A Conversation with Joe Sanok on Rethinking the Structure of our Working Week

A Conversation with Joe Sanok on Rethinking the Structure of our Working Week

Joe Sanok is the speaker, business consultant, and podcaster. He has the #1 podcast for counsellors, The Practice of the Practice Podcast. Joe is also writer for PsychCentral, has been featured on the Huffington Post, Forbes, GOOD Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Entrepreneur on Fire, and Yahoo News. He is the author of five books and has been named the Therapist Resource top podcast, consultant, and blogger.

In his latest book, Thursday is the New Friday, Joe brings together practical, evidence-based methodologies that challenge the existing structure of the work-week and provide ways of working that create more space for living.

In this interview, I speak to Joe Sanok about the tools, and training that have helped thousands of professionals—from authors and scholars to business leaders and innovators—create the schedule they want, resulting in less work, greater income, and more time for what they most desire.

Q: Where did the concept of the 40hr week come from?

[Joe Sanok]: In 1926, Henry ford gave us the 40-hour work week. He wanted people to have a weekend so they would buy cars, and it worked! People bought cars, went places on a weekend, and for our generation, it’s normal. Phrases like ‘TGI Friday’ have become normal – and thank goodness we don’t have the working-hours of our grandparents who were often working 10-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week.

Q: What is the impact of our working week on health?

[Joe Sanok]: During a typical working day, people always take breaks – it may be a quick chat around the water-cooler, it may be the time between meetings when you’re travelling. We’re never getting a true 40-hours from our team. What’s happened in recent years however is that the pressures of work in many industries have led to people going full tilt doing way more than 40 hours of work in a week – leading to chronic disease, stress, and many other problems. Research shows that the level of stress this causes can lead to higher depression rates and suicidal ideation – our schedules simply aren’t’ aligning with the realities our bodies need!

Q: How should we see the difference between work and productivity?

[Joe Sanok]: We really overvalue work, and undervalue fun, play and life. We’ve made work our highest calling and made hours worked rather than output the key performance indicator. If I hired someone to fold my laundry and measured them on the number of hours it took them, it may be that it takes 10 hours to fold a sheet – that’s ridiculous! The performance indicator is getting the laundry folded. Workplace culture values people’s time inappropriately – people brag, saying, ‘hey, I got in at 5am and left at 10pm!’ not, ‘hey! I got a week’s worth of work done in a few hours!’ – we’re stuck in this industrialist way of thinking where a person is a machine, that needs to be optimised. Instead, why don’t’ we think about outputs? Why don’t we reinforce positive behaviours that create a more efficient workplace?

Work is preventing us living. So many people use work to avoid deeper topics around their lives, relationships, kids and health – deeper topics that can lead to the positive choices they need to make that will make them happier.

Q:  What are the tangible benefits of breaks?

[Joe Sanok]: There are lots of studies which show the benefits of transforming our work structures. The University of Illinois found that taking one-minute breaks every 20 minutes can completely eliminate vigilance decrement – a phenomena where your vigilance (concentration and attention) decreases over time. If you have a boring task that takes you an hour – you won’t be paying as much attention at the end of the hour, as at the beginning. In this study, they gave two groups a simple task that required attention – one group without breaks, and another group with a one-minute break every 20 minutes. That second group performed dramatically better on the task. Micro breaks can help us reset our attention, have our brains more engaged, and more creative.

Q: Does the changing nature of what work is mean that we must understand how we work differently?

[Joe Sanok]: We are so far past the information age – we’re into the implementation age. We’re no longer looking at what we can do, but how we do things – we’re looking for cognitive and practical shortcuts that make us, and our work, more efficient. The cognitive load of information and implementation means that we need to find ways of resetting our brains on a regular basis – this amplifies our levels of creativity and productivity. We also have to set clear boundaries on our time – it may be that you say you will only do 15 tasks in a week, but have been given 20 – it forces you to prioritise, outsource and eliminate.

Q: How do we shift culture around work? 

[Joe Sanok]: Right now, is probably one of the best times for us to have this conversation. Across the board, we’re seeing companies are having a tough time recruiting and retaining top-quality talent. Flexible approaches to work allow companies to stand-out and keep staff engaged. There are also real economic benefits, often unexpected. Kalamazoo Valley College is a great example. It’s a traditional, small community college in Southwest Michigan. Some years ago, Ted Forester (HVAC engineer) was looking at all the big systems of heating and cooling at the college. He noticed that Fridays there were very few students on campus, and started taking pictures of the empty parking lots from the roof where he was working. He took those pictures to the board and pointed out how much it was costing them to air-condition those empty buildings. They switched to a four-day workweek for a trial run and saved millions of dollars on top of improving staff retention. That’s the kind of creative thinking we’re seeing within corporations that are making the switch – it usually starts with a beta test group to help the corporation understand the practicality of a different, more flexible working week – and based on those outcomes, it often then gets rolled-out.

Q: Is there a link between creativity and shorter work weeks?

[Joe Sanok]: When do we have our best ideas? When we’re in the shower… when we’re on a long drive with a radio off… when we’re on a hike. The research supports this too.

Every summer, I host this event called the Slow Down School where entrepreneurs fly into Northern Michigan, we pick them up in a big yellow school bus, and take them out to the water. We stay in amazing cabins, have an amazing chef, and for two days we hike, do yoga, hang out on the beach, skip stones, and talk. The things people get done after two days of slowing down is remarkable. We have these floods of ideas when we allow ourselves to slow down – you get this pent-up energy that flows out of you.

Q: Why should we switch from ‘to do’ lists towards ‘to become’ lists?

[Joe Sanok]: How much of our lives is reactionary, versus preparing for something else? The average person works more than five days a week… they’re burned out by the weekend, they end up drinking too much alcohol, too much caffeine, they don’t look after themselves, they’re reacting to how they feel instead of preparing for the tasks ahead. We need to think about the highest use of our time and realise that often our behaviours are compulsions not necessities. Thinking in terms of to do, is reactionary – it’s thinking about what needs doing right now, but thinking of to become, keeps you thinking ahead and looking forward.

Q: How do we prepare ourselves, as leaders, for more flexible work?

[Joe Sanok]: One thinking tool is to look at your future weekend, add one thing, and remove another. Find one thing that can add a little more life to your weekend… maybe it’s that book that you’ve been wanting to read… maybe set aside an hour on Saturday morning, take some tea and go read…. Tell your loved ones that you’re unavailable for a little while. Find one thing that maybe you ought to remove too… perhaps you’ve planned a coffee with somebody on a Saturday morning who is a bit of a toxic friend, and every time you leave, you feel like trash. Give yourself permission to cancel that coffee date. Have your groceries delivered! Why spend all that time going to pick them up? – This little experiment shows you how much better you can feel, and you an then start to apply that to your work week – maybe you’ll stop checking your phone when you should be relaxing, maybe you’ll stop having meetings which you don’t need to…. Maybe you’ll find ways to make your brain rest so that you can be more productive, more creative and live a better life!

Q: Why now, more than ever, do we need to change and adapt our working week?

[Joe Sanok]: We have a lot of challenges facing our generation, we’re going to have more pandemics, we have global warming, economic challenges, racial discrepancies. We have so many grand challenges that we can either address or ignore. If we want to stand a chance of making an impact on these grand challenges – we need to reassess how we do everything – do we want our generation to be the most stressed and anxiety filled? And consequently, the least productive and creative? Or do we want people to be able to think the most creatively they can, to solve the challenges we will face in the future. To me, evaluating how we work, and how we live is going to best prepare us for the challenges our generation has ahead.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.