Productive Output: What the 9 – 5 Misses and Why I’m Done with a 40 Hour Workweek

As any college student will tell you, scheduling classes is an art form. My first semester I didn’t have much choice and had to take whatever was available. My second semester I loaded up on Monday and Thursday and had the rest of the week off. It sucked – Mondays and Thursdays wore me out and the rest of the week I had to spend 10 hours doing homework. My third semester I put large gaps between my classes so I’d have time to get work done during the day, but all I did was bone around on ESPN.com and AIM.

My fourth semester I finally got it right: 1 – 3 hour breaks between classes, equally spread out throughout the week. I got the same amount of work done in a 2 hour break that I’d get done in a 5 hour break the previous semester. I didn’t mess around and waste time because I was under a time crunch. A 2 hour break really means like 70 minutes of work when you factor travel time and setup time into the equation. You don’t have any time to mess around with 70 minutes: you’re always under a bit of pressure and that’s why you get so much done. You’re focused. This one lesson has stuck with me ever since.

Read the following excerpts and stop and think for a few minutes before continuing the post.

If you’re an employee, spending time on nonsense is, to some extent, not your fault. There is often no incentive to use time well unless you are paid on commission. The world has agreed to shuffle papers between 9 and 5, and since you’re trapped in the office for that period of servitude, you are compelled to create activities to fill the time. Time is wasted because there is so much time available. It’s understandable.

Most entrepreneurs were once employees and come from the 9-5 culture. Thus they adopt the same schedule, whether or not they function at 9 AM or need 8 hours to generate their target income. This schedule is a collective social agreement and a dinosaur legacy of the results-by-volume approach. How is it possible that all the people in the world need exactly 8 hours to accomplish their work? It isn’t. 9-5 is arbitrary.

Since we have 8 hours, we fill 8 hours. If we had 15, we would fill 15. If we have an emergency and suddenly need to leave work in 2 hours, we miraculously complete those assignments in 2 hours.

Tim Ferriss – The Four Hour Workweek, pages 73-74

ROWE stands for Results-Only Work Environment. In a ROWE, each person is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. Currently, there are two authentic ROWEs—Fortune 100 retailer Best Buy Co, Inc. and J. A. Counter & Associates, a small brokerage firm in New Richmond, WI. At both organizations, the old rules that govern a traditional work environment—core hours, “face time,” pointless meetings, etc.—have been replaced by one rule: focus only on results.

In the 4-Hour Workweek, you helped people understand that because of technology, people don’t have to defer living until retirement. They can design their own lifestyle. Now imagine what would happen if the entire culture of a workplace went through the same transformation. That’s what a ROWE is. A ROWE is a work culture that gives people the power to take control of their lives. As long as they get their job done, they’re free.

One of the misconceptions about ROWE is that it’s a work-from-home program. It’s not. If you want to work in a cube, that’s great. If you want to work from a coffee shop, then that’s great, too. The question in a ROWE is not “where is everybody?” but “is the work getting done?”

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson in an interview with Tim Ferriss

The United States leads the world in two categories: work and waste. American employees put in more hours and take fewer vacations than just about anyone else in the industrialized world, and our individual ecological “footprints” are much larger.

Coincidence? I think not. The way we work drives our habits of consumption and waste. The more we work, the more we drive, the more energy we burn, the more styrofoam to-go containers we use. At the end of the day, we’re so tired, we devour more takeout and TV, often falling asleep in front of the latter. If we want to accelerate the recent trend of reducing waste, it may be time to consider the radical step of, well, relaxing more, consuming less, and living fuller lives. May the Wall Street Journal editorial board strike me down.

Naturally, most businesses blanch at the notion of giving up any competitive edge in a globalized economy. But it’s not as if moving to a four-day (or 32-hour) workweek would simply lop 20% off the economy. Cutting hours may actually raise per-hour productivity. France, home of the 35-hour week, creates more GDP per work hour than the United States ($37 versus $34, as of 2003). Norway spanks us too ($39), and Norwegians work 26% fewer hours a year than Americans. It’s a myth of modern hypercapitalism that an overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed-out workforce is a necessity. Studies have consistently shown that longer workweeks increase productivity only in the very short term. In a recent survey by Salary.com, workers copped to wasting about 20% of the average day Web surfing and gossiping. Sound familiar?

Companies can take the first step by reinventing the workweek. Then it’s up to us to devote our increased leisure hours to activities with low environmental impact — and not to driving around gas-guzzling cars or booting up power-hungry electronics. Then we could enjoy both continued wealth and improved planetary health.

David Roberts – Reinventing the Workweek, Green Business Practices – Fast Company: May 2008

OK, soak those in for a second…got it? Here’s what I think when I read excerpts like that:

The Logical Thought

So if I’m not an employee, and we’re in long term growth mode (past the start-up phase), and 9-5 is completely arbitrary, and it’s shown that less time working will make me more productive per hour spent, and if I’ll be healthier/happier by spending more time on things outside of work, and it’s better for the environment, why the f*ck am I working so many hours?

In the startup phase there’s a “cavalier” attitude that you have to have. Life = work and work = life, and that’s OK. But I’ve been doing that for two years and I don’t want to become that guy who works 24×7 for their entire life and misses out on everything else. I enjoy new experiences and new people. I enjoy experiencing life. A large part of that is being an entrepreneur, but there’s also a lot that has nothing to do with running a business.

I spent a lot of my engineering days in college, on internships, and in the work force working on Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing projects and always thought to myself “why can’t these principles be applied to areas in business outside of manufacturing?” What 4HWW did for me was validate that increasing effectiveness and efficiency not only can be applied to all areas of a business, but in all areas of life too. Like everyone else I have become conditioned to 9 -5 and needed a little push to realize that I didn’t have to stay a part of it.

What I Want us to Become

I badly want us to become a model of efficiency and effectiveness. I want it because it makes us a more valuable company. I want it because removing the mundane and repetitive improves the quality of our lives.

In my head, all of this starts with our business processes. Unless you’ve got a ton of money (we don’t) you need to do the equivalent of hiring people by automating anything that is repetitive and can be done without human input. It started with our shopping cart software that automates inventory and shipping (side note: we had the owners of a large e-commerce store that’s been running for twelve years come visit us recently. The founder turned to George and said “I could fire two employees if I had that technology”. That made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside). It continued by moving all of our data to the web and automating backups and with George automating his accounting. In the future we’ll automate more of our marketing – while things like Google Base submission are automatic, niche newsletters based on customer behavior aren’t quite there yet…but they will be.

Once the business processes are set we can move on to us. We all want to work less hours. Some tasks – like packing and shipping – cannot reasonably be automated with technology so the way you “automate” them is to hire employees. I feel that by the end of ’09 we’ll have the 2-3 people in place that we need to allow us to work 20 hour workweeks. That’s my personal goal for each of us – the other guys might be thinking less or more, but that’s what I’m pushing for.

How did I come up with 20 hours? In 4HWW Tim Ferriss asks the question “If you had a heart attack and had to work 2 hours per day, what would you do?” He asks the question to challenge you to think about what you really need to do to successfully complete your job. However, he bases this on the premise that you don’t like your job and want to work as little as possible. That’s not me/us. I love this stuff. One of the things I really want to do a lot this summer is white water rafting – I’ve been twice and it was fun as hell so I want to officially make it one of my hobbies. I’m pumped. But I equally want to expand upon an email marketing system that we recently launched (right now we send follow-up emails to everyone who makes a purchase asking them to review their products on the DI blog or TD forum, but there’s a ton of growth potential there). I also equally want to hike every state park in the Albany area. Of course I also equally want to bulk up my AJAX skills and improve the user experience on our cart.

Clearly I love our company as much as I love non-work related things. It’s a good place to be in life. 20 hours limits you just enough so that you get excited to work. If I can only work 20 hours the intensity in which I work will be multiplied many times over. I’ll also really look forward to those few hours a day instead of letting my mind drift to things that I might rather be doing.

What I’m Doing About it

I realize that this all starts with me. I’m the one usually “proposing” these wacky things to my partners so I have to prove the concept before I can expect them to get on board. 20 hours isn’t realistic right now because we don’t have an employee and won’t for a while. However, I’m always looking to make progress and prove my point so I’ve decided to limit myself to 35 hours of work each week. After a few months, I’m going to make it 30. Then I’ll stay at 30 until we have our 2-3 employees in place and trained.

What counts as “work” you ask? Good question. I’m counting everything that is related to running Pure Adapt with the exception of:

  • Commuting time
  • Blog posts on this blog
  • Time spent reading business books or business magazines
  • Time spent learning (for example, I have a few AJAX books that will take a lot of time to work through…those don’t count)

Everything else is fair game. I purposely waited until the end of Thursday to do this post because I wanted to test my limitation this week. This week is the perfect test week – if I can do it this week I can do it 95%+ of the time. Being that I got NOTHING done last week with our server mess, my to-do list was backed up a ton. On Sunday night I took all 20 action items and split them up equally among the days of the week. In my head I said to myself “you’re only going to have 6 or 7 hours to do all of this, so you better be focused”. It has worked. Every day I knocked each item off. I am getting at least as much work done in far less time. Some days I worked right up to the last second and others – like today – I was done early. Thus far here are the hours I’ve worked:

  • Monday – 7 AM – 2:30 PM (7.5 hrs)
  • Tuesday – 7:30 AM – 4 PM (8.5 hrs)
  • Wednesday – 7:30 AM – 1:30 PM (6 hrs)
  • Thursday – 7:30 AM – 1 PM (5.5 hrs)

That puts me at 27.5 hrs through Thursday. We each have four days at the warehouse and one “off”. My off day is Friday, so I generally do the most work Monday – Thursday. 7.5 hours for Friday – Sunday sounds just about right. I’ll probably work about 4 hours tomorrow, 3 hours on Saturday, and just check email on Sunday (Indy 500 baby….anyone else pumped!?!?!).

This past four days has been the best of my life in terms of work-life balance. There’s nothing outside of work that I wanted to do that I didn’t. That’s huge for me. I’ve also stopped doing work at home – I do most of my work at the warehouse and the rest at Starbucks/other local coffee shops, which helps me mentally unwind when I walk through the door of my apartment. Continuing this schedule will go a long way to ensuring I get the fulfillment I’m looking for out of both work AND life.

I’ll definitely continue to post updates as this unfolds…should be interesting.

27 comments on Productive Output: What the 9 – 5 Misses and Why I’m Done with a 40 Hour Workweek

  1. I’m not sure the 40 hour workweek is for me either. I’m such a productivity freak that even taking breaks seemed counter-productive to me sometimes. The few times when I was on construction jobs I always wondered why the guys would sometimes spend a half hour talking in the middle of the day. It was like, why spend this time in any way other than working.

    Of course this type of thing is even more pronounced for information workers. There definitely comes a point when you’re too tired to think any more, and at that point it isn’t worth anything to you or anyone else for you to keep trying to work. If you build into your schedule the ability to quit working when you’re below peak productivity, then you’ll have time for other things. That’s a big benefit because productivity at work is very often based upon how satisfied you are with your life.

  2. Adam McFarland says:

    “There definitely comes a point when you’re too tired to think any more, and at that point it isn’t worth anything to you or anyone else for you to keep trying to work. If you build into your schedule the ability to quit working when you’re below peak productivity, then you’ll have time for other things. That’s a big benefit because productivity at work is very often based upon how satisfied you are with your life.”

    So true Michael, so true. Some people have a real hard time wrapping their heads around this. People are SO conditioned to ‘time spent = work done’ that they just can’t comprehend that you can get more done in less time.

    And everyone is always happiest when their work and life work in lockstep and one doesn’t restrict the other.

  3. OKe says:

    Good post, great post Adam. I am actually going to revisit the 4 hour work week and change a couple of things that I started on and didn’t finish and see where it goes. I am looking forward to your quest for balance and enjoyment of life. So keep us informed.

  4. Adam McFarland says:

    Thanks Oke. 4HWW is most definitely one of those books that I think needs to be revisited often. It needs to be hammered into your head over and over to really put it into action in my opinion. I pick mine up all the time and re-read sections.

  5. Maren Hogan says:

    Wow, nice work. Hard to get people to read a blogpost that long but it was impressive. I remember reading 4hww and I loved it. But you’re right, it must be revisited often. Realizing that putzing around with busy work is actually only hurting ourselves takes a “mirror” of a book like that! Thx for inspiring.

  6. I believe that the Results Only Work Environment would result in greater productivity. I worked as a personal trainer during the crazy dot-com period. Many of my clients often showed up for their scheduled appointments so tired they could barely step up on a step without losing their balance. You’re telling me brains in such a state that they can’t manage “Step on a step” are effectively completing complex “knowledge work”? I don’t believe it.

  7. Awesome article! I haven’t read the 4HWW yet, but I’ll definitely have to check it out!

    One of the things to remember in all this is how different people define work. The trouble when you work for a big firm is as the book says: “you’re trapped in the office for that period of servitude, you are compelled to create activities to fill the time”.

    I’m looking forward to seeing how you manage to implement this in your life/business! Good luck!!

  8. Adam McFarland says:

    @ Barbara – exactly. There’s no way someone who is stressed and sleep deprived gets more done in 10 hours than they would in a healthy state in 6 hours!

    @ Ian – thanks for the words of encouragement. I’m planning on writing a post about how I think people in a corporate environment can go about implementing some of this stuff because they are clearly faced with different challenges than I am.

  9. Nethy says:

    Have you read:paulgraham.com/wealth.html ?
    What hit me when I read it was what used to hit me when I was at Uni.

    I was never good at balancing load through the semester. The consequence seemed to always be (at a very conservative estimate) 70-80% of the essay written in the last 10-30% of the time.
    Or (on several occasions), one whole course (1/4 of a fully loaded semester) in 5-10 days. We had about 35 weeks of classes in a year including exams. Only about 10 of those really seemed necessary if one could go at full throttle. A whole degree in about a year.

    Converting that to reality is a trick though.

  10. […] I’m off to read the post that inspired HIS post (and probably buy The 4-Hour Workweek) and then to read the rest of Dave […]

  11. Adam McFarland says:

    @ Nethy – I had not previously read that essay. It was very well written – yet another way to look at efficiency and wealth. One thing that I noticed when reading that is the emphasis on programmers as one of the only jobs left where you can “create” something of high value from scratch. There’s certainly some truth to that.

  12. […] this first story sounds familiar, it is – I touched upon it in my Productive Output post.  A few weeks ago the owner of a local large online retailer (approx 10x bigger than us) […]

  13. […] or get some work done I’m so frazzled that I cannot think straight.  Not a week where my productive output plan really came into play much, although for all of the other more “normal” weeks […]

  14. […] output post where I declared that I would never work more than 35 hours in a week again (see Productive Output:  What the 9-5 Misses and Why I’m Done with a 40 Hour Workweek). It was only two months ago, but a lot has changed since […]

  15. […] – as hard as it was, even for someone cognizant of overworking themselves – I took a step back and made a conscious decision to work less.  Every night I started doing something fun that was non work related.  I started saying […]

  16. […] Entrepreneurs are lucky because we don’t need to worry about any of that.  My partners and I have established a culture that allows for us to have maximum freedom while still meeting the requirements of the business.  We each work about 18 hours/week in the warehouse. The rest of the time we’re free to do whatever we want.  Everyone has their own way of getting shit done, but I prefer to spend about half of that time working from home and the other half at a coffee shop.  I tend to turn off all distractions and zone in on my work so that I have plenty of free time to recharge.  I pretty much am still hitting all of the goals outlined in my productive output post. […]

  17. […] 45 minute pocket of time each night.  A real lot done.  I first realized this in college (see my productive output post), and it changed me from being “just average” when it came to getting things done to […]

  18. Murlu says:

    I definitely don’t think the 40 hour work week is for me.

    I know you’ll laugh but I’ve been working a 40 hour work week for about 2 years now. Before that it was part time (usually 2 part time jobs so I guess I was working around 40 hours).

    What I found out, just as I did in school, was that I could accomplish more by using less time.

    When I’m at work, the first 4 hours are my prime period, I get so much done within that scope. The later 4 hours are pretty much dedicated to doing minor tasks, emailing, tweaking and keeping everything running.

    I’m sure if we switched to a 20 hour work week we’d accomplish more. People would come in and hammer out their tasks without having the looming “4 extra hours” over their heads.

    I think a shorter day also gives us better incentive to work longer as well. If we accomplish everything within that first 4 hours, we could then think how can we improve what we just finish and push it even further. I don’t think you really get that with a full 40 hour work week because it pressures you.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks for the comment Murlu. Couldn’t agree more. It’s been a while since I wrote this post. Right now we’re working on some big projects so I am working more than 40 hours (although that’s because I want to – what I have to do is certainly less than 40), but as soon as things settle down this summer I plan on going back to this schedule.

  19. […] have worked 8 AM – 4 PM and taken an hour-long lunch and two 30 minute breaks with the same productive output. They just have to cut out the 2 hour conversations at the water cooler. And the 1 hour spent on […]

  20. Mary says:

    I just about cried when I read this. I want SO. BADLY. for this to become normal practice. I’m a recent grad with a masters in Higher Education (so you’d think we’d have this figured out). I work at a University, and we have busy days during the year, and quiet days depending on the school’s schedule— and yet we have a standard 9-5. Yuck.

    What about personal growth? I am a family person. I love to experience life and cook delicious food. I enjoy a good book or movie. I need to play sports and be active. I want to see other countries and cultures. Where’s my time for that!?

    This concept is great for some fields, but may be tougher in a situation like Education. I’m slowly trying to make changes (working outside the building at a picnic table for an hour or so, leaving a half hour early to run an errand, etc). It’s making me happier, but it isn’t enough…..yet how do you make those types of drastic changes when you’re lower on the totem pole without being scolded? The excuse “the work is getting done, isn’t it?” can only take you so far.

    We know that the 40 hr workweek is a health issue – both physically and mentally. And there’s nothing efficient about it. So. Where do we go from here? How do we change a habit that’s been in place for decades?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Mary –

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As you can see by the dates this was a few years ago and unfortunately as our business has grown I haven’t been able to keep my workweek quite as balanced. In the midst of the growth we hired a full-timer, only to have a partner leave right after. We’re hiring again soon which should hopefully bring us back down to a more desirable schedule like I had back then (with the benefit of a much better business of course).

      The points you bring up are great ones in the larger context of things. I don’t think most people have put even half of the thought into it that you have. And unfortunately as technology has improved and we’ve become a 24x7x365 society, we’re seemingly more connected and more busy even though we know research tells us it’s not a good idea.

      On an individual level, in education or in many other careers, I’m sure it can be a challenge. While I don’t know your individual situation, I do have a few friends who teach at colleges and have as much (probably more) flexibility than I do. Maybe it’s a matter of finding a better fit at a university that doesn’t have as strict of a 9-5 policy?

      As frustrating as it can be, you’re at least trying and thinking about these things, which will ultimately serve you well. And if it’s any consolation, even when I feel the most balanced, I never quite feel as though I’m perfectly balanced – there’s always a guilt associated with whatever I’m not doing. If I’m working out or spending time outside, I always feel like I should be working. If I’m working, I feel like I should be spending time with family. I guess my point is that I’m not sure that a 100% perfect balance is ever really achievable so try not to let it stress you out too much 🙂

  21. […] insist that it can be done, at least at certain points in their career. In 2008, entrepreneur Adam McFarland blogged about cutting down on his workload, citing studies that show working fewer […]

  22. CB says:

    Has anyone ever included in their cover letters. “I’m looking forward to an under 40 Work-hours a week environment, based on results…” any success with that? I wish I could find something like this. I’m 23 (soon to turn 24) and you have bo idea how frustrated I am already only to realize I’ll be 30 soon and still have not found a passion, and obviosly something I enjoy doing thaat could become a life -$ustaining activity. I live in Panama, Central America, and you can already imagine the low-pay jobs we got here. Not to mention that employers demand more that what they are willing to pay. nd I just NOT WILLING to bend just because the market demands so. I know there is a healthier living out there that involves working on somthing I like and want to become better at and include it in my life (girlfriend and family).

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Has anyone ever included in their cover letters. “I’m looking forward to an under 40 Work-hours a week environment, based on results…” any success with that?

      I’ve never heard of that approach per-se (I think the company already has to have that in their culture, as opposed to an employee trying to dictate those terms), although I really think it depends on your industry. If, for instance, you’re a freelance web developer, you can quote by the job and not by your hourly workload, creating a results oriented work environment for yourself. Along the same lines, I think a lot of companies are willing to hire developers based upon output and not on hours. I have a family member who worked at a relatively well known tech company and they had no standard work week – your job was to get the work done and no one tracked your hours. This is obviously an industry I’m familiar with, and I think there’s some hope there. There’s probably opportunities in similar industries that I’m unaware of. That said, there are still plenty where the hourly workweek is still a standard.

  23. […] insist that it can be done, at least at certain points in their career. In 2008, entrepreneur Adam McFarland blogged about cutting down on his workload, citing studies that show working fewer […]

  24. […] still a firm believer in the principles I wrote about in my Productive Output post back in 2008. I was frankly better at executing those principles back […]

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