Joys of the Three-Day Week

Originally published in Idler 53.

The most effective escape routes from the world of work usually involve a halfway house, some form of airlock between wage slavery and idle bliss. The most obvious and accessible of these is part-time employment.

By cutting down to a three-day week, you immediately escape two days of graft, winning 104 days of freedom per year. As well as 15-20 hours reclaimed from actual toil each week, you’ll also ditch three hours of tedious commuting, three hours of bleary-eyed morning preparation for work, three hours of crap lunches, and ten hours wasted in the post-work recovery position. That’s an awful lot of time to take back from The Man in a single, perfectly conventional maneuver.

You can use your newfound free time to concoct a more ambitious escape plan to dispense with the remaining three days by way of cottage industry or similar, but even if you choose to fritter it all on idle pleasures like reading library books or wallowing in a warm bath, you’ll still be better off than the full-time wage slave. Part-time work can be a stepping stone on the road to total liberty or a satisfactory result in its own right.

Meanwhile, the experience of work itself feels less oppressive when it’s for so little time. The novelty of being in an office after four days of birdwatching and blowing smoke rings makes the first day pass swiftly. The second morning’s a little steeper to climb but it’s hump day and by the time lunch rolls around you’ve broken the work week’s back. The third day is your last, and, psychologically, an effortless roll down the hill.

If this all sounds appealing, here’s how to move from full-time to part-time employment:

Cut your living expenses. You’ll need to balance your new working hours with your consumption levels. You no doubt understand the basic economics of work and consumption already: whatever you consume must be paid for directly in toil or fall into debt, which is best avoided. Cutting your work hours means cutting consumption in proportion to the decrease. Embrace minimalism, Epicureanism and frugality—none of which should pose much of a challenge to the idler, who knows from experience that true pleasure costs little or nothing. Move to a smaller house or a cheaper neighbourhood to facilitate this if necessary. If moving seems like too much upheaval, remember that the alternative is another thirty years or so of full-time toil.

Look out for part-time jobs. Set up some email alerts with the usual roster of job search websites for part-time work within plausible commuting distance of your home. Review these weekly, throwing out the majority, which will be too menial or for which you’re not qualified. A tolerable one will show up eventually, and you can apply for it. If you’re offered the job, either accept it or use it to assist your negotiations in reducing your working hours with your current employer.

Convince your boss to reduce your hours. The best way to land part-time employment is not to move to another job but to reduce the hours in your existing one. Better the devil you know, especially when you can know him pro-rata. Unfortunately it can be tricky to arrange these circumstances because you’ll need the blessing of your boss and to get this you must sell her on the benefits of part-time work. To a boss, it can feel like a pain in the backside to not have a team member accessible all week long. There is, however, a case for part-time work and you can present it to your boss.

First, it will help to cite a good reason for wanting to reduce your hours, as “I hate this job and want to be free” will smack of insult or ingratitude. Say you need the hours for childcare (if applicable: lying about a child you don’t have is probably unsustainable) or to run a burgeoning home business (ideally one that will enhance the skills you bring to your boss’s company) or that you’ve done some sums and found that it’s more economically viable to work three days than five because you can minimise commuting expenses and/or limbo beneath a costly tax bracket. A compelling phrase is “I can’t afford not to” because it implies there’s an economic necessity floating about somewhere, external to your ideals.

Second, say that your change in working practice will save the company money and, being a team player, you find this desirable. Acknowledge that it will be a challenge to do your job in 15 or 25 hours instead of 35 or 40, but that you’re an increasingly efficient worker and you believe it to be possible. In reality, of course, your full-time job could be done part-time, with ease, by a monkey, but it’s probably best not to mention this.

Third, agree to be flexible: say you’ll work additional (paid) hours if there’s a sudden crisis requiring all hands on deck, and will attend (again, for pay) any important meetings or events that fall outside the new hours you’re proposing. Offer that in the early days of this new arrangement you’ll work extra time to pick up any undone tasks (don’t worry – it won’t happen. Just spend less time on Facebook).

If your organisation professes to practice “agile working,” familiarise yourself with the policy and get them to put their money where their mouth is. If they’re willing to benefit from pesky hot-desk arrangements and from the cool factor associated with agile working, they may be obliged to consider part-time work proposals. Agile working also opens up the possibility of job shares (two people sharing a full-time job), home-based work days, and condensed hours (working longer shifts over fewer days): all of which can be mashed into something like part-time work if required.

If further argument were needed, part-time work happens to be quite fashionable: it’s on the rise in almost every economically-developed country (with the notable exception of the United States).

Lin Yutang who writes in favour of “the half-and-half lifestyle,” says we should look for balance “between action and inaction, between being led by the nose into a world of futile busyness and complete flight from a life of responsibilities.” Perhaps we wouldn’t want to escape work so badly if it only took 15 or 20 hours of our week. Maybe it would even become a pleasure.

Part-time work. It’s not half bad.

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