How Working 7-Hour Days Changed My Life

Illustrated by Stephanie DeAngelis.
About a month ago, I rode exactly 12 subway stops past my own. I bring this up not to brag about how well traveled I am, or for the sake of complaining on the internet, but because it signified a real issue: I was insanely overworked.
To meet a handful of deadlines, I’d been spending, on average, 11 hours a day in the office, eating lunch at my desk (or skipping it entirely), and answering emails in the few post-work hours I had left (at home, out with friends, on dates, and, clearly most disastrously, on the subway).
This is hardly a unique situation — a 2016 study by ManpowerGroup shows that millennials in the U.S. are working 45 hours a week on average. And the majority of my friends struggle to achieve a good work-life balance, too. In an effort to get myself out of my work-first mindset, I finally decided to do something about it. Over a Oui by Yoplait — French Style Yogurt, I looked to the French for inspiration.
In 2000, France mandated a 35-hour workweek (meaning employees can’t work more than that without being paid overtime) to reduce unemployment rates and offer its citizens a better quality of life. So for seven days, I decided to follow the French way. I’d work no more than seven hours a day, take a full hour for lunch, and not check email outside the office, in hopes that I could finally achieve a better work-life balance or, at the very least, stop missing my subway stop.
Illustrated by Stephanie DeAngelis.
I’m notoriously terrible at detaching from my phone, so on the first day of my 35-hour workweek, I decided to leave it behind in the office while I went out for lunch — that way I’d have no chance of checking my email. I took a packed salad and yogurt and ate in a nearby park, and I didn’t let myself return to the office for a full hour. I expected to be a nervous, email-wistful wreck, but somehow, the hour went by insanely fast. I read, did some non-work writing, and enjoyed not spilling salad over my keyboard for the first time ever.
When I got back to the office, things were a little less rose-colored. I had several unread emails and Slack messages, and I felt way behind in my to-dos. When 5 p.m. rolled around and my seven work hours were up, the panic really set in. I envisioned myself staying up til 3 a.m. playing catch-up...except I couldn’t. I had worked all the hours I was allowed for the day, and even emails were a no-go.

As I focused on my breathing, I felt my work-related thoughts begin to slip away. I felt genuinely calm and clear-headed.

In an effort to fully clear my mind of everything work related, I decided to take a meditation class. I scooted out of the office — being careful not to make eye contact with my coworkers for fear of them questioning why I was leaving hours before the norm — and headed to a 30-minute intro meditation class at MNDFL. It was my first time meditating ever, and I was skeptical that I’d actually be able to sit there in peace and tune out work.
I was right. The moment I sat down on the cushion and closed my eyes, I started thinking about deadlines, emails, and all the work I would otherwise be doing in that moment — that is, until the teacher led us through guided breaths. As I focused on my breathing, I felt my work-related thoughts begin to slip away. I felt genuinely calm and clear-headed. 40 seconds later the teacher announced that class was over. I checked one work email after class.
Illustrated by Stephanie DeAngelis.
The good news was, my shortened work schedule wasn’t actually compromising the quality of my work. In fact, the few things I had left over when I left at 5 p.m. were easy enough to wrap up first thing the following morning. The real problem was that I couldn’t get myself to stop thinking about work — to stop imagining what might be in my inbox or brainstorming story ideas.
I realized that the only way I was going to be able to get through the week was if I tapped into that feeling I’d experienced in the meditation room — the fleeting high that came from doing something for myself that had absolutely nothing to do with work. I needed to spend my lunch breaks and evenings doing things I’d always wanted to do but never felt like I had the time to.
To really lean into the French spirit at lunch, I stopped by Le District, a Parisian-style marketplace and collection of restaurants near my office. I sat down at a counter, ordered steak frites, and lingered over the meal without once worrying about my to-do lists or wondering what gif-filled messages I was missing on Slack. When I got back to the office, there was plenty to catch up on, but I felt far more relaxed about it all. In fact, that hour away from my projects let me approach them with a clearer head.
Illustrated by Stephanie DeAngelis.
When I left at 5 p.m., I didn’t feel stressed about cutting things short. Maybe I was subconsciously working faster to overcompensate for the lost time, or maybe stepping away from work midday actually made a difference. Either way, I was actually ahead on the majority of my to-dos. I decided to use my extra nighttime hours trying a new workout, Box + Flow, which combines elements of boxing and yoga (a significant departure from my regular routine of walking to the gym at 9 p.m., arriving at the door, and promptly turning around to go home). I was able to totally suppress work thoughts during the class, and when I got home and scrolled through Instagram and Twitter, I had zero desire to check my work email.

It was about setting boundaries for myself — something I’d been hesitant to do for fear of coming off as entitled or disinterested in my job.

By Friday, I was actually starting to believe that work-life balance was a real, achievable thing. I was able to squeeze a pedicure into my lunch break, and after work I did something utterly groundbreaking: I made it to happy hour. Yes, I drank a $5 cocktail inside a bar in New York City.
In the end, it wasn’t about living like the French. It was about feeling comfortable setting boundaries for myself at work — something I’d been hesitant to do for fear of coming off as entitled or disinterested in my job. I didn’t get in trouble for not answering an email that came in at 7:45 p.m., I didn’t fall behind on my work, and I didn’t get chastised for leaving earlier than normal. Was the 35-hour workweek sustainable? Yes and no. In the two weeks since trying it out, I’ve managed to keep certain boundaries up (for instance, I’m still not checking email past 7 p.m., and I’m trying to get out of the office for lunch at least three days a week), but there have been a handful of occasions where I’ve had to put in more than seven hours. Still, the number of late nights have dwindled significantly, as have the all-consuming nighttime work thoughts. And I have yet to miss my subway stop again.

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