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40 Hour Work Weeks Suck

Lately I’ve run across some posts (here and here, for example) based on the idea that for grad students and academics, working 40 hours per week is a good thing. Of course if this makes people happy then great — but I dislike the idea strongly. Most of the time, a week in which I work 40 hours sucks. If I’m working on interesting things, 40 hours is not enough. If I’m working on boring things, 40 hours is far too many. Either way, not so fun. 40 hours is a compromise week in which I don’t actually get a lot of work done, but I’m probably stuck in the office a lot.

On the other hand, here are some weeks that make me happy:

  • A week spent with family. Hours worked: 0.
  • A week spent outdoors. Hours worked: 0.
  • A video game spree, when I was younger. Hours worked: 0.
  • A hacking spree, back in grad school. Hours worked: 90.
  • A hacking or writing spree now. Hours worked: 60.

These weeks are great because they are focused and uncompromising. Instead of context switching, there is flow. The point is: whatever you’re doing, it’s better to just do it, even if this violates some arbitrary ideal time management scheme. People who hate their jobs often work 40 hours weeks, why be one of them?

This piece is related to my earlier one on pointy people.

Update from Friday 10/28: Lots of good discussion on hacker news. A few random clarifications:

  • This piece isn’t criticizing the 40 hour week as an idea, but rather it’s criticizing the 40 hour week as an ideal, if that makes sense.
  • As a commenter noted, I’m married and have kids, which is why 60 hours is about the most I can realistically manage now. That’s a regular 40 hour week plus 3 hours every night after the kids are in bed. This isn’t that bad.
  • My personality is fairly obsessive and I average about six hours of sleep per night. At some level I’d like to sleep more, but when I try this, the extra time is spent lying awake — which I hate.
  • My job, tenured professor, gives a lot of flexibility in when and where I work.
  • My core responsibilities — teaching and meetings, mostly — require probably 20 hours a week, averaged over the whole year. Thus, if I want to be a “full-time” researcher too, I’m suddenly working 60 hours.

In summary, commenter xarien at HN hit the nail on the head:

“I see a lot of posts disagreeing with the OP in one form or another and I think I know why. It takes a bit of OCD and a dash of perfectionism to emphasize with the OP. Unfortunately, I know exactly how the OP feels.”

{ 20 } Comments

  1. Ben | October 26, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post. I absolutely love my job. A big part of it is flow. I like working where there are high expectations and low restrictions. I routinely don’t take lunch until 1:30 or 2 because I get in the best work that way.

  2. Ben L. Titzer | October 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ve completely lost track of what is work and what isn’t. Sometimes I solve problems while ruminating in the lineup.

  3. Vaibhav Garg | October 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    It’s not the fact of WORKING for 40 hours that is the issue, it’s the management’s insistence on working for at least X hours where X>40. I agree that when in flow, the artificial limits have no meaning, but, honestly, how often does that happen? Every Day/Week?

  4. regehr | October 26, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    Hi Vaibhav– but it’s worse than management insisting on 40 hours, which is perfectly reasonable, given that they’re paying people.

    What I think is stupid is when you have someone like a grad student or professor — people with no actual boss — and they *still* want to work 40 hour weeks, all on their own. Just makes no sense.

  5. Tanya | October 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I see your point that 40 hours is an arbitrary number of hours. However, it also coincides with the way the rest of the world works. If I work a 40 hour week, that means I can work while my kids are in school and not work when they are not. I also can hang out or talk on the phone with people who do have 9 to 5s.

    My personal insistence on a 40 hour week is because I have found that working more than 40 hours on a consistent basis means I get tired and am less productive. But, everyone should find their own limits.

    I also am a big advocate of the 0 hour workweeks, and try to take conscious time off during the winter, summer, and spring breaks. That said, I think that’s what I am missing in my life right now! Why not the fall too?

  6. regehr | October 27, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tanya, at Utah we get a full week for fall break — I recommend it! But then the fall semester ends up being really long.

    I agree about everyone finding their own balance, and see your point about socializing.

  7. Andre | October 28, 2011 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    There is certainly something to be said about continuity of work. If the problem you are working on is sufficiently complicated, then you cannot make progress in only a week’s time and you have to rely on slow progress to get it done.

  8. anon | October 28, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I have found that the week or two leading up to a vacation are the most productive. I get everything done that needs to be finished. Then I take a week off and return to a mediocre productivity mode until the next vacation nears.

  9. Lynn | October 28, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    You are obviously one of these commie Occupy *street types. Take a bath and grow up.

  10. Gonzo | October 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Where I work we used to have a “35-40″ workweek, which meant there was no pay difference between 35 and 40 hours. We have our busy time when we work 60-80 hours, then slow times when we work just the 35, or even take off to balance out the 60+ weeks. I didn’t like it because it was used as an excuse, first to pay us the equivalent of 35 hours even when we worked 40, then to excuse taking away benefits because it was a “benefit”. Of course, it was taken away and all the things excused by it we didn’t get back.

    Like most IT people, I stay where I am because I want to solve an interesting problem. Once it’s solved, I will leave so fast the door may come off its hinges, but not before. Interrupting my flow over things like 40 hour work week, or a boss who thinks his job is to make work on top of the deluge…these are the sorts of things that keep me up wondering if the problem is all that interesting to me anymore.

  11. tiago | October 28, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    you can come to work in brazil, it is a 44h work week and I’m fully productive. I dont get mucht time outside to study , but I remain productive as I stated.

  12. Bryant | October 28, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    While I agree on what you are saying, in terms of my own personal scheduling, its just not something that is realistic for people who work and don’t love their job… which would probably be most people.

    On the same notion that an individual’s performance should be based on their performance results and not time spent at the office, thus making time spent at the office irrelevant. That concept doesn’t take into consideration the fact that people are naturally lazy and try and find the easiest way to put in the required work to get paid. I don’t like to generalize, but if someone is really upset about working a strict 40 hour work week, they should take steps to put themselves in a job/position that is more flexible.

  13. Will | October 28, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I think the forty hour week is a lot more relevant to people who aren’t self managed/ beholden to shitty project managers (which may be a redundant term) and are perpetually hopping from disaster to disaster. There was a really interesting post aggregating research on productivity vs. hours worked that popped up on hacker news a couple weeks ago. To paraphrase: we suck after about forty hours of work. Empirically suck. After forty hours your burnout has caught up to you and you’re well into diminishing returns per unit time. It’s worse for knowledge workers. So I, living in never ending crisis land, find work week triage a) valuable in maintaining sanity and b) really hasn’t hurt my output noticeably. (Sometimes the building really is on fire and you have to rally, obviously, but as a rule of thumb, if I’m regularly working more than regular union hours, somebody is fucking something up.)

  14. richtaur | October 28, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    We’re with you, but how are we supposed to convey this to our employers?

  15. Jake | October 28, 2011 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post – I’ve felt the exact same way for some time and even ranted on to a few people about the issue but outside of starting a company, being my own boss and setting my own schedule daily/weekly I can’t really find a solution.
    I once heard of a position that allowed the employee to work from where every they want in the world, whenever they want (unlimited vacation), so long as their assigned tasks were done by specific deadlines they would be paid their full wages. I suppose this is one way of handling the issue at hand but it seems that employers are afraid to try such a thing with employees not being paid extremely high wages ($1m+).

  16. datt | October 29, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    If you have really challenging work then 40 hours per week is not sufficient but if you do routine work then it’s really wastage of 40 hours. For innovation time is no bar.

  17. Mike | October 29, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Henry Ford is credited in numerous places for the 40 week. He apparently did some tests and found that this was the most cost-effective solution for the employer. Productivity decreased after 40 hours of work.

  18. Steve | October 29, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Personally I have no problem with the 40 hour week if I’m learning, if I’m not learning I’ll quit the job!

  19. John Evans | October 30, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    How many weeks in a row could you work 60 hours? How many weeks could you do it before getting tired and having the quality of your work go down?

  20. PM Hut | October 31, 2011 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    @Mike,

    Productivity decreases after 50 hours, and productivity will decrease further if you continuously force your team members to work extra… That’s why relying on overtime to “save a project” will usually have a reverse effect…