Despite no longer making much sense, the 8-hour work day remains the defacto standard for corporate America. Our aversion to it has resulted in books like Escape from `Cubicle Nation, The 4-Hour Workweek and movies like Office Space. Entrepreneurship, side hustles, and lifestyle business offer the potential promise of walking away from what often feels like more like a cage than an office we look forward to going to every day. Terms like “f#$k YOU money” have become part of the zeitgeist.
It’s not to say there aren’t great places to work where people love their jobs. But ultimately, the 8 hour work day doesn’t make sense given the human brain was not designed for it and we are now in a knowledge economy as opposed to an industrial one.
1. It’s Antiquated
The 8-hour work day was a byproduct of the industrial revolution. Making widgets in a factory was not cognitively demanding or deep work. So, an assembly line that maximized production and having somebody work as long as they could without physical harm made sense. To support this, we built an education system in which people were conditioned into an 8-hour day. Since school ended at 3, extracurricular activities were added so people would learn to be in one place from 9am to 5pm. But the industrial revolution ended more than 50 years ago.
2. The Brain’s Capacity for Deep Work is only 2 Hours
In years of studying experts, Anders Ericsson found that top performers across all fields are unable to sustain intense work deep and concentration for more than 2 hours. — Steve Magness
If top performers across all fields are only able to sustain deep concentration and focus for only 2 hours, how much are we really gaining from workers being at the same place for 8 hours a day? Probably not much. There’s a certain point at which the output from our efforts will begin to decline both in quality and quantity. In economics this is known as the law of diminishing returns. This is inevitable in an 8 hour work day because not all hours of the day are created equal.
When our content strategist Kingshuk and I were filming our recent online course, he quickly became aware of my rhythms. We made it a point to schedule all the shooting of our content between 10am and 1pm. He knew that the quality of what we were shooting declined gradually after 1pm. If the first 3 hours of the day are some of the most valuable, it’s possible the last 3 hours are the most worthless.
4. Peak Productivity is Different for Everyone
Whether they be physically or cognitively demanding tasks, most people tend to perform their best either in the earlier part of the day (i.e. larks) or in the later part of the day (i.e. owls). These individual differences are rooted in our bodies unique biological rhythms- when various hormones associated with energy and focus are released, and when our body temperature rises and falls. — Steve Magness
Another flawed assumption of the 8 hour work day is that we all operate on the same rhythm. For some people waking up at 5am is a breeze. For others it’s a pain in the ass. We’re all at our best at different times of day and the 8 hour work days doesn’t take this into consideration. It’s possible we’re missing out on people’s highest levels of performance simply because we insist that people work 8 hours a day.
On a related note- if you struggle with habits, I’ve put a guide together on optimizing productivity & creativity. Sign up for my newsletter here and you’ll receive it shortly.
5. Quality of Time Matters more than Quantity
The relationship between time and productivity is an imagined reality. We somehow have deluded ourselves into believing that output and time are directly proportional to each other. If you can manage one focused hour a day of uninterrupted creation you’ll generate disproportionate results from that hour. Intensity of focus matters far more than time spent. In a knowledge worker economy, it makes absolutely no sense that we would measure someone based on how long they’re sitting at a desk or in an office.
Over the course of 8 hours people are likely to make 100’s of decisions, and in that process completely deplete their willpower. Roy Baumeister’s research showed that people who had parole hearings before lunch were much more likely to get parole than those who had their hearings after lunch because judges had made so many decisions. By the end of the day decision fatigue sets in and the ability to make decisions plummets. One way to preserve your willpower is limit the number of items on your to do list and have some sort of daily routine that you follow.
7. Creative Breakthroughs Don’t Occur While Sitting at a Desk
In what Seth Godin calls the connection economy, work is no longer about maximizing output. Instead what we’re seeking is innovation and creativity. Profound creative insight is almost never the result of staring at a computer screen for 8 hours a day.
None of my best ideas for what I’m going to write about come from attempting to work. They happen when either surfing, snowboarding, in the shower or going for a walk on the beach.
Creative insight is usually the result of time away from our work. It’s the result of an incubation period. We need to consume, reflect and then create. Rinse, wash, and repeat. As Srini Pillay says “you can trigger creative thought not only with a wandering mind but with a wandering body.”
8. The 8 hour work day confuses busy and productive
Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it- Cal Newport.
A few weeks before I resigned from the last job I had before business school, I decided to see what would happen if I did absolutely nothing at work. I knew I was going to be submitting my resignation in a few weeks so I didn’t care at all.
I spent the majority of my days watching episodes of 24 on my iPod video. For about 30 minutes each day I would respond to client requests and emails. Prior this behavior I’d been on a performance improvement plan. After this, I started getting praise from management about what an example of leadership I’d become in the last few months.
It’s a perfect example of how we confuse being busy with being productive.
Parkinson’s law states that a task will end up taking the amount of time that we’ve allotted for it. So perhaps it’s possible that everything that happens over the course of an 8 hour work day could happen over the course of a 4 hour work day. If we could experiences greater levels of efficiency, productivity and output by doing less, perhaps it’s worth considering.