What was once a socialist dream has become every knowledge worker’s nightmare. It’s time to unmake the modern myth of productivity.
The eight-hour workday started its life as a socialist dream. The Welsh textile mill owner and social reformer Robert Owen is credited as the first person to articulate it, by calling for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest” for workers in the early 19th century. This was much better than the 12- or 14-hour days factory workers, including children, were expected to put in at the time. Over the next 100 years or so, labor unions in the US pushed for and won adoption of the eight-hour standard in various industries. Henry Ford brought the idea further into the mainstream in 1926 by mandating a five-day, 40-hour workweek in his company’s factories. In 1940, Congress officially set the American workweek at 40 hours.
There’s just one problem in 2019: It’s all but impossible to actually work for eight hours a day in the jobs so many of us now have. Like most people writing hot takes and think pieces about productivity, I’m focusing on knowledge workers here—those of us who work at desks, mostly in front of computers, in offices or from home. Especially those of us who spend those hours making things, like writers, coders, and graphic designers. (Honestly, I think eight hours a day is too long to work in a factory, a restaurant, a call center, or a store too, and we should rethink and relegislate this standard in all industries.)
I’m a full-time freelance writer who works from home, so I’m responsible for setting my own schedule. This is great, and also terrible. Like many knowledge workers, I reach the end of many workdays thinking, Where did all those hours go? What did I actually do today? And unlike people who go to an office, I can’t say Oh, I went to the office! I don’t have an external measure of productivity to judge myself against, aside from the culturally ingrained idea that if I’m a “full-time” writer, I should be working for eight hours a day, five days a week.
To figure out where my hours were going, and if I was meeting this arbitrary metric designed for criminally exploited 19th-century factory workers, I installed RescueTime. This is essentially spyware I use on myself. It tracks everything I do on my computer and shows me how long I spend working each day, and what I actually do during that time. It’s creepy, and I love it.
I recently had an exceptionally busy and stressful week of work, as I was finishing a long magazine feature and writing a quick-turnaround science news story about a technical topic. Trying to do both those things at the same time was definitely too much work. I know this because I felt awful—depressed, anxious, eating poorly, and not exercising enough—during this push, and because I got sick immediately after it was over.
When I looked at my RescueTime stats from those days (a Wednesday to a Monday; freelance schedules are weird), it turned out I had worked a total of 35 hours and 17 minutes. I didn’t take much of a weekend, working two hours on Saturday and over seven hours on Sunday. My productivity was high at an average of 84 percent, but not particularly unusual according to my RescueTime weekly reports. (I’m delighted to brag that I usually spend less than 30 minutes a day on Twitter, something I never would have guessed before installing RescueTime and that continues to shock me. I thought it was eating my days. But no, that’s email—another post for another time.)
Even during an unusually jam-packed week for me, I didn’t work 40 hours. I never worked eight hours in single day, though I got close a few times, clocking over seven hours on three days. Still, this was more than I usually worked. For comparison, during a typical week in October with no big deadlines, I worked 27 hours and 11 minutes, with 82 percent average productivity. Usually, RescueTime records me doing between 20 and 30 hours of computer work per week. (Admittedly not all my work takes place in front of a computer, but enough of it does for this to be a helpful metric.)
I would feel worse about this if a wave of people in a Slack writers’ group I’m in hadn’t recently shared their work hours. It turned out that no one was regularly working eight-hour days. Everybody was more in the five- to six-hour range. And until we shared that with each other, everybody was secretly feeling guilty and lazy about it.
Many of us in that group are freelancers who work from home. But I’m positive that if you tracked knowledge worker’s time in an office the same way as I track mine—i.e., when they are actually at their computer doing something—you wouldn’t come up with 40 hours for hardly anybody. Forty hours of availability, sure. Forty hours of office presence, probably. Forty hours of thinking about work—at least, and likely more. But the amount of time you’re actually doing something, writing something, creating something? You can’t do that work for eight hours a day without breaking down.
Those activities are what productivity guru Cal Newport calls “deep work.” Deep work, which requires complete focus and pushes us to our intellectual and creative limits, is vital to many of our jobs and also our happiness. After engaging in deep work, you feel satisfied and proud. But it’s really hard to stay in that state of intense concentration for more than three or four hours a day. So if deep work is the most important part of your job, but you’ve also committed to yourself to working eight-hour days, you’re basically doomed to spend the other four to five hours on busywork and clicking around the internet.
I’m not saying you should never respond to emails or send invoices or set up interviews. I’m not even saying you should never waste time on social media. Some administrative work is completely necessary in even the most creative and self-directed jobs, and social media is fun as long as it’s not taking over your life. But you probably don’t need to devote four or five hours a day to those activities, right? So why not just do your deep work, dip a toe in the most necessary administrative stuff, and then be done? You probably won’t fill up eight hours that way. That’s OK. That’s the point.
For me, five hours is the ideal creative workday. An hour to warm up and check in with my team and the world, three hours of focused work on a project or maybe two, and an hour to wind down, plan for tomorrow, and make sure I didn’t miss anything important. I’m not the only one who thinks this sounds like a better way to work. In The New York Times, Newport recently described a startup in Germany that has a strict 8 am to 1 pm workday:
To support this new approach, [the head of the company] has employees leave their phones in their bags at the office and blocks access to social media on the company network. Strict rules reduce time spent in meetings (most of which are now limited to 15 minutes or less). Perhaps most important, employees now check work email only twice each day—no drawn out, back-and-forth exchanges fragmenting their attention, no surreptitious inbox checks while at dinner or on the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events.
It will surprise no one that it’s completely possible to be more productive in five hours under these conditions than in eight in a regular office environment—if your job is making things, that is. There are plenty of important office jobs that couldn’t be done well in five hours of solitary focus—human resources, management, even editing, a job that has far less in common with writing than you might expect. I also wonder how the employees feel about the rules. Do they have the space to get to know their colleagues well enough to feel connected to them, or is everybody just nodding at each other in between bouts of deep work? I would hate to work in an office where my colleagues felt like strangers, no matter how few times I was required to check my email.
But for those of us who do have creative, focused, relatively solitary jobs: Five hours is enough. Sometimes, it’s more than enough. I absolve you. Go forth and enjoy your workday, at last.
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