This material was originally part of a productivity debate about the merits of hard work vs. laziness. The website that hosted the debate in 2005 has long since gone offline, so I’m resharing my contributions to the debate here.
Working hard and setting limits
Can a person work a maximum of 40 hours a week at something and still be successful?
Absolutely. People have become gold medal Olympians on less than 40 hours a week.
It may surprise you to learn that many successful entrepreneurs work in the pattern of one week on, one week off … or even one week on, two weeks off. So they’ll work intensely on their business for a week, and then they’ll take off for a week or two and do no work at all. Often they’ll travel during during this time or just be with their families. These cycles of hard work and rest can be extremely effective. When you know you’re only going to work for a week before taking the next week off, you can work with great focus and intensity. Then when you come back to work for the next cycle, you’re extremely well rested and inspired by fantastic new ideas that came to you during your time off. At one of his seminars, Jay Abraham said that this kind of work pattern was one of the success secrets Napoleon Hill had uncovered while conducting the extensive research and interviews for his famous book Think And Grow Rich, but it didn’t make the final cut.
Have you ever gone to a seminar or conference and then returned to work the following week with renewed passion and energy? What if you could have that kind of experience every other week? This is one of the reasons I attend personal development seminars, listen to audio programs, read inspiring books, and attend weekly Toastmasters meetings. They help keep my energy and enthusiasm perpetually high.
I don’t believe in working monstrous hours. I think the optimal work week for most knowledge workers is about 40-45 hours, but with plenty of time off for rest and leisure. Even when you’re pursuing your passion and love what you do, it can still tire you out at the end of the day. You need plenty of time away from work to rest, reflect, and regain your perspective. Some of your best insights and ideas will come to you when you’re resting, not when you’re working.
Real-life story problem #1:
I’ve recently graduated from university and launched into full time work with the company I have been working part time with for the last 3 years. I love working there and I get paid on an hourly rate so that the more hours I work, the more money I get. I like the idea of working 40 hour weeks or less, so that I have more time to do my own things, but my boss is encouraging me to treat those 40 hours as a minimum! Consequently, I find myself surrounded by workers that work 60+ hours a week and myself working 50 hours a week or more. So I guess I’m torn between working a 40-hour week and having more time to focus on other things in my life or working 50+ hours a week and getting the extra money and industry experience. So should I work more hours or less? Why? What other factors should I consider?
This is a very common situation. I outlined one strategy for handling this type of situation in my response to the previous day’s questions. Basically, you conduct an internal audit and negotiation between your needs, desires, abilities, and conscience.
Ultimately, you will have to make this decision based on your own values. There’s no one right answer for everyone. If the answer isn’t forthcoming for you, you may find it helpful to read this two-part article series called Living Your Values. It will help you clarify your values so you can make your decision more easily.
The most important concept here is to get clear about what exactly you want. I suggest putting your decision in writing and documenting the reasons; if you keep a journal that’s a great place to do it. Then when you start feeling pressure to work more or less hours than you originally decided, you can look back and remind yourself of the reasons you made this decision and recommit yourself to getting back on track.
Once you’ve made this decision for yourself, it’s important to inform others of your intentions. Inform anyone who’s a stakeholder in this decision, including your family, boss, and co-workers. Suppose you decide to work 40-45 hours per week. You should inform your boss of this decision to let him/her know, and be open to explaining the reasons why. In fact, I recommend expressing your concerns to your boss before you make this decision, and openly discuss the pros and cons to your career based on how many hours you work. Quality of life is becoming an increasingly important issue nowadays, and more employers are accepting the fact that not everyone wants their work to take over their entire life.
If you get clear about what you want and inform others of your decision, then it’s a lot easier to enforce your boundaries. Accept the fact that no matter what you decide, external forces will exert pressure on you to do otherwise. You may get it on one side from your family and on the other side from your boss. If you’re clear about what you want and why you want it, you’ll be able to stand firm. But if you never take the time to reach this point of clarity, then you’ll almost certainly be pushed around by others’ goals for you.
My wife and I refer to this as outgoaling. Let’s say we decide to go out to dinner. I’m not sure where I’d like to eat, but she knows she wants to go to a particular restaurant. Because she’s clear about what she wants and I’m not, she’s going to easily outgoal me, and we’ll end up eating where she wants. Similarly, if you don’t get clear about your own career goals, then others who are more certain about what they want will outgoal you, and you’ll end up working to fulfill their goals, which may or may not be congruent with what you want.
Real-life story problem #2:
Extreme programming is a set of rules/mindsets/methods for programming. On the one hand, several of those methods aim at keeping you as hard working and productive as possible. On the other hand, the official “rules” almost forbid you to work more than 40 hours per week. So working as hard as you can for 8 hours, 5 days a week, but not more.
I think XP is a good methodology in general and a vast improvement over deathmarch-style projects, especially the kind often seen in the gaming industry — working 10-12 hours per day, 7 days a week, for months at a time.
As much as I like XP though, a standard methodology is no substitute for your own intelligence and your ability to analyze your own personal situation. So feel free to break such rules and see how that goes for you. You’re the ultimate judge of what’s best for you.
In terms of building your personal productivity, I recommend that most people begin with an even more restricted work week of around 15-25 hours per week (at least to the degree this is possible). Get yourself to a point of great efficiency there, and then gradually build up to 40-45 hours per week while maintaining peak efficiency. Work all the time you’re “at work.” Many times when people are at work 60+ hours per week, they aren’t working even half that time. The first time I measured my actual work time when I worked a 60-hour week, I was shocked to discover that I’d only done 15 hours of what I considered actual work. So you must distinguish being busy vs. doing actual results-oriented work. Here’s an article that explores this topic in detail: Triple Your Personal Productivity.
Is a day’s work its own reward, or is there a way to change your perspective regarding mind-numbing work so that it becomes fun?
I don’t recommend doing work you consider mind-numbing for an extended period of time. It will just drain your energy and… well… numb your mind. 🙂
But sometimes we still have to do certain tasks that we don’t enjoy. That’s just part of life. You can delegate a great deal, but you’ll still have certain activities that need to be done yet aren’t much fun, such as paying taxes. So first, if you can eliminate the task entirely without serious negative consequences, then by all means do so. But if that isn’t practical, keep reading….
Whenever I’m faced with a task I have to do but which isn’t remotely fulfilling or enjoyable, I use a variety of techniques to make it more fun. First, music is a great way to make a task more pleasant. If a task is normally dull and boring and not very mental, I’ll listen to some fast-paced techno/trance. There are some great streams available at www.di.fm, and I listen via the free Winamp player from www.winamp.com. If a task tends to feel stressful, I’ll listen to relaxing music like Enya or Kitaro or Steven Halpern. If the task is very mental, I’ll listen to Mozart or just maintain dead silence. As I answer these questions, I’m listening to The Best of Enya (not to imply I don’t enjoy this task or find it stressful). Probably 80-90% of the time I’m working, I’m listening to music. I suggest you experiment with different types of music to see how it affects your mood and your productivity.
Another technique I use is timeboxing. This basically means committing to working on a task for a certain fixed period of time, such as 30 minutes, without worrying about how far you get. Then give yourself a little reward just for putting in the time.
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If I’m feeling lazy and don’t want to work very much, it’s a sign I’m tired or I’m feeling burnt out, it means I’ve been overtraining. And in that case, I’ll take a day or two off with no work at all to rest and recover completely. I’ll spend time sharpening the saw — reading, journaling, reflecting, revising my goals, visualizing where I want to go. I’ll take a nap. I’ll read over some old feedback emails to remind myself of what effect I’m having. I’ll ask those big “why” questions again until I absolutely want to go back to work.
If you really love what you do, then what’s so painful about putting in a 8-hour day on it? When I’d go to Disneyland, I’d want to go there from when the park opened until the park closed and pack in as much fun in a day as I could muster. If work is play, then why not play hard and squeeze more juice out of it?
If I think “I have to work,” that’s a problem. For me it has to be, “I want to work.” After all, being an entrepreneur I don’t actually have to work much at all to support myself, so if I don’t want to do it, I won’t. But the desire to work, not the compulsion to work, is what got me out of bed at 5am this morning, full of enthusiasm to get going on a fun new day. If you’re at Disneyland, are you going to procrastinate on going on the rides?
Do you think I’m feeling stressed out doing what I do — writing, working on speeches, improving my web site, communicating with people, etc.? Where’s the pain? Where’s the stress? Why would I want to avoid this? And yet, all of this is productive work for me — it contributes directly to my purpose. Punishment would be forcibly keeping me away from it.
My favorite form of leverage is technology — it does the dirty work like processing and filling orders through my game site and automatically depositing money into my bank account each day. But no matter how much you leverage outside factors like people and technology and capital, the ultimate form of leverage is still your own time. Time is the juice of life; if you aren’t living passionately and loving what you do each day, to me that’s punishing yourself, and your accomplishments won’t provide much fulfillment if you aren’t enjoying the journey. If you find the path to your goal so painful that you feel you must minimize the time you spend on it, regardless of how much you lust for the final destination, then you’re on the wrong path.
Before you embark on any path ask the question, does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it and then you must choose another path. The trouble is that nobody asks the question. And when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart the path is ready to kill him.
– Carlos Castaneda
So ask the question. Does your path have a heart? This is one of those questions where you will know with certainty if the answer is yes. If you aren’t certain it’s a yes, then it’s a no.
Don’t take the path without a heart, regardless of where you think it will lead you and how great it will be when you finally arrive. Find another way to get there. I know it’s not easy to find a way to make a great living doing what you love each and every day, but it’s a lot easier than the alternative.