Most of us live in a culture that glorifies long hours, so it’s understandable that we make the (mostly inaccurate) assumption that we’re actually accomplishing more when we work more hours. On a small scale, of course we are. We produce more work in an hour than we do in ten minutes. But do we accomplish more when we work a 60-hour week rather than a 40-hour week? Probably not.
Henry Ford is credited with the revolutionary idea of giving workers weekends off. He’s often held up as a champion of workers’ rights, but Ford advocating for shorter working hours was actually a result of research, and findings, on the law of diminishing returns.
Ford found that 40 hours a week was the optimal time workers should be working to ensure high levels of productivity, and that working beyond that amount of time, resulted in ‘diminishing returns’ or less work being produced per hour. And that was based on repetitive, assembly line work. If your work is creative, and requires periods of reflection and deep thinking time, it’s probably a lot less.
Ford realised something else important, too. If he gave his worker’s weekends off, they had the leisure time needed to justify buying one of his cars and enjoy driving around in it. Ford was all about supporting capitalism and running things efficiently. It seems likely worker’s rights were the last thing on his mind. But he hit on something with his law of diminishing returns. As long as there are humans in the work force, downtime is an important aspect to keeping things running smoothly.
We work best when we build in time to recover, or as top Medium writer and author, Benjamin Hardy, puts it:
“For best results: Spend 20% of your energy on your work and 80% of your energy on recovery and self-improvement.”
He talks in terms of energy, not time, which are two different things, but let’s assume, just for the hell of it, that you can maintain fairly consistent levels of energy across most of your waking hours. Even if you allow for sleep as part of your recovery, working 20% of a 168 hour week would mean working 33 to 34 hours a week. Shorter than the average working week in developed countries, but maybe still way too much. Take sleep out of the equation, and you’re looking at something more like 20–25 hours a week (depending on your sleep patterns). Ridiculous? Or, just maybe, still too much. Maybe, we should be working no more than 15 hours a week. And relaxing the majority of the rest of the time.
The idea of the 15-hour work week is far from new. As I discussed in a previous article, it tends to have modern-day capitalists up in arms, which is interesting seeing as it was famously proposed by John Maynard Keynes, one of the great capitalist thinkers of the twentieth century. As far back as 1930, Keynes predicted that the average working week would be cut back to as little as 15 hours, with people choosing to spend more time on leisure, as all their material needs would be met, due to advances in automation and mechanisation.
Obviously, something went wrong. It’s not uncommon for modern-day Americans to need a second job to top up their 40-hour a week ‘day job’, and leading companies like Amazon are constantly criticised for their mandatory overtime, that results in in 60-hour weeks for warehouse workers. Low-paid, manual workers are working longer and longer hours, as are service workers, and office workers, but the law of diminishing returns didn’t stop being true. We’re all basically working more, and less efficiently, than ever.
In fact, while people scoff at the very idea of a 15-hour week, that’s exactly what some office workers already do. Sure, they’re in the office a lot longer, but not every hour logged in the office is an hour of work. A UK research study suggests that, in each 8 hour day, the average full-time office worker is only productive for less than 3 hours a day. Much of the rest of their time is spent surfing the web, checking social media, chatting with co-workers, taking smoke breaks and searching for new jobs, among many other things.
If you’re an admin or knowledge worker who’s been working from home during the pandemic, you’ve probably found that you can get your work done in a much shorter amount of time than when you’re in the office(which is just as well, for those of us being expected to homeschool our kids at the same time).
Will a 15-hour work week (or a shift to remote working that allows us to work the exact amount of time we need to, to produce results) ever be the norm? It seems unlikely, for various reasons, one very important one being that while there is, due to automation, potentially less to do, there is also more to buy, and a higher economic ladder to climb.
Whichever way you look at it, however, many workers are ‘wasting’ much of their 8-hour-plus work day. One of the things I love about my freelance writing business, is that I generally get paid for results, not hours. For what I produce, not my very presence. Sure, I’ve occasionally been known to muse that life would be easier if I had a job where I got paid for turning up. But payment by results ultimately works better for me. Apart from anything else, as I gain experience, build skills, and get systems in place, those results become easier to get, in shorter amounts of time.
In the current climate, it’s the perfect time to negotiate a remote work contract, if at all possible, or consider switching to an online business model, if you’re self-employed. It’s the perfect time to consider the law of diminishing returns, work more efficiently, cut working hours, and focus on quality results. It’s perfectly possible to work less and achieve more. We just have to try and get around a work culture that tells us the exact opposite.
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