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Vignesh M
Vignesh M

Posted on • Originally published at

Nobody is working for 8 hours a day, Why?

Originally Published at

Recently I came across an interesting question on twitter about average working hours per day.

A knowledge worker spends an average of only 2 to 4 hours a day on productive work. The rest of the time is not used to do any meaningful work (I read this in multiple places too, but can't find any original research on this).

Since I can't find any reliable sources to cite, I am writing this based on my personal experience. I work an average of 4 or 5 hours on a good day without any interruptions. On a bad, fragmented day, it'll be far less than that. There are multiple reasons for this.

40-hour workweek is a relic of the industrial era.

In the industrial era, the output is directly connected with the amount of time you put in. Most of the jobs don't require any thinking. Repetition was the key.

Imagine an assembly line worker putting together a few parts of a car. They almost did the same thing every day and their output is measured by the number of things they can put together per hour. When Henry Ford took brought the conveyer belt to the factory, it was seen as a revolution. It eliminated all the extra movements and increased performance. But the core principle of hours = output remains the same.

Enter our knowledge work era, things are blurry. Imagine a developer sitting in his desk thinking about something. Are they thinking about the current problem or just wandering? You'll never know. We can't measure the performance here by measuring the number of hours they put in. This is a fact that everyone knows. But we're collectively still hanging to the 40 hours work week.

If you're in a position of managing people who do creative work, understanding this simple fact is essential. Hours are not equal to performance. I believe in creative bursts that let people do a lot of work within a short time. performance scientists call this as flow state.

If a worker had a flow state of 3 hours per day their brain needs recharge time. The company is paying both for the peak and the recharge time.

Can we stay in the flow state more than 3 hours? Certainly.

Can we repeat it every day? Certainly, not.

Trying to push more than this average limit can have negative effects in the long run such as burnout. In this case, how to understand if someone is slacking? Start measuring their performance by their output, not by their time.

Knowledge workers contribute by their judgment, not time

I read The Almanack of Naval Ravikant recently and what he told about judgment struck a chord.

My definition of wisdom is knowing the long-term consequences of your actions. Wisdom applied to external problems is judgment. They’re highly linked; knowing the long-term consequences of your actions and then making the right decision to capitalize on that.

What a knowledge worker provides is their judgment and skills. Most of their job is decision making considering the trade-offs and benefits. The time they take has very little relevance. We can't rush to a decision if we care about the long term wins.

The human brain is not optimized for long, focused work

We were hunter-gatherers for a long portion of history. Humans lived and hunted as a group. The main rule is "when in doubt, run". Those who thought long and hard often perished in a predator's jaw. We're the descendants of those quick decision-makers. There was no point in history that an average human needed to use his brain for a long time and earn a living.

Our brain is not optimized for a long period of focused work, it gets tired. The attention span is an average of 20 minutes for humans. The contribution of push notifications and social media could have reduced that even further. So it is better to take breaks in between instead of pretending to be paying attention.

There is also a benefit by taking breaks which leads us to the next point based on the Zeigarnik Effect.

Knowledge work is not limited to the clock

It is not possible to shut off your brain from thinking of work problems after the clock. The brain works hard to solve difficult problems when you're doing something else on the surface. People claims about getting solutions for problems when they're taking a shower or going for a walk.

When you have an unfinished task or problem, it'll take the larger part of your attention and will stay in your brain even when you try to do other things. This factor is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. So it is natural for people to think about work after work hours and find good solutions.

In a way, knowledge workers are working outside of the clock as well. They're learning things in their spare time that impact their work at a later point in time.

A while ago, I was reading about optimizing angular performance. A couple of months later, when we faced some performance issues, I suggested a few ideas I learned from that post. The company is benefitting from the knowledge I gathered on my own time. The reverse is also true, Most of my skills are learned while getting paid from the company for it.

These are the reasons that people tend to work less than 8-hours a day. But there are business needs to measure and document everything.

How to measure productivity?

There is no actual way to measure the productivity of an individual developer. Many have tried and failed. Instead of trying to measure what's not measurable, You can think o the following.

  1. Measuring the outcome of their work
  2. How they contribute to the success of their team and to your business?

Ask the following questions about your team,

  1. They miss deadlines regularly?
  2. Your customers are frustrated because of your engineering team's velocity?
  3. Does your team surprise you with reasons at the last minute?

The answer to these questions can create a discussion. If your organization is transparent you can find the problems and fix them easily. Trusting your team to do their job well can take you far then nitpicking on irrelevant details.

How to improve productivity?

There are ways that you can help your team to get more done by creating the ideal environment that is optimized for knowledge work.

Open offices are bad

I am aware of the serendipity aspect of open office plans. But the noise, mobile ringtones, chatter really beats that advantage. To be honest, I hate open office setup.

Ironically, I live in India where the population density is so high, open offices are the only way to keep real-estate costs in control for businesses. It is not practical to completely remove open office plans, but can improve the quality of your office by,

  • Create focus rooms and encourage people to use it.
  • Enforce some rules about distractions within the focus rooms.
  • Try to reduce the unwanted distractions in the open floor
  • Buy noise-cancellation headphones and earplugs for your workforce.

Difference between the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule

Paul Graham wrote an excellent article about this. In short, the knowledge worker's schedule needs long periods of uninterrupted work. If you schedule meetings in the middle of such periods, time is fragmented into two less useful pieces of time.

To avoid the fragmentation,

  • Implement no meetings days in a week or no meetings time range in a workday.
  • Plan all your meetings within the first or second half of the day.
  • Reduce the number of meetings you need, asynchronous discussions are more than enough.

If you're running a business or managing a team of creative people, stop thinking about the time and start thinking in terms of the value created. Their judgment and skills are important than their starting and closing time. Create an ideal work environment and trust your team to deliver results.

Note: My thoughts might be biased, attributed to my limited experience in other areas of business. I am happy to make any changes if someone provides a good counter-argument.

Top comments (32)

cescquintero profile image
Francisco Quintero 🇨🇴

People claims about getting solutions for problems when they're taking a shower or going for a walk.

This several times for every year I've been working as a software developer.

jdsteinhauser profile image
Jason Steinhauser

Some of the best solutions I've come up with were in the shower, or going to lunch by myself and just letting my mind drift

evankapantais profile image
Evan Kapantais

This rings true so many times. Sometimes I get stuck on a problem for days only for the solution to come to me when I’m lying in bed just barely thinking about it.

Thread Thread
v4r15 profile image

it's the bg_worker doing its thing, and somehow doing "nothing" let's it shine... as if some scheduler is giving it the unused resources to work with :D

Thread Thread
evankapantais profile image
Evan Kapantais

Offline mode is paying off 😂

blade93ny profile image

this happens very often to me...
i have a window in my shower and when im taking a shower i can kind of look nowhere out the window and it creates a kind of time-bubble where thoughts flow freely without any resistance and good ideas for how to solve problems come to mind...
Another beneficial technique is to simply go outside and leave the office for like 15min or so... go out and stare into nowhere... somewhere far... like down the road or at some tall building or whatever... and a similar effect happens... as long as its not too loud or crowded outside...

jack_garrus profile image
Nadia Guarracino

This is incredibly true. Also some sleep could provide you the solution to a problem you were struggling with yesterday

superdistros profile image
Kevin Williams • Edited

There are many variables here but at the end of the day each person needs to find their own balance. Working in 9-5 office environments worked for me in High School-College as it helped me hone/sharpen my skillset when working in the same room as my team. I was also more efficient because that time (minus breaks) was my employers.

I'm now a mid-to-senior level developer and I have been working remotely since 2014. I can honestly say I'm a bit less productive as far as time spent working...but that's a good thing. My focus and priorities are different and I'm in a place where I seek a more healthy work/life balance.

I wouldn't say "nobody" is working 8 hour days. Depending on my workload and deadlines I still enjoy 8-10+ hour workdays and also all-nighters every now and then as projects require.

shivenigma profile image
Vignesh M

Agreed. The title in a click-a-bait.

kennithnichol profile image
Ken Nichol

Deep focus work can be limited to 3-4 hours per day, but there is plenty of other work to fill up the time in a work day. Documentation, communication, meetings, support, bug triage, etc... not everything we do requires intense concentration.

kennithnichol profile image
Ken Nichol

Actually, there is also the other case. At times when you're so invested in a problem that you spend 6-8+ hours and forget to eat, sleep, etc..
It may even be hyper productive. Of course that always seems to come with a next day cost 😬

farahanjum profile image
Farah Anjum

Such an underrated comment.

shivenigma profile image
Vignesh M

Agreed. There are a lot of lighter tasks available for the rest of the time.

tomavelev profile image

The philosophical goal of technology is to minimize and potentially eliminate human labor. The standard working schedule widespread over the globe is a thing from the past. In some sense it is in our inability to negotiate and/or to package our skills and knowledge into something detached from time. It is our subordination to the system, because of hunger or responsibilities, where we don't own the fruit of the work, but small chunk of the money made.

anja profile image

I also think less hours can be very beneficial for both employee and employer. If you have well-rested, happy and concentrated employees their work will be great. I'm also thinking of a 36 hour workweek for myself, to have a bit more of the weekend. How many hours do you work?

blade93ny profile image

Actually its not really about the number of hours you work its about WHAT HOURS you work...
I think these common work practices like including TECHs into meetings just because there may be some kind of question you want to ask during a meeting of NON-TECHs is STUPID and WASTEFUL... Not only is it wasting the time of TECHs it is also TIRING and FRUSTRATING listening to all the BS of Marketing, Sales, and Managerial crap...
Simple rule of thumb... MAKE NOTES and WRITE DOWN any questions or things that need to be clarified during the meeting and send a list of questions to the TECHs after the meeting is over or during a meeting... just send a damn list and thats it...

shivenigma profile image
Vignesh M

I work around 40-50 hours per week.

anja profile image

That's a lot, hope you feel good with it!

thewebbird profile image
Anastasia • Edited

If you're an office rabbit - then yes, you've got no chance to work productively more than 2-3 hours a day. If you're a freelancer, with something like upwork timer ticking on your machine, then you actually do 7-8 hours of truly meaningful and productive hours.

And it's hard and burns you out.

forwardperspective profile image

Hi Anastasia! I'm hoping to get in touch with you about your Wheel of Life website! Any chance you could email me at Thank you!

dougaws profile image

I often come up with a solution while explaining it to my wife (who knows little about coding) as we walk the dog.

ottovanluchene profile image
Otto Vanluchene

With all do respect for your wife, but that is the The Rubber Duck Technique. :)

ronca85 profile image

I'm a frontend developer. I could work for 8-10 hours but it took me almost two years to build up stamina. When I just started my brain was cooking after 4-5 hours. It took me two years to double that.
Most of the time I was hopelessly poorly managed and I could have done more with my time if I wasn't surrounded by morons. There's nothing more insulting and degrading than having someone insist you document what you have been doing hour by hour. It is a horrible way to gather data because everyone is lying and the few people that are honest get in a situation where everyone expects them to be on the same level all the time.
Improve productivity by studying how the world's top agencies do their thing. When you gather all the information, have all the answers and you know need change you will realize that nobody in your company wants to change. People are like that. A few bad ones ruin everything for everyone.

k8hansen profile image
Kate Hansen

Love this article!

I wonder too, how we are still working 8 hours a day when we have instantaneous response time. You used to have to call someone with a question, leave a message, wait for them to call you back. Or mail things to get signatures or approval. We have email, cell phones, etc, which has highly optimized our efficiency.

destynova profile image

The Zeigarnik effect is really interesting and I don't think society has learned to take good advantage of it. A recent neuroscience paper had people do some learning tasks for about 30-40 minutes. Afterwards, they were split into two groups. One group was made to fill in (useless) forms immediately after the training. The other group was made to just sit in a quiet room for 10-15 minutes without doing anything at all.
A few days later both groups were tested on what they'd learned and the quiet room group scored much better.
The takeaway was that some "doing nothing" time is extremely beneficial after a learning session, to help process what you've learned and store that information more effectively in long-term memory. When I think of some of our meeting schedules at work, I can see how we undermine this process, by completely filling our calendar so that when one meeting finishes, we immediately start the next one on a different topic. This way we really don't allow those memory consolidation and storage processes to work properly. So I'm starting to build a habit of either leaving meetings a few minutes before the next one starts, or starting the next one slightly late, or just saying no to meetings that aren't super beneficial.

chandragie profile image

I would say that I totally agree with you. As developers, who use thinking more than muscle strength would be more exhausted at the end of the day when pushed to a same amount of time. Muscle can be strengthen by repetition and exercise, but brain take more effort than that and IMHO some are "gifted to be able to expand and some are not".

spiderpig86 profile image
Stanley Lim

Implement no meetings days in a week or no meetings time range in a workday.

This is a great suggestion and definitely helps to give some focus time back to developers.

jesperbylund profile image

This is a great summation of the topic! I've thought about this a lot myself. Even did a few weeks long test to find out how much time I could be productive, also something like 4hours.

abdulvahab profile image

Very nice article. I can relate to most of the thing specified. I am lucky to working for a company where management understand psycology of productivity.

harshadnaik96 profile image
Harshad Naik

Very relatable and true. 👍