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“We have to live life with a sense of urgency so not a minute is wasted.”
Les Brown

Croissants. Cabernet Sauvignon. Brie. French fries. All great – in moderation. So, too, is the concept of “French hours.” What are they, how can you implement them successfully in your organization, and most importantly, are there actually croissants involved?

Phone Booth – en Francais

In a Fast Company piece entitled, appropriately enough, “French Hours,” Seth Godin remarks on the difference between Hollywood movie-making techniques and those employed by French producers. Tinseltown employs union laborers for roles from grips to boom guys to extras to their high-price stars: they have to work set hours, with regularly scheduled breaks. No OT – unless you’re willing to pay handsomely (and by handsomely, I mean wow).

But in 2002, director Joel Schumacher did something revolutionary (and by revolutionary, I mean something the French already do): he did away with lunch breaks. Food was available all day, and people ate when they had a chance. Production wasn’t interrupted; the entire process was efficient – and fast. It took just 10 days to film the entire movie.

Godin writes, “Not only did the esprit de corps and sense of urgency of French hours allow Schumacher to meet his timetable, but they also produced a better movie. The tension in the performance of every actor is palpable. Nobody looks as though he just had a big plate of ziti.”

Can French Hours Work for You?

Can you implement French hours in your business and achieve the same efficiency, quality, and esprit de corps? Godin thinks so, and he provides four simple rules to fast-track a project or initiative:

  • Every team member has to agree to French hours. It won’t work if everyone’s not on board. Plan to have alternative jobs for folks who choose to opt out. (Likely you’ll find that this is rare; people want to take part in something out-of-the-ordinary, and a little shot of urgency can boost performance).
  • Don’t do it all the time. If everything is critical all the time, then people are going to burn out on French hours – and on their work. It’s like crying wolf: they’ll stop responding to the “crisis” when they sense that this is just how you want them to work (no breaks, early mornings, late nights, etc.). They say you have to pick your battles; here, you have to pick your emergencies.
  • Remind people of the uniqueness of the situation. Phone Booth worked because the sense of urgency in filming was perfectly in sync with the sense of urgency people needed to feel when watching the movie. Again, pick your projects wisely and make urgency work for you.
  • Stop. And Phone Booth worked because, after 10 days, it was done. Finished. All at once. After you’ve hit your deliverable, French hours are over. Put them away, and keep them away until you have another unique (and by unique, I mean unique) project to tackle.

These guidelines are meant to ensure you don’t overuse French hours, but nor should you underuse them. As Godin writes it may be “[t]ime to find a special project, order the croissants, and make something happen.” Remember, “il faut de la mesure en toute chose.” Moderation in all things!