A few years ago I hit a wall. I was working 60-80 hours a week for months and months on a really important project and I realized that I just couldn’t power through another deadline. I had officially reached the limits of what I could give to my work and it was negatively impacting me in a big way. It negatively impacted my health, my happiness, my relationships, and my performance at work. It was the start of a long adventure for me, researching what other companies and individuals are doing to work in a healthier, more sustainable way. I started writing my last book, The Healthy Workplace, partly because of my professional interests, but also for personal reasons. I was really discouraged with many of the work models available that require 70+ percent of our waking hours at the office chained to a desk.
At a certain point, after some soul searching and time use experiments, I realized that, to my surprise, I have only about 30 productive hours in me a week. Partly because I’ve got two young children at home, and partly because, due to the nature of my work, I need “down time” to process, think and write. There was a time in my life when I could work many more hours a week and still be productive. But right now, I only have 30-32 hours a week of billable time available. I worked out an arrangement with my company and have been pretty good about sticking to the 30 hours – sometimes it’s more, sometimes less, but on the whole, it’s working. I took a pay cut to do this, but I still receive health benefits at 30 hours, and I get back my “thinking” time, which I value greatly. In many ways, I’ve never been more productive in my work or prolific as a writer, and I have more time with my family. It turns out that by working less, I’m getting more out of each labor hour and happier at the same time.
I can’t help but wonder… WHY DIDN’T I FIGURE THIS OUT YEARS AGO!!! It would have saved a lot of head- and heart-ache I can tell you. I also wonder if the labor laws that define the work week as 40 hours are outdated. Many of the jobs that we did decades ago were more labor-intensive, and required less creativity and processing power than jobs in today’s information age. Is 40 hours too much to ask for? There is a growing amount of evidence that I could be right. Check out some of these studies about the productivity benefits of working less.
I think it may be time to seriously consider changing our attitudes about the “traditional” work week. When I tell people I work 30 hours a week, and have a great deal of flexibility in how, when and where I work, they are really happy to know about it. Many tell me that they don’t feel they have permission to even ask for a more flexible schedule or reduced workload because of the negative backlash – they are afraid they will be perceived to be a slacker. But the evidence, at least for knowledge work, seems to point out that the opposite is true: less is more.
Other reactions I get when I tell people about my situation is that they can’t afford to work fewer than 40 hours. When this happens I get a little upset, because 1) I totally get it, and 2) our companies don’t offer good wages in the first place, which make it impossible to give us back the time we need to restore our mental and physical health. There are many companies out there – and you know who they are – that provide tons of amenities on site (daycare, dry cleaning, clinics, etc.) with the sole purpose of wooing us to work more than 40 hours a week, not less.
I know everyone has a very personal decision to make when it comes to their work style and work schedule. But if you are on the fence, research your options and learn what your organization has to offer. Companies will often go the extra mile to keep good employees and might be willing to pilot something new if there is no policy available yet. The key is to know your options, be clear with your employer about what you need and be flexible enough to create solutions that are mutually beneficial. Don’t wait for someone else to ask first – that may take a while.