods of highly focused work, and having the aim of trying to make those peaks higher, make those periods of deep work more intensive, rather than stretching out my work time across more and more of my work day. And then also building in time for naps, and being more deliberate about preparing work for the next day. These are all things that stand in marked contrast to the way that I had worked before. And for me, is there a payoff to this? It sounds like a nicer life, but have I actually got more done?
Well, it took me 10 years to write my first book, doing the late nights and all that stuff. In the last 10 years working in the way that I just described, I've written three books, I've started a company, and I'm now evangelizing the four day week around the world. So as far as I'm concerned, the results speak for themselves. So that's what's different.
Cory Ames 24:37
I appreciate that. And Alex, wondering: there's the personal challenges, of course, or perhaps the personal goals and ambitions that people have for some sort of drive to achieve, but I think a lot of that is influenced to some degree by both some historical, environmental context, and this is something that I really liked that you broke down quite nicely in your book, Rest. But for a brief overview, if you wouldn't mind, why are we here with the work culture that we have - overwork burnout, and as well, perhaps what we think is our own obsession or drive to achieve and accomplish? Why are we you know, in this position that we are?
Alex Pang 25:13
You know, the first thing you've got to recognize is this was not inevitable, right? 100 years ago-- overwork is something that's always been with u. William James talks about this in essays in the 1890s, where he contrasts the American mania for overwork and burnout, with the more sort of placid, thoughtful European style of work. But, you know, even 100 years ago, the founder of Forbes magazine, Bertie Charles Forbes, wrote a book in which he profiles the lives of great entrepreneurs - the railroad barons, and people who built the nation's banking system, and steel mill owners.
I mean, these are like, serious business people. And it's amazing how much time they spend, actually, like, taking a month and going camping, or how much time they spend devoting themselves to art or to hobbies or to travel, and seeing those things as both a necessary counterbalance to the rough and tumble of the business world, but also as a kind of natural reward for the work that they have done and the riches that they have accumulated. So the generations of people who more or less literally built American industry and modern America took a very different attitude towards work and rest than we do today.
So why is it that we got here? I think, very briefly, that what we have seen is, in the last 40 or 50 years - basically, since the 1970s - number one, you've seen, the careers and the industries that we look to as exemplars of what success looks like, are now very different than they were in the past. Right? It's the computer world, it's Silicon Valley, it's Wall Street, it's places where young people make fortunes really quickly, by working Titanically long hours before they burn out, or there's the next downturn in the economy.
Success is no longer about starting at the bottom, working your way up the ladder, waiting your turn, and finally, reaching the corner office. There was a time in American history before and after World War II, where General Motors and General Electric, the two biggest companies in America were both run by guys named Charlie Wilson, who both had started out in the mail rooms of their companies. That is inconceivable today, right? Today's business leaders are people like Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, right, people who are proud of working 130 hours and sleeping at the factory, etc.
So our idea of what success can look like and what you need to do in order to be successful, have changed radically because of our exemplar industries. Another thing is that with globalization, with the increasing precariousness of careers, it simply is harder to construct a career in which you work less as you become more successful. There no longer feels like there's a point where you can begin to relax or to taper things off. And this is true even in things like academia.
What used to be a kind of career in which people took a long view, were more contemplative, and recognize that that was essential in order to do really good work, has been replaced with one in which you're constantly hustling for the next grant, and building up your order of your citation count. I think also, the fact that more of the economy is services and knowledge work, where productivity is difficult to measure, and where you don't have a bucket of widgets at the end of the day or an acre of field that you've plowed. It's harder to know what constitutes good work.
And so I think that creates an additional incentive or uncertainty that encourages us to work a little harder. Especially when we're concerned, let's say about getting the next promotion or making ourselves bulletproof against the next round of layoffs. And finally, all of our friends are doing it, and all of our co workers are doing it, and we can't underestimate how powerful that kind of social example is in structuring our own lives.
So, the thing about overwork and burnout is that there are a whole bunch of different layers to it. There are historical causes, there's macroeconomic stuff, there is stuff having to do with the structure of careers now, there are social incentives or pressures. And so that makes it really difficult to resist. But, I think that the important thing is to understand that it is actually possible to construct other ways of thinking about the relationship between your time and your professional commitment and your passion on one hand, and the way that you design your working life on the other, that does not inevitably lead you to overwork and burnout. There is a better way, and I think we know what it looks like, both for individuals and for companies alike. End of rant.
Cory Ames 30:51
Well, perhaps to start painting that picture a bit more, or at least how we we begin to get there. It's one thing for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to have more control over our day to day schedules, but it's another for folks listening, who who might very well resonate with that feeling of, you know, hoping for more leisure time in balance with the work that they take so seriously in our space of of impact, socially, environmentally. But where do we start to look then, systemically, like, changing our work culture, overhauling it? Where do we even begin, do you think?
Alex Pang 31:25
So I think that the challenges are a little different if you are a solopreneur, if you have a lot of control over your time and you don't answer to a boss, versus if you're part of an organization. If you're working solo, then the choices really come down to stuff like the design of your workday and your routines, taking rest and taking rest seriously enough to make place for it in your daily life. And so that means designing a kind of work day that emphasizes deep, focused work that builds in plenty of time for breaks, and recognizes that over the long run, you're gonna get more done and do better work if you have those kinds of routines and you pace yourself, than if you don't. Careers are marathons, not sprints.
Another thing is, moving up to the level of the month or the season, that there is a big return in having serious hobbies that give you more of a mental break from work, even if you love that work, or actually, especially if you do. People who really love what they do and are really passionate about it are the ones who have the hardest time detaching from work. And for them, having serious hobbies is an even greater necessity than for people who are just, you know, sort of like what they do but they don't feel like it's a big part of their identity.
But people who do this, we know that they perform better on the job when they have a greater opportunity to detach from work. We also know that, ideally, if you could design your vacations any way you wanted, we would take vacations of roughly seven to 10 days every three months. Because what we find is that vacations are very restorative, but the benefits of vacations peak after about seven or eight days or so, and then they plateau. So a three week vacation is not three times as restorative as one week, and the benefits of vacations last a couple of months.
And so if you were designing vacation schedules to maximize restorative value and mental health, you would take about seven to 10 days every quarter. And then also as individuals, doing those kinds of things would help you unlock more creativity in your work, help you work better, and give you a better life.
At the organizational level, the challenge is a little bit different. If you have a boss, if you've got co workers, what I'm describing are not necessarily things that are very easy to do just by yourself, right? Your work has a deeper impact or a more immediate impact on how other people work. It's more intertwined or interdependent. And so what that means is that it's necessary to solve these problems collectively, right?
The most effective way to do that, I argue, is through implementing a shorter work week for everyone. Moving to a four day week is something that turns out to be viable for an amazingly wide range of companies, including a whole bunch of nonprofits now, and it solves all the problems that tried to do this individually creates. That sense that it moves the pursuit of a more balanced life or better work life balance from something that you do, kind of, in competition with others, to something that all of you work together to achieve collectively.
It also turns what can be a bunch of individual solutions for which you are personally responsible and which you have to manage in all of their complexity and ambiguity, into a set of structural and collective changes that people do as a group, which makes them far more powerful, and makes the solutions far more sustainable and endearing. And I think that for social enterprises, for nonprofits, you know, places where often you're competing for talent against often deeper pocketed companies, you're attracting people who maybe are pretty idealistic, who want to have a positive impact on the world, who want their work to have meaning, but you also have this sense that there is always more work to be done, more money to be raised, more funders to appeal to, or have satisfied.
Even in those kinds of environments, the four day week offers the opportunity to boost recruitment and retention to help people make careers more sustainable, but to do so in ways that still satisfy the demands of your clients, and stakeholders, and your funders. And so, rather than being something that either negatively affects your career, or your relationships with your colleagues, doing it collectively sort of turns a shorter work week into something that is a win for people, it's a win for organizations, and it can even be a win for customers and clients.
Cory Ames 36:53
And so what sort of traction do you feel like there is with the implementation of of this four day workweek? Just small, individual examples throughout the US and elsewhere? Or are there some real strong case studies that people are starting to hang on to?
Alex Pang 37:09
Well, I think there are strong case studies. But you know, of course, working in this field-- being the person who has written a bunch of those case studies, perhaps I'm a little biased. I will say that there are a lot of stories at the company level of firms that have been doing this now for years, that I think document the financial benefits, the benefits in terms of organizational stability and resilience, better recruitment and retention, etc. We are also seeing this take hold in a wide range of industries.
Not just, like, creative firms with really long deadlines where the management is kind of loosey goosey and people already have a lot of autonomy. You also see it in restaurants, like Michelin starred restaurants, where everybody has to be absolutely on and absolutely perfect every single night. You see it in nursing homes, in manufacturing, there are a couple breweries that are now doing this. And so, it cuts across a wide range of industries, and also governments now.
Two states that have done this, that have implemented shorter hours, are Iceland, which implemented it for their public sectors in 2021, and the United Arab Emirates, which implemented a shorter work week just in January 2022. And these are quite different kinds of places. Iceland, your typical Nordic, highly consultative kind of culture - the implementation of the shorter workweek there was driven exclusively by a group of women who were leaders in trade unions and politics, who all came out of like the same feminist reading collective in the 1990s.
Whereas the United Arab Emirates, it was a very top down thing the government decided, we're going to do this. And they told the public sector in schools, and they give him like two months notice, and then January 3, bam, it happened. And we're finally we're also seeing some large companies are experimenting with it as well. So I think everybody has heard of Microsoft's trial in Japan in 2019, which was only a month long. But Unilever has been doing it in New Zealand for two years now. Medtronic, which makes pacemakers and other medical instrumentation, has several experiments going across Asia.
And then there are Ernst and Young and a couple of other sort of large companies are also running local trials. So I think that the body of the body of evidence that this can succeed across a variety of industries all over the world is definitely growing. And I think is robust enough now to answer the objections or skepticism of even the most critical CEO or board.
Cory Ames 40:18
Are there difficulties that you've noticed in its adoption? Like, besides perhaps what are unfounded skepticisms. But are there challenges for companies, governments, you know, that have been encountered when they've attempted to cut the week short?
Alex Pang 40:32
Absolutely, in the way that any big initiative presents challenges. So there's a lot of planning that you've got to do beforehand, if you're going to make it work. You need to think through worst case scenarios, what can go wrong, kind of anticipate that stuff as much as you possibly can, but also do that work so that you are more mentally prepared to deal with the unexpected things that inevitably are going to come up.
There's a lot of logistical stuff you got to think through around scheduling, supplies. You've got to think about what parts of your work you can maybe make more effective or more productive, what stuff you can stop doing, what things you can outsource, how to redesign meetings to make them shorter, more pointed, to save time for everybody. All of that kind of stuff requires a level of reflection about how you work, and a level of discipline that is often novel for people. But once they get into it can be, I think, really, really rewarding.
So, now, occasionally you have pushback from people who just like the idea of putting in long hours, who think it'll help with a steeper learning curve, or, they see their friends at other places doing it. So they think this is just the way that people work. So, I think that there is some stuff that you've got to do internally in order to help people see the long term value of working in this way. And I think leaders have to approach this-- particularly leaders who are accustomed to trying to get people, like, into the office on Saturdays, or encourage higher and higher levels of commitment among their workers.
A four day week forces them to think a little differently, to think a little more like a coach, Right? Steve Kerr is not a bad coach, because he doesn't put Steph Curry in every quarter of every game and tries to run about 110%. Kerr has to be, and every good coach has to be, thoughtful and strategic about when they put people out on the court, they have to pay attention to how long they're playing, you want to minimize the risk of injury so that once you get to the playoffs, you can really turn it on.
And so, thinking in terms of being more thoughtful about how you deploy your resources, and encouraging people to think about their careers, not just in terms of what they're doing this week, but how they can work in ways to make their careers more sustainable for decades. This is all stuff that you got to kind of figure out. Having said that, it's all stuff that people are perfectly capable of figuring out. And I think that the results can be really rewarding. And so, yes, there are challenges, but you know, they're doable challenges as opposed to completely impossible or intractable ones.
Cory Ames 43:52
I think it's important, when you just accept a different set of constraints, it's exactly what you're saying, there: there's a lot of creative problem solving that can be done. And, if you just accept that it is your newest constraint, that you only have four days in the in the workweek to be able to achieve what it is that you hope to achieve, then, you know, we've been creative before, hopefully, we can be creative again. And it really seems that the rewards for that are so high. And now, as you mentioned, too, there's becoming a laundry list of of cases in which this is being done on varying scales and varying sectors, and so seems really promising. And so is this the schedule that you operate on yourself, Alex? I know we talked about a lot of the day to day routines you have, but are you keeping yourself to a four day workweek?
Alex Pang 44:40
Right now, I work a shorter day, but not a four day week. And part of the reason is that we do a lot of work in Australia, New Zealand, on one hand and Europe in the other. And so being in California, I'm eight hours behind one and 16 hours behind another. And so, I am doing a lot of stuff at, like, six in the morning and then nine at night. But there are big stretches in between that where I'm out with the dogs, I'm back with the TRX, I'm cycling, I'm doing other stuff. So I'm very conscious of trying to maintain that pattern of, sort of doing the deep focused work, making sure I have time for that, and lots of time for other stuff. But given the global nature of our work, and that we're a small team, my reality is that, with my schedules, I work a shorter week, but not a four day week.
Cory Ames 45:41
Gotcha. Okay. And then maybe kind of off track, but a nitty gritty writing question. I'm curious, always been curious about the thing of waking up in the early hours to show right up to writing that next sentence. How do you make yourself prepared for that point, with all the kind of other ancillary work that being a writer requires of research and you know, the thinking and marinating on that kind of stuff? How are you prepared right from the get go when you show up five o'clock in the morning with a cup of coffee, or what have you, to start writing that next sentence?
Alex Pang 46:14
The essential thing is to stop in mid sentence and mid thought the previous day. And the thing there is that, what you want to avoid at 5am is the existential terror of the blank page and having to start a new idea, right? That's a big lift. On the other hand, starting with the second half of a sentence, or completing a thought, has two virtues. Number one, it's just easier, right? And indeed, in all the years I've done this, when I first started doing it, I thought, "I'm gonna forget stuff," right? In fact, I never have. I've always been able to come up with the second half of the second half of the sentence.
So it eases you into writing, which I think is sort of is a pretty valuable thing. So it serves a little bit like a writing exercise, except it actually contributes to your word count. The second thing, though, is that there is at least anecdotal evidence that stopping work in the middle, and then coming back to it to the next day, gives your mind - your subconscious - time to think about stuff overnight, to turn over ideas, to finish that sentence, and then to move on to the next paragraph.
John Cleese, one of the cofounders of Monty Python, has a story about how when he first started writing comedy, he and one of his collaborators wrote a sketch. And then he lost it. His room was very messy. So a couple of days had passed between doing the draft and they were going to have to take it and start rehearsal. So he wrote it again. Then a few days later, he found the original draft. And when he compared the two, he saw that, with the second draft, the writing was crisper, the jokes were a little punchier, there were just some improvements that were in the second version. Even though he had not consciously been thinking about it, his mind, somewhere, had been turning over these problems, and actually improving on the product.
And that, for him, was a great lesson in how our minds are capable of continuing to work on problems, even while our conscious attention is elsewhere. And how building routines that take advantage of that, that give space for our creative subconscious to do its thing, can actually yield terrific benefits. And one foundational practice is stopping in mid sentence, and letting these ideas kind of sit in the back of your mind, or even your sleeping mind. So that when you start work the next morning, you're not so much having to expend the effort necessary to finish the thought, but rather, I sometimes have the feeling that I'm sort of transcribing things that my subconscious has already worked out overnight. And that's a pretty cool thing.
It's also something that-- the evidence is we all can learn how to do. This ability of our subconscious to work on problems on our behalf is something that we all possess. You know, we all have that experience of trying to remember the name of the actor who was in the movie and that other thing, and you can't-- it's on the tip of your tongue. And five minutes later, when you're doing something else, all of a sudden it pops into your head. That's the default mode network continuing to work on problems even while you're doing other things. And it loves to do this. That's what it's designed for.
And so, building a routine that gives it space can help us learn how to utilize that a little better. There is some evidence that the routines also help our creative subconscious sort of know when they have an opportunity to do their thing, and maybe make it a little bit more likely that they'll get to work on problems. And it allows us to make use of this capacity that we actually all possess, and which, if we develop, lets us do much better work, apparently, with little effort, quote, unquote.
Cory Ames 50:43
Excellent. Well, I appreciate that, Alex, and I want to be respectful of your time. Thank you so much for chatting with me here this morning. But before we wrap up, do you mind if I ask you a couple of rapid fire questions?
Alex Pang 50:54
Sure, go for it. I'll try to provide rapid fire answers.
Cory Ames 50:57
All right. First one for you: what's maybe a book or film or other resource that you might recommend to our listeners? Can be about what we chatted about here today, or not, just something that that's impacted you recently, or you always come back to.
Alex Pang 51:10
Let's see. Something that's impacted me recently... I'm gonna nominate Katherine Price's book, The Power of Fun. Katherine is a great writer, and she does, I think, an excellent job of taking a deep dive into this word and thing that we've used our whole lives but probably have never really thought very much about, which is "what fun is, and why it's actually so important." So that's the book I would recommend.
Cory Ames 51:41
Excellent. And next one for you: what's maybe one organization or individual who's work you've really admired recently, or has inspired you - business, nonprofit, or just an individual who you've been paying attention to recently, who you think is worth paying attention to?
Alex Pang 51:59
Okay, for this, there's actually another writer who I'd really recommend, which is a sociologist at University of Kent in England called Heejung Chung. And Heejung has written a book called The Flexibility Paradox, which is, essentially, about the complexities and downsides of flexible work. We think of flexible work as this thing that's, like, self evidently good. More time for ourselves, we work the way we want, not the way the man is telling us to. But she does a lovely job of showing how flexibility ends up often stalling people's careers, particularly careers of women, and also in various subtle ways, encouraging us to actually spend more time at work, not just redistribute our time differently. So I think that, for anyone interested in the future of work, which I think these days is all of us, I think her work is absolutely essential reading.
Cory Ames 53:05
Excellent recommendation. And next one for you: what of the books that you've written do you feel most proud of or connected to?
Alex Pang 53:14
Hmm, I should say that I love all my children equally. I think that Rest is the one that's clearly had the biggest impact in the world. 10 years from now, I hope that Shorter, the book about the four day week, will replace it, though. I've realized that a four day week basically creates 50 days of free time that people didn't have previously. That's like 10 weeks, 10 working weeks, five day weeks. Which means that in five years, working a four day week, you're giving people back essentially a year of their lives. And that's an amazingly valuable thing.
And the ability to do that-- I don't think we can underestimate the good that creating that kind of free time at scale. In a company with 1000s of people, that means that every year you're generating literally centuries of free time that hadn't existed before. You're giving people opportunities to spend time with family, with loved ones, doing stuff in the community, that will make a meaningful difference in their lives and probably a meaningful difference in the world. And that's a really, really, really great thing in a world that seems both short on time and long on giant challenges. So I hope 10 years from now I can say it's definitely been Shorter that's had the bigger impact.
Cory Ames 55:01
We'll look forward to seeing it. Tactically, do you think that it's a four day work week that fits in with likewise a seven to 10 day vacation every three months?
Alex Pang 55:09
Yeah, I think so. There's no reason both of them can't work. It would be interesting in the future to go back and see in an economy that works a four day week, does the recovery principle still hold? Or is there another pattern? But, you know, one of the great things about this kind of work is there always are new questions to be asked and sort of new challenges to be solved.
Cory Ames 55:32
And a final question for you, Alex, what's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These are folks who are change makers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, looking to leave the world a better place than they found it?
Alex Pang 55:43
You know, I suppose the one thing I would say is that we need to think about the work that we do and the careers we build as long term things, not short term. We all want to have an impact immediately. We have 30 under 30 lists that celebrate young entrepreneurs, or young changemakers. But the reality is that, if you love what you do, and particularly if you're doing a kind of work where the payout and the benefit is not instantaneous, then it is absolutely essential to take a long view, both of the work that you do, and of your own investment in it.
And what that means is, that creates space for taking rest more seriously for yourself. It creates space for thinking about how things like a shorter workweek can deliver long term benefit for your people in your organization. And ultimately, can help you bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice a little more than if you were trying to do this work quickly but for a short period, that results in you burning out and not being able to work on this stuff that you love for your whole lives. So that's what I would advise, take a long view.
Cory Ames 57:19
Excellent advice for us to end on. And final, final detail Alex, where's the best place to keep up with you and the work that you do?
Alex Pang 57:26
My own website for my company is strategy dot rest. Rest is a top level domain, very conveniently. And also on Twitter and Instagram and stuff, I am ask Pang, A S K P A N G. And then finally, Four Day Week Global is four day week.com. And so if people want to learn more about how the four day week works and how they can become part of it, that's the place to go.
Cory Ames 57:54
Perfect. All right, we'll have all things linked up in our show post at growensemble.com and socialentrepreneurship.fm. Thanks so much, Alex.
Alex Pang 58:02
All right. Thank you, Cory. It's been a pleasure.
Cory Ames 58:03
All right, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always, so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world. This is the newsletter I write and publish, send out myself every single Monday. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com/newsletter to get the next one in your inbox.
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Founder, Program Director, Author
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is head of global programs for 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit evangelizing the 4-day workweek. His trilogy of books show how companies and individuals can better integrate rest, creativity, and focus into digital-age lives and work. Alex has been a senior consultant at Institute for the Future and Strategic Business Insights, and a visiting scholar at Microsoft Research Cambridge, Oxford University, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley. Alex received a Ph.D. in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania.
* Shorter: Work Better, Smarter and Less— Here’s How (Public Affairs, 2020)
* Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (Basic Books, 2016)
* The Distraction Addiction (Little Brown , 2013)