The Paradox of a 40 Hour Workweek

posted by Russ, July 22 in lifestyle design with tags ,


Photo Credit Mylla

Somewhere along the line it became standard for a work week to be 40 hours. I think I speak for most employees out there when I say that giving up 40 precious hours each week doesn’t leave nearly enough time for the important things, like enjoying life. And I also think I speak for most employers (except the conscious few out there who get it) when I say that being given 40 measly hours from each employee isn’t nearly enough time to get everything done that is necessary to compete in a growing global marketplace.

I won’t even go into the reasons why trading 40 hours of your life each week for a paycheck is far too much time to give up. Though I imagine if you’re reading this, you can understand why I desperately want to break free of this model. If for some reason you are ok with trading 40 hours of your life each week, or you can’t think of any reasons why you might not want to do it, I suggest you familiarize yourself with some of these amazing people whose advice and lifestyles regularly contradict typical 9 to 5 wisdom, with great success I might add.

There are several schools of thought out there on the idea of a 9 to 5 or 40 hour week. On one side there is the Timothy Ferriss model, which has famously become known as The 4 Hour Workweek. And then of course the other side says that to become successful and to make it as an entrepeneur or outside of the 9 to 5 model you have to work ridiculously hard. Though I think we’re all smart enough to know that both really are suggesting the same thing. Which is

Do what you need to do to live the life you want, and then whether you work 4, 40, or 60 hours, none of it will seem like work and you’ve pretty much won.

But getting back to this paradox of a 40 hour week, it often seems especially peculiar to me because I think part of the major disconnect between employee and employer expectations comes down to poor management. It seems pretty common to hear 9-to-5ers talk about putting in maybe only 10 or 20 actual productive hours each week, wasting the rest socializing, playing on the internet, sleeping, or spacing out pretending to work. And I’m sure management at these places is wishing they could eek out just a little more productivity out of their workforce. Clearly both sides are not working together to meet the same goals.

I’m not discounting globalism here and competition with a growing cheap international work force, but it seems to me management is stuck in a 20th century paradigm. We have this paradox, where employees (and people in general) are becoming increasingly busy and really longing for more time and freedom, while being pushed ever harder, or at least expected to work longer hours. But in an inefficient model, what’s the point? And employers are doing the pushing, trying to squeeze every bit of productivity out of their workers to compete in the world economy. But really all it takes is some creativity and a willingness to trust employees and be willing to adopt a more flexible business model, which actually has a lot of benefits in the modern economy.

I’ve written in the past about Timothy Ferriss and ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), and how giving people flexible schedules and time to manage their own lives can result in more productivity, as long as they’re willing to focus on actual productivity instead of the number of hours logged in the office.

Until more companies embrace a more flexible, employee oriented business model and change the way they measure their expectations, I think it’s safe to say that the 40 hour work week will remain a paradox of wasted time combined with unfulfilled expectations.

Originally posted on Friday, July 22nd, 2011 at 6:56 AM .

5 Responses to “The Paradox of a 40 Hour Workweek”

  1. Dara says:

    Just found this blog and am enjoying it. It’s kind of like you’ve read my mind! I’m still in a 9-5 (8-6… or later) job. My biggest struggle is the lack of flexibility you describe here. It’s so crazy! I think productivity would really jump if employees were allowed to design their work “schedules” to suit them. Give me the project parameters and (dare I say it… the deadline), be available if I have questions, and leave me alone to to my thing! Trust that if I want to go take my ballroom dance lesson at 2 pm, that I will still complete the project to the best of my ability.

    Love your blog, you are farther along with yours than I am. I suspect you will break free before I do as well!

    • Russ says:

      Thanks for the kind words! I think a bit of trust in employees, provided they are responsible, could go a long way. I know as a developer, if I had freedom to work when and where I wanted, I’d do all I could do to make sure I could keep that freedom by producing good work, and I think most would agree!

  2. Hajra says:

    Hey Russ,

    Sorry to bust the bubble but I got a new job that pays me big money and I have to work 60 hours a week for it! Yes, you heard that right. And yes, I am planning to leave it as soon as I can. I rather stay poor than without a life. This week I begged a day off to make it a two day weekend!

    More than companies breaking that pattern, we need to see at what works best with us. My cousin is a software engineer, still 23 and works on weekends too, and he enjoys it. Says, that he feels happier there. Also, his long working and constant commitment allows him a week holiday every 2 months… which he chooses to spend on some new location every time. That guy has the best of both worlds. But that makes HIM happy, will that make me content, I don’t think so. So chose what works for you and then it won’t be such a paradox after all! 🙂

    • Russ says:

      Another great comment Hajra! I was mostly writing from my own perspective, but yes, the most important part is being happy. Everyone likes different things, some people thrive in structured, competitive environments, some go crazy. I guess the thing that really made me start thinking about the “paradox” was how different corporate needs and expectations are from the employees’, and how often times they seem quite opposing and counter productive. But it does sound like your cousin does have the best of both, and a good, understanding boss I would imagine as well!

  3. David W says:

    This is exactly my goal… breaking past the 40 hour work week and discovering the 168 hour work week. Yup, every hour dedicated to doing what I love (sleep included).

    So that sounds just about right. 🙂

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