Back when the Ford Motor company was first mass-producing automobiles, they did a number of experiments in how to get the best productivity out of people. They found that a 40-hour week was pretty much the sweet spot. If people worked more than 40 hours, the amount they produced per hour started decreasing. As a result, 40-hour weeks seemed like the best way to get the most out of employees.
Now days, it isn’t uncommon for people to be working 60- to 70-hour weeks as a normal schedule. On one hand, this makes sense. Maybe 40 hours of the type of labor that was being done at Ford was more exhausting than sitting at a desk. On the other hand, the work being done at Ford on the assembly line probably wasn’t as mentally exhausting as much of today’s workers experience. Perhaps we’d be more productive with an even lower number of hours per week.
The problem is that most people seem to think that an hour is interchangeable with any other hour. Well, maybe people don’t think it, but they act like it. For example, the county commissioners where I live decided to move the employees that work on the roads to a 4-day work week with 10 hour days. The logic was that it would save in gasoline that they normally have to spend driving to the work sites in county vehicles. However, I wonder if those 40 hours are just as productive as the old 40 hours. If someone is working hard for 8 hours, I’m not sure you can just tack another two on to the end and expect them to perform just as well.
If you focus and work hard, how long do you think it would take you to finish a day’s worth of work? Do you think you could be done in 6 hours instead of 8? Maybe 4? The problem is that if you have to stay until 5pm, there really isn’t a way for you to find out. You will mentally be “pacing” yourself based on the time you get to leave, so even if you want to work faster, it might not be possible.
What is really productive for you, personally, may be different than what is productive for other people. Unfortunately, the way most employment is set up doesn’t recognize this. However, I think that is going to be changing in the coming years. Some companies are starting to focus more on what people accomplish than on how many hours they put in. This type of shift is going to be very good for productivity.
The change isn’t going to happen right away, but it is starting. Many teams at IBM have very relaxed vacation policies that allow people to take time when and as they need it. Their performance metrics are good enough that they rely on those for measuring what employees are doing–not the number of hours worked.
Your job may not give you that level of flexibility right away, but it is still worth taking the time to think through how you work most effectively and get the most done. Who knows? You may be able to move to a performance-based job sooner than you think.
If you are in a situation where you have some control over your working hours, it might be worth experimenting to see exactly what works best for you. Throwing more time at problems doesn’t always result in more getting done, and sometimes much shorter periods of very focused work let you get a lot more done while leaving more of your precious minutes for other important non-work activities.
I’m encouraged that it seems like more and more companies are relaxing their grasp on the 40 hour work week, at least in the tech and creative sectors (hopefully others will follow at some point), and instead focusing on employee productivity. Personally, I would even take a pay-cut for the option of working less time during the week, since I don’t really need all of the money they give me, and I value my time more than the money. Honestly, I’d probably be just as productive for them regardless of whether I work 25 or 40 hours — who knows, maybe I’d even be more productive.
I would love to see the standard work week hours cut at some point (perhaps from 40 down to 25 or even 20 hours), and I actually wonder if innovation as a society would increase. For many, there just isn’t much time between work and family for working on random side projects outside of work — projects that could turn into the next Apple Computer or Nike. Perhaps with reduced work hours, there would be more time for innovation and experimentation.
Loved your post! I already know that one thing does not work for my productivity – frequent multitasking. If I focus on one task for two hours, I accomplish more with better quality than if I focus on the same task for four hours with multiple interruptions and multitasking emails, conversations, etc. However, I also found that for me if I work on a task for four hours one day and then come back to that task the next day, I experience ‘Eureka’ moments and note things to improve and perfect the quality of my work rather than if I worked on that one task continuously for eight hours.
In summary – we need some uninterrupted focus time for few hours but we also are more creative and produce better quality work when we switch and take mental breaks from tasks. Thus when we return to them, we can find areas for improvement and experience some ‘Aha’ moments.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that what works for you (hours wise) may not work for your co-worker. So because of that I think it’s definitely going to be hard to figure out what the ideal work week is for each person individually and how to accomplish it, but I do look forward to seeing how things change in the future!
Melanie Newdick says
I’ve been doing some productivity experiments of my own and have found when I am most and least productive. Having worked all the hours I could for many years and becoming completely exhausted I now work less than I ever have but achieve much, much more. I agree that things are changing, albeit a bit too slowly for my liking. I’m looking forward to seeing the move away from judging people by how long they spend at their desk