On Working Less and More

Via Digg or Delicious or somewhere, I discovered John Wesley’s speculation on not necessarily working eight hours a day:

After a couple hours of intense work, energy levels drop and workers downgrade to less demanding tasks like responding to email and tinkering with existing creations. Towards the end of the cycle, the mind is so cluttered and drained that workers resort to “work related activities” that appear productive but don’t contribute to the bottom line. The afternoon cycle is similar but the productivity peak isn’t as high. For different people the peaks and valleys will vary, but overall I’d estimate only 3-4 hours a day could be classified as highly productive.

This reminded me a Seth Godin post, as well as sections of one of my favourite Paul Graham essays.

I agree with John’s central thesis–that a consecutive, eight-hour workday is antiquated, and doesn’t map very well to knowlege workers’ activities. Frankly, I never work more than three or four hours at a stretch. Some days I work five hours total, and some days I work ten, but it’s almost never consecutively.

This schedule works for me because I have a short attention span, and I think it keeps my brain fresher. It also enables me (or at least enabled me, back in Canada) to go see matinees in the afternoon.

I could work for eight hours straight every day, but I think I’d be less productive. I remember when I worked as a technical writer, four o’clock would roll around and most days I’d feel pretty spent. Maybe I just have a low tolerance for work?


  1. Darren, I think your “low tolerance for work” is something that most creative workers share. We can only be productive when those juices are flowing, and it tends come and go. It makes us looks lazy to those “go go go” people, but I think we make up for it in quality.

    Reminds me of a great poem:


  2. I hate working 8 hours, but I’ve also noticed that I get more done in a given amount of time than most of my co-workers (when I had a job). So perhaps most people fritter their days away and you are just very productive in a short amount of time?

  3. Being back in the newsroom makes me realize that my natural cycle is to do something in short half-hour stints. Even when I write, I only do about 1000 words a day. I’m a person who can’t do the same thing for a long time. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I consider my next job option.

  4. Andrea, interesting question, I wonder the same thing myself all the time. I notice that I’m frequently given a week to complete a project that I generally get done in about a day, so sometimes I spend one day working hard and three days goofing off on “work-related activities that appear productive but add nothing to the bottom line,” hand the project in a day early, and then get praised for completing the task so thoroughly and quickly. As a result, I wonder what everyone else is doing so inefficiently that the expectation is set so low.

    I also have trouble focusing for 8 hours straight, but as a result of the expectations described above, I almost never have to – I always meet my deadlines or beat them despite my short attention span. I’ve often wondered if my efficiency when I focus is partly laziness – a low tolerance for work, as you put it. You know, the faster I work, the less time I have to spend working… seems to work well for me!

    I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t be admitting to all this. Oh well.

  5. Is my boss reading this? Because I totally put in eight hours a day, every day. Even the days when I only have a 7-3/4 hour shift.

    As a super-productive 8-hour worker, JPod was of course a huge eye-opener as to how many tech workers behave. 🙂

  6. I had a job for a while where I spent all of my work day behind a computer. The work was very, very boring. I was creating graphics for a system to control HVAC systems, and the work was largely copy and paste. I found myself wandering off to the web to play games and blog about things that I found online more often than not.

    Then one day I got asked to create a simple script in ASP, because I had told one of my superiors that I knew a little bit of programming. I spent all day working on that script ( much of that was trying to translate what I know of PHP into ASP, but still ), and at the end of that day I noticed something.

    I wasn’t bone tired. Not the good kind of tired you feel after doing character-building manual labour, but the kind you feel when you’ve been doing something that is repetitive and boring. That night I actually went home and felt like doing something other than zoning out in front of the TV/video games/interweb.

    So, basically, yeah, for people who work at creative type jobs ( or even people like me, who just sat in front of a computer doing copy and paste ), an eight hour work day probably isn’t the best of ideas.

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