Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: SHORTER (page 1 of 8)

Speaking at Life Lessons in London, February 2020

London Bridge and the Shard

I’m going back to London in February to speak at Life Lessons, a conference at the Barbican!

Wellbeing isn’t about lycra and fad diets. Its aim is not weight-loss for image-sake. Wellbeing is a way of life. It’s smart-thinking, sustainable living, community-building and frank-speaking. When well-informed, with an open-mind and with life lessons at our finger-tips, we can all live a happy, healthy and more inspired life.

Welcome to Life Lessons. A weekend of big talks from big thinkers. Where we dare to dream of a better future.

The speaker list is a cool mix, ranging from Richard Darwins to Ruby Wax to James Wallman.

Essentially, the talk will be the start of the publicity campaign for SHORTER (US | UK). I’ll be doing several other talks while I’m there. Watch this space for more updates.

European traders talk about shortening their workdays

London Bridge and the Shard

In Europe, stock markets and other trading floors are open from 8 am to 4:30 pm, one of the longest trading days in the world. Now, two “professional bodies representing traders, the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME) and the Investment Association (IA), have asked European exchanges to shorten trading hours by 90 minutes” per day.

Like teachers, stockbrokers and analysts are expected to put in substantial time preparing for the day; as a result, a day can easily stretch to ten hours or more. The AFME (pdf) notes that

Staff are habitually doing a ten hour working session sat at their desk in an industry where lunch breaks are often still frowned upon. This is not conducive to good mental and physical health. We would note that no firm that we are aware of prevents individuals from leaving their desk, but the prevailing and pervasive culture across the industry is that traders are at their desk for the whole trading day.

The working day is further extended since most traders arrive at least one hour before the market opens, to prepare, and stay at least one hour after the close in order to book trades, assist operations and look at after-market secondary offerings. The IA estimates that the average trader works a 12 hour day starting at 6.30am, representing a 60 hour week.

So why would a shorter day be good? They argue that it would bring several benefits.

London Panorama

Some of them are pretty familiar. For one thing, “a culture of long hours impacted traders’ mental health and wellbeing.” This line of argument will come as no surprise to anyone who’s followed working hours reductions in other high-pressure environments, like health care or restaurants.

There’s also the professional diversity argument: the long hours work against hiring women, and limit the professional lives of anyone with family obligations. “A 2019 survey that covered 129 buyside heads of trading globally reported that the best way to attract and retain more gender diversity in trading,” the AFME report says, “is to provide a better work / life balance. Employees are increasingly looking for more work / life balance when they are looking for jobs.”

London goods

All familiar stuff. But here’s where it gets fascinating.

As one article notes, “The first hour of trading often attracts little liquidity and subsequently is a more costly time to trade, while the final hour attracts around 35% of total daily volume. So a shortened day is a win-win for both traders and trading companies.”

The AFME explains,

The closing auction now consistently represents well over 20% of the daily volume in Europe. To emphasise the shift, around 35% of volume trades in the last hour and that increases to around 50% in the last two and a half hours.

The evidence of a distortion is not just apparent in the traded volumes, but also the actual cost of trading.

The difference in spreads, volatility, and market liquidity in the AM session vs. the PM session result in material differences to the cost of trading.

For a small 1% Average Daily Volume (ADV) trade on the FTSE 100 Index it would cost 4.4bps to execute the trade in the last 30 minutes of the day (excluding the closing auction), whereas the same trade in the first 30 minutes of the day would cost nearly three times more at 11.4bps.

Traders in the London market indeed tell us that the first hour is the most expensive time of day to trade. They consider that this is caused by the wider spreads and lack of liquidity. This cost differential further perpetuates the migration of liquidity to later in the day and a degradation in morning liquidity.

For comparison, in the US market, which is shorter in duration by 2 hours and turns over approximately 6X the volume of the European markets combined, there is still a cheaper cost of trading in the afternoon where liquidity is higher and spreads/volatility lower, but the differential in cost to the morning session is much smaller. This demonstrates greater stability in liquidity conditions over the day in the US market.

Because there’s not as much activity in the first hour, and trading is more expensive, eliminating it would allow traders more time to study charts and do other stuff, and cutting the last half hour would encourage more trading earlier in the day. In other words, “a shorter day will centralise liquidity, facilitating more stable trading conditions and price discovery over the day.”

A shorter trading day will be a more efficient trading day– not just “efficient” in the sense of humans working better, but efficient in the market sense of discovering prices and supporting trading.

London Eye with St Pauls

In other industries, it’s often the case that when you go to a 4-day week, there’s one day that’s really quiet and not much happens: one direct marketing firm found that its sales people made 90% of their sales by Thursday, and in PR Friday is known as a dead day. But I think this is the first example I’ve seen of a proposal to shorten the workday that argues that a shorter day will make markets themselves more efficient.

Computational devices

It should also be noted that, as in other industries, technology helps make a shorter workday possible:

Technology has advanced rapidly and the speed of execution has improved exponentially since the original market hours were established.

Firms advanced trading algorithms are now able to trade in thousandths of a second across multiple venues. The operational processes supporting trading have also evolved significantly, as such it is no longer necessary to have such an extended trading day. For example, the recent 90 minute outage at the London Stock Exchange (LSE) on 16 August 2019 did not result in noticeably less volume going through on that day.

There is other innovation too – for example, the LSE now offers a specific segment to provide investors with the opportunity to reduce time zone risk whilst accessing 6 exposure to global securities.

Finally, a harmonisation of market hours across Europe would address any concerns about liquidity shifting from any one market to another as a result of this change. It’s important that all the major markets in Europe move their trading hours together. Liquidity would not drift from one market to another as European markets would be moving their opening hours in concert.

The London Stock Exchange says they’ll think about it.

Talking about REST and SHORTER at Silicon Foundry, December 4

I’ll be talking about REST and SHORTER at Silicon Foundry in San Francisco on December 4.

Let's talk about distraction

The talk will range cross my last three books, THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION, REST, and SHORTER, laying out my argument for the importance of deliberate rest, explaining how we can develop practices that create more time for focused work, and how companies are redesigning their workdays to build more time for focus– and reduce their working hours at the same time.

Speaking at Somnex

You can pre-register here, but space is limited!

Visit to Cockroach Labs

New York City

On Tuesday I went to New York to meet with SHORTER’S American editor and publicity team about the release of the book. (Fortunately, events like the UK general election, in which the Labour Party is advocating for a 4-day workweek (and right-wing think tanks are saying would be terrible), the new Microsoft Japan report, Cal Newport’s New York Times piece, etc. are doing a great job of getting people talking about it!)

I also had a little time to stop in the global headquarters of Cockroach Labs, a startup located on 23rd Street.

Cockroach Labs

They do cloud-based SQL databases, which if you know anything about cloud computing or SQL databases is really cool. (I don’t, but living in Silicon Valley I have friends who are highly technical and think this is an interesting problem.) They also have a 4-day workweek, with the office staying open on Fridays to let people work on their own side projects. This may not sound like a great perk, but for software developers, many of whom are self-taught and are always aware that there are new and interesting technologies that they should learn about, it’s a powerful attractor.

As a result, the average age of company employees is 35, which means that they’re a young company with a surprisingly experienced workforce with the structural support needed to stay up-to-date in their specialties.

For a place on 23rd Street, the office was surprisingly green. The common area has a big wall of moss and ferns, which also serves to absorb sound.

Cockroach Labs

There are other plants throughout the office, which pick up on the green.

Cockroach Labs

This was an especially nice touch: moss on one side of the pillars (since moss only grows on one side of trees).

Cockroach Labs

It’s always great to see these places, because it stimulates questions that you wouldn’t think to ask via Skype, or lets you pick up details that you otherwise wouldn’t notice. For example, I was struck by how quiet the place was: even though it was open office, there was virtually no chatter (except for me). However, they get lunch brought into the kitchen four days a week, and during lunchtime everyone congregates and talks. Being more focused doesn’t make the place less friendly.

Cockroach Labs

There were lots of other interesting details, but I’ll save those for the talks.

While all the humans were very friendly and generous with their time, one of the office dogs was absolutely certain that I was up to no good, and that I needed to be watched carefully.

Cockroach Labs

Fortunately for (fur?) the company, Carl made sure that I wasn’t able to create any trouble.

Cockroach Labs

His friend Remy, in contrast, was a little less suspicious.

Cockroach Labs

Advance reading copy of SHORTER!

I was at Public Affairs today for some meetings (I’m reading the audiobook ofSHORTER (US | UK) and we’re starting to think about the marketing and publicity campaigns) and they happened to have just received some advance reading copies. So naturally I grabbed a couple!

The first advance reading copy of SHORTER, which just arrived at Public Affairs today (where I happened to be for a meeting). Very exciting to see the real book.

This is always a great moment, and normally I celebrate these kinds of things by going out to dinner or splurging on something, but since I spent the weekend in Maine with my son, I’m considering that trip the present.

Microsoft Japan’s 4-day week

DSCF8656

One of the concerns that some people raise about the 4-day workweek is that while it might work great at little places that are nimble and flexible, it’s not going to work at larger organizations that have a lot of diverse functions. Size isn’t actually the limit people think: as my book SHORTER (US | UK) explains, there are companies in Japan and Korea that have a thousand people or more and have moved to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days In recent years.

This summer, Microsoft Japan successfully trialed a 4-day workweek for its 2300 employees. During the month of August, the company closed on each of the five Fridays, then measured the impact on everything from electricity use and employee happiness, to paper use and employee productivity to the number of meetings the company held.

It should come as no surprise that the results were very positive.

Scenes from Tokyo

There’s some background that isn’t always getting covered in the English-language press about the experiment that is worth noting.

First, the Japanese government and Japanese companies are conducting a lot of experiments now to find improved ways of working, and to cut back on the notorious culture of overwork. Partly this is driven by the aging of the workforce and other social concerns, and partly it’s an effort to promote remote work before the 2020 Olympics, in order to reduce congestion. The Metropolitan Tokyo government, for example, ran “Telework Days 2019” from late July to early September.

Second, the 4-day week challenge also builds on years of earlier Microsoft programs aimed at creating greater flexibility and work-life balance. Microsoft Japan started encouraging remote work in 2012; two years later their “Telecom Day” had become “Telecom Week,” and two years after that, “Working Style Reform Week.” In fact, since 2015, working hours had been reduced 80 hours per year (about 600K hours across the company). Like at Cybozu, they’re trying to broaden flexibility and choice, and accommodate a variety of different family schedules. Microsoft Japan had also been working on shortening meetings, with the aim of resetting the cultural default for a meeting from 60 minutes to 30, and reducing the number of people who attend meetings.

Finally, the trial was designed partly as a test / demonstration of Microsoft Teams, their groupware product. Of course, there’s a long tradition in software companies of using your own products, as both a way to find bugs, and to prove the value of your product.

Scenes from Tokyo

So what was the trial?

In its barest outlines, the trial was a month-long experiment to measure the impact of a four-day workweek in which 1) salaries were not cut, 2) the company made efforts to increase productivity or become more efficient, and 3) people were encouraged to do things outside work. (This being Japan, that kind of official sanction for extracurriculars does send an important signal to many people.)

August had five Fridays this month, so people have five extra days off. Technically these days were called paid leave, so salaries didn’t go down. The company offered subsidized weekend trips and technical courses, and would reimburse up to 100,000 yen spent on courses or for expenses incurred doing volunteer work. Just under 2300 people were involved.

The project was also meant to showcase the potential for Microsoft Teams to make work more efficient and people more productive.

So what happened? The company talked about a three-pronged approach to improving efficiency during the trial, and reported several measures:

Deleting: This category basically includes indicators consuming or spend less time, money, resources, etc. In this category, they report reductions in the number of working days (-25%), pages of paper printed (-57%), and electricity consumption (-23%). The last two are interesting partly because companies generally don’t try hard to measure these (and I confess I didn’t ask about them in interviews I’ve done). The electricity consumption number is especially valuable because our models of the impact of reduced working hours on energy consumption are based on relatively small data-sets so far, and lots of smaller companies that go to 4-day weeks don’t pay their own utility bill (it’s included in the rent), so the more data we have on this, the better.

Improving: This includes improvements in productivity, adoption of more efficient ways of working and collaborating. Labor productivity, measured by sales divided by the number of employees, went up 39.9%, but there were also increases in the adoption of 30-minute meetings (+46%) and remote conferencing (+21%). During the 4-day week, meetings were cut to 15 minutes, and the number of participants capped at five (though in practice the number of meetings increased slightly).

Satisfying: This is a measure of how people feel about the new schedule, and how their work-life balance changed. Overall 94% of employees reported positive experiences, and 92% were satisfied specifically with the 4-day week. (One partial exception was the sales department, which disliked being out of touch with customers on Fridays.) 55% of employees took summer vacations, and 6% took 2+ weeks off. There was a 3x increase in domestic travel subsidies for 1+ week vacations, and a 1.7x increase in sponsored activities.

Regarding Microsoft Teams usage during 4-day week, the highlights were replacement of email with chat (which theoretically is more efficient, though I’m skeptical of this, given the complaints I’ve heard of Slack overload); “time reform” to reduce waste; and support by Microsoft’s AI MyAnalytics, about which no one is saying very much.

It also sounds like Microsoft was working on helping employees build in time for concentrated work or “focus time” into the schedules.

Microsoft Japan says it will implement its own work project “Work Life Choice Challenge 2019 Winter” this winter, around theme ”Rest smartly, work in short time, enjoy the challenge.” Which could have been the subtitle of my next book.

To me, what’s significant here is that the experiment shows that a large company can implement (albeit temporarily) a 4-day workweek across a number of offices and functions; have substantial, measurable improvements; and create a prototype that they can continue to refine, and maybe make permanent, in the future.

Covers!

As we march towards… well, March and the publication of SHORTER in the US and UK, the covers are now up on the Public Affairs and Penguin Web sites.

Here’s the American edition.

Shorter: US edition

And here’s the UK edition.

Shorter: UK edition

Not only is the art different, but they’re going with a different subtitle– the first time that’s happened to me, but not an unusual thing in publishing.

I find it flattering that I’m identified as “Author of Rest.”

We’re also starting to work on launch events. More on that soon, but things will be happening on both sides of the pond!

6 reasons why it’s more productive to work less

A while ago I had a piece in CEO Magazine (which I believe is published in Australia and New Zealand) offering “6 reasons why it’s more productive to work less.” I just saw tonight that the piece, which was behind a firewall when it first came out, is now available for free.

Today, overwork is the new normal. A 2015 survey by EY found that half of all managers worked more than 40 hours a week, and 39% were working more hours than in 2010. We treat rest as uninteresting, unimportant, and even a sign of weakness.

There are many reasons people feel the need to put in long working hours, and cultural norms that encourage overwork, but a small army of neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and engineers have shown that overwork is counterproductive in the long term.

They’ve found that regular breaks, outside hobbies, holidays and sabbaticals, sleep, and even daily naps make you a better worker. Why leaders should pay more attention to rest, and encourage the people who work for them to embrace it, too.

Reading it now, some of it anticipates the issues I talk about in my forthcoming book SHORTER (US | UK). Odd how these ideas run around, only semi-recognized, until they turn into something!

Wealth “is disposable time, and nothing more”

From The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties, Deduced from Principles of Political Economy, in a Letter to Lord John Russell (published anonymously and later credited to Charles Dilke, and available online):

[W]here men heretofore laboured twelve hours they would now labour six, and this is national wealth, this is national prosperity… [W]ealth is liberty– liberty to seek recreation–liberty to enjoy life–liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time, and nothing more.

Adam Smith on the value of moderation

Adam Smith's tomb
Adam Smith’s tomb, Edinburgh

Peter Barnard, in a comment on Jenni Russell’s recent column talking about REST (US | UK) points to an Adam Smith quote from the Wealth of Nations about the value of rest:

It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.

The quote is in Book 1, Chapter 8, “On the Wages of Labor,” and is at the end of this observation.

Excessive application during four days of the week is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes, too, of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, brings on the peculiar infirmity of the trade. If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.

So my next book SHORTER (US | UK) is essentially one long footnote to this paragraph, much as Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato, as Alfred North Whitehead put it.

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