Giving It Your Best
I was recently pointed to a Slate article that analyzes the reasons and risks that people are commonly working more than 40 hours a week now. It makes some interesting claims, although they are hard to back up. The main argument is that people are most productive when they work 40 hours a week or less, and spending more time at work causes decreased performance.
We all know we have a point where we’re working too hard and damaging our future productivity. I like to use a different angle though. I know it’s rare that I’ll be able to spend 40 hours doing really good work at one thing in a week, so instead of looking at total productivity I look at using my best hours. Once I’m past that I may get more from spending the rest of the time doing other thing. This results in a range of 30 to 50 hours a week (at the higher end, some of that is not doing regular work but is related to it).
My ideal, with freedom to choose anything I want, would be around 20 – 30 hours of work per week. Going over that I start to cut into other important things, but going below that I get very restless.
With my business I also prefer to have people working a shorter time and doing something really good, rather than working every waking hour. Even though it takes more management I would rather have 2 people doing 30 hours of really good work each week than 1 person doing 60 hours and constantly making mistakes. Since this is knowledge-intensive work, the risks and costs of overworking can be pretty big. I wouldn’t get involved in something that requires going in the wrong direction because it’s not likely to turn out well in the end.
The article has one minor inconsistency at the end. After spending a few pages saying that people who work 40 hours simply do more than those who work longer, it says “For every four Americans working a 50-hour week, every week, there’s one American who should have a full-time job, but doesn’t. Our rampant unemployment problem would vanish overnight if we simply worked the way we’re supposed to by law.” If less work meant more productivity, it would further reduce the number of employees.needed
But this is just one of many examples where current employment and business practices likely hold back the economy by ignoring people’s true values and happiness. A healthier workforce might be able to earn more and have more time to find what they really want to buy, propelling the businesses that sell it. The idea that we need to somehow keep more people doing the same work is an irrational fear. If the things we buy are made more efficiently by the right people doing their best work, they will be cheaper. And the improved efficiency will create room for people to do new and better things with their time. A lot of that would probably involve exchanging goods and services that they didn’t know about or had little interest in before.
I’m not very qualified to analyze the drivers of a national economy, but I’ve found that a little good work is a lot better for me than long hours in the seat. Meanwhile, others wonder why the solution isn’t simply to work 70 hours a week to get ahead. That may work for some but I haven’t found many benefits in it.