Why a 40-hour work week is key to a “work-life circle”

7 min read
May 16, 2018

An image focused on a wristwatch, on the wrist of a person wearing a business suit. Image source: https://stocksnap.io/photo/VL9LPY5XWL

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently gave a fascinating interview to fellow CEO Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of publisher Axel Springer. There’s a lot of interesting revelations in the conversation: Bezos’ tendency to butcher quotes, his approach to criticism, his vision to “move all heavy industry off of Earth” (he’s really into space travel). I recommend reading the transcript. Here’s the quote that stuck out to me:

“I get asked about work-life balance all the time. And my view is, that's a debilitating phrase because it implies there's a strict trade-off. And the reality is, if I am happy at home, I come into the office with tremendous energy. And if I am happy at work, I come home with tremendous energy. It actually is a circle; it's not a balance.”

Bezos, the richest person in the recorded history of net worth, said this in response to a question about his kids. He might be onto something. The work-life “circle” he describes is an interesting way to frame the energy in our lives. It’s especially compelling when paired with another well-publicized belief of Bezos: he gets eight hours of sleep a night and doesn’t set an alarm.

Maybe it was just the timing of the Bezos interview, but his comments remind me of this art print, made by Chicago artist Ricardo Levins Morales:

The month of May began with the widespread celebration of International Workers’ Day, one of the world’s most remarkable and misrepresented holidays. A quick history lesson:

  • In the rapidly industrializing United States of the late 19th century, 12- to 18-hour workdays were common. And debilitating.
  • On May 1st, 1886, an estimated 300,000 workers across the country walked off their jobs in a general strike, protesting working conditions. Chief among the demands of the strikers: an eight-hour work week.
  • Two days later, continued protests in Chicago were met with violence - police opened fire on striking workers. The day after, a bomb went off at a protest, killing at least 12, and setting off what’s now known as the Haymarket Riot (sometimes the Haymarket Massacre, or, much more politely, the Haymarket Affair). The violence of the incident led to a wave of xenophobia and anti-labor sentiment as seven organizers were sentenced to death...
  • But four years later, on May 1, 1890, the holiday went worldwide, in response to the Haymarket Affair. It’s now formally celebrated around the world more than it is in the U.S., having become a public holiday in many countries.

A hundred years later, workers in America (and elsewhere) are seeing their hours increase. In 2014, Gallup polling showed the average work week for adults employed full-time in the U.S. was 47 hours. Half of all full-time workers indicated they worked more than 40 hours a week. A quarter of salaried workers said they worked over 60 hours per week!

Those workers are doing themselves and their employers a disservice. John Pencavel of Stanford University published a study in 2014 called The Productivity of Working Hours. When The Economist published their analysis of it, they chose a more provocative and Bezosian title: Proof that you should get a life.

Team Building

Pencavel studied a massive amount of data from British munitions workers in World War II. It’s a good dataset; most workers were paid per piece produced, so output was straightforward to measure, and many workers were well above 40 hours a week.

The study found that when employees worked up to 49 weekly hours, the output was proportional to the time worked. After that, it’s a totally different story. Output per hour starts to fall after 50 hours and becomes almost useless after 56. The output at 70 hours-per-week didn’t show a significant difference from 56-hours-per-week.

Don’t push past 56 hours per week if you’re a salaried employee, and don’t ask people to work that much if you’re a manager. You’ll be giving - or getting - subpar work and risking burnout.

That phrase in Morales’ print: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will” is a hundred-year-old slogan. It’s also a great formula for work-life balance, or a work-life circle, if you prefer. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep! 41 million American workers aren’t getting enough.

A lot of respected experts on work and health agree: 40 hours is the right target for your work week. You’re much more likely to go over 40 than under 40; things come up.

Sue Todd and Bruce Daisley are the authors of The New Work Manifesto, a thoughtful document that aims to make work healthier, and in their words, “more fun”. One heading in the manifesto is “40 Hours Is Enough”. From that section:

“We have this idea that the more we work, the more we accomplish. There’s simply no evidence to support it. The idea that working longer achieves more has been proven to be untrue. Let’s respect 40 hours as a solid week’s work – and let people find the right time to complete it.”

Less than 40 often isn’t enough, but more than 40 is bad for your health and your productivity.

Do you know where your 40 hours are going?

This September, Harper Business will release the third book by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the founders of 38signals. It’s called It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, and “40 hours is enough” is printed on the back of the book jacket. In the summary of the book, they write:

“Out of the 60, 70, 80 hours a week many are expected to pour into work, how many of those hours are really spent on the work itself? And how many are tossed away in meetings, lost to distraction, and withered away by inefficient business practices? The bulk.”

Forty hours is a lot of time, but there will be weeks where it doesn’t feel like nearly enough. Hansson and Fried are onto something when they write about how there’s a disconnect between work schedules and critical tasks. If you’re budgeting 40 hours to work a week, you’ll have to learn to claim and defend your time from what threatens to whittle it away.

An employee opening a door, as if leaving a workplace. Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/8nGuPyGkOMI

Time management skills and a mentality that values your time away from work are essential to keeping your work week in the 40-hour range. There are a lot of ways to get there. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Track your time for a month. Toggl is my favorite tool for time tracking, a dead-simple browser extension that I’ve used when freelancing. It’s tough to keep track of your time in a busy office environment, but if you start and end your day with it and check in before lunch (you’re taking a lunch break, right?) you can build a healthy habit, and after a month you’ll really see where your time is going.
  • Turn meetings into memos. This is especially important if you’re in a management role. Meetings stall momentum. Most people reach peak productivity when they’re in “flow state”. It’s hard to get there if your day is peppered with meetings. If you must put a meeting on multiple calendars, follow the advice here: make sure the meeting has an owner, clear expectations, and a parking lot.
  • Assess entire weeks on Mondays. Personally, I’m a lot more comfortable with days as a unit of time; it’s a challenge for me to think through the moving parts and pieces of my five work days. This is undeniably effective, though. When I take time on Sunday night or Monday morning to look through my week and see where my 40 hours are already committed to meetings and calls, I work with a focus that tracks towards my top priorities. I’m much more likely to ask for the support and resources I need from my manager.
  • Mind your commute. More and more of us are working remotely, but most of us still have a commute. If you’re working on your commute, track that towards your 40 hours. If you’re answering work email from your cell phone, stop. This isn’t faster than using a keyboard at work, it isn’t necessary to get to inbox zero while you’re on a commute, and it’s making your work-life circle lopsided.
  • Optimize your work environment. If you are one of the rising number of employees who work remotely, make sure you’re tracking your time and you’re in a place with strong work boundaries that keep you from getting randomized. If you work in a distracting office and need to focus, consider bringing your laptop to a coffee shop. (At TINYpulse’s Seattle office, we’ve instituted a “quiet room”, where one conference room is for silent work four hours a day. I’m writing this post in it.)

40 hour work weeks aren’t for everyone. Most of the data in this article points to that. Targeting 40 hours of work a week doesn’t mean you’ll get there right away, especially if you’re already in the 50-hour range, like so many employees. You may not get there at all.

Still, the advantages of aiming for a 40-hour work week are numerous. Spending a third of the day doing “what you will” is likely to make you a much more energetic employee. Getting a good night’s sleep will ensure your work isn’t full of exhaustion-induced errors. Plan to put in eight of your best hours each day at work, and you can achieve a more balanced circle.

 management skills

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