60 second summary

  • We balance laziness and effort to get the things that we want in life.
  • Most people tend to work as many hours in the week as they can, and fit the rest of life around that.
  • Research suggests we should all probably work a bit less.
  • Prioritising what we work on and removing some of the more ridiculous wastes of time from our work days could mean you’d probably get the key things done anyway.
  • And also tune in to the time(s) of day which ‘work for us’.
  • Circadian rhythms, for example, mean some people work best in the morning.
  • So working less would likely increase our work productivity and personal happiness.
  • But people don’t work less– instead, they work really hard. How come?
  • Possibly because they are not optimising their lives for productivity.
  • As a final thought, don’t reduce your working hours too much.
  • I did that and, let me tell you, having a bunch of time to waste is not the panacea you’d expect.

Working vs. not working is a trade off

If you put out a pile of food for a dog, it’ll eat it continuously until it feels unwell. Dogs will never give a thought to the future and how long the food they currently have needs to last.

Humans tend to be a bit more circumspect. We know that the food we have available to us right now might need to last us a long time.

The fact that we have this awareness can be a troubling thing. We know – or hope – we have a future which may last for many years. Believing that we might need money to feed ourselves in the future essentially dooms us to a lifetime of work and saving. It may also create periods of anxiety during which we don’t have enough money, or work, and are concerned about what might happen to us as a result.

For the periods of time during which we do have a job, we are usually balancing a couple of primary drivers.

  • On one hand, there are good things about work:
    People benefit from order in their lives. At a very basic level, work is good for structuring the time in your life. It also provides social contact. Additionally, some people’s jobs are meaningful – i.e. they feel the work they are doing makes a positive difference in the world. For a lucky few, work can help them achieve their life goals.
  • On the other hand, work can be hard:
    Evolutionary psychologists say that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective to be lazy. The research suggests, fundamentally, that our brains are wired to avoid effort to store energy for more important tasks like fight or flight should the need ever arise. At a basic level, we really don’t want to work.

The output of the conflict appears to be an unconscious trade off between your productivity at work, the time you have for yourself and your family, the ‘meaning’ in your life, and how much you get paid.

Examples and research

Most agree that the subdivision of a day into 8 hours labour, 8 hours sleep, and 8 hours recreation, 5 days a week was essentially an arbitrary decision.

Since then, and especially recently, some people have questioned the ‘optimum’ number of hours that should be worked – whether 8 hours each day is too few or too many. It’s an important question. We live in a world where annual productivity improvements have fallen to virtually nothing. To combat that, some companies have undertaken experiments to find out what configuration of hours would generate the most productivity.

  • Microsoft in Japan:
    Trailed a 4-day work week (30 hours per week). When they did, they found that people took less time off, had shorter meetings, and lived happier lives. Productivity rose 40%.
  • The Harvard Business Review:
    Found that reducing working hours increased productivity.
  • Perpetual Guardian:
    Did an experiment in New Zealand, where they gave everyone an extra day off per week. Productivity went up 20% and people were happier.

Many of the sources I link to on this page include similar experiments with similar results.

Diminishing Marginal Returns : Why hours don’t mean productivity

It’s natural to think that people produce a certain amount of ‘output’ per hour. Say, for instance, in a 40-hour week someone produces 40 ‘units’ of output. It would seem that working another 10 hours will lead to a 25% increase in productivity leading to a total output of 50 ‘units.

There are 2 problems with that seemingly innocuous claim:

  1. People have a natural limit to the amount of stress they can deal with.

    Taking on more and more work leads to, first, good stress levels under which people produce more, and then, second, ‘impaired performance’ under which people produce less. It’s called the Yerkes Dodson law.

The same phenomenon is generalised in economics under the Diminishing Marginal Returns model, which applies to any and all of the 4 factors of production – Land, Capital, Enterprise, and Labour. As you add more of any of these factors of production, the marginal benefit of that unit declines.

In Economics, The Diminishing Marginal Returns model exhibits many of the same elements as the Yerkes Dodson Model
In Economics, the Diminishing Marginal Returns Model shows something similar to the Yerkes Dodson Model. source

I think it’s probably common-sense to suggest that there comes a stage of work where you’re doing more harm than good. If you consistently stress yourself, overall, you will actually get less done than if you’d stayed at the optimum.

In this fictional example, after 7 hours per day of work, extra work is counter productive and reduces total output.
This is a fictional example, based on the marginal and total productivity numbers in the chart from Economics Help. At some point, the extra effort a worker puts in causes too much stress / diminishing marginal returns and total productivity falls.
  1. The Pareto Principal

I found that the most productive days I had in the office were the days before I went on holiday. I had a really clear idea of what needed to be done while I was away, and I had a great reason to get it all done immediately.

The Pareto Rule is that 20% of the effort gets you 80% of the results (and vice versa). Assuming people prioritise something appropriately, that means they probably do the most important things first.

Above, the Pareto Principal suggests that 20% of your activity achieves 80% of the results – and vice versa. Cutting back your hours is likely to mean that you sacrifice only low value activities.
The Pareto Principal is quite a common idea in economics. It suggests that 80% of the work you do is low value. The 20% which is most important is what gives you 80% of the results you’re after.

The specifics of the Pareto rule might not be something you’re familiar with, but the concept of wasting time at work is something everyone knows. Here’s a chart to show you what you experience every day.

A corporate job essentially rests on your ability to deal with large amounts of email and meetings. And still get the job done.
Productivity is hidden behind Email, bad meetings, and admin. source

What’s interesting to me is that literally everyone knows this. And yet, in a corporate environment, we all go along with it.

Most people think a large proportion of the meetings they go to are a waste of time.
It will be of no surprise to anyone who has worked in a Corporate job, that most people think a lot of their meetings are a waste of time.

In essence, I think the ‘work more hours, produce more stuff’ model was probably more true when people were performing industrial tasks. These days, where most people in the West are knowledge workers (rather than hands-on workers), it’s probably less true.

So, how many hours should you work?

best number of hours to work per day

Sources :

Generally, the answer is ‘you would probably benefit from working less’

All the research says that working less will help your productivity and have huge benefits for your well-being. What’s scarce is valuable, so if you’re working and then sorting out your life, that small amount of extra time might be worth a lot to you.

As you can see from the chart, 6 or 7 hours a day is seen as the optimum for productivity.

Other research says you should also consider the bit of the day in which you work. The answer varies slightly by individual. Different people have different circadian rhythms. Generally, however, working only after lunch is the common answer for people.

In conclusion

The question is really, Why do people work long hours? It is counter productive – and the research shows that they know it.

Having worked in Corporate, I can only think that it’s really the management team who want to see people in the office for 8 hours a day. I confess that, for my team working on my website, I feel suspicious when I know they’re not online – even though I know they are literally incredible and are more productive than anyone I’ve ever worked with. So why do I care about the hours? It’s something I need to work on.

Be careful what you wish for

Running my website, WhatPhone, for the last 8 years or so was the perfect experiment. I knew why I was doing it (to earn a corporate income without the corporate worries). I knew what to do – we were building a website. I had a good team to build it. But the question of how to do it – including the optimum number of hours to work each day – was up for discussion.

Working from home made me super efficient. There are no interruptions. No wastes of time. But some of the inefficiencies of offices are fun. You get to chat with people and become friendly with the person who sits next to you.

For me, the optimum amount of time to work each day turned out to be 4-6 hours per day. The limiting factor for me was when my brain felt ‘fried’ and it was uncomfortable to work more.