Friday, November 13, 2009

Introducing the 70-hour Work Week

Let's consider the consequences, good and bad, of voluntarily increasing to a 70-hour work week as a white-collar worker in a job that you often need to immerse yourself in. The 70 hours does not include time spent on commutes, meals, or breaks. This is outside the range of most current research; most populations studied have an insignificant number of 70-hour white-collar workers as defined, even in Japan and South Korea. In the absence of good studies, I will render my own judgments here on what I expect the likely consequences to be for the average person.

1. Decreased per-hour productivity

Mental fatigue, short-term ego depletion, stress, and flagging motivation can reduce hourly productivity. Sunk costs for training and knowledge-acquisition can increase it, as can medium-term willpower building. Overall, I judge that per-hour productivity is probably diminished.

How to mitigate: Aggressively vary tasks and take breaks during work. Try to reduce stress during work. Relax outside of work. Reduce commute time if possible, otherwise use unavoidable commute time to unwind. Do not allow the long work hours to interfere with sleep and exercise. Adopt good sleep hygiene.

2. Increased total productivity

I will judge that per-week productivity goes up with a 70-hour work week, if managed correctly; the extra hours available, rather than the reduced per-hour productivity, should be the dominating factor.

How to capitalize: Leverage your competitive advantage by seeking out fields where "time is of the essence," for example where there is a race to exploit a market window before it closes.

3. Mildly decreased health

Research is mixed, but overall it seems long hours can have a negative impact on health, possibly due to decreased exercise and sleep, and increased stress. Some of the negative impact may be permanent.

How to mitigate: As above, prioritize exercise, sleep, and stress reduction.

4. Decreased happiness

If you significantly value happiness, and are rational, you should familiarize yourself with the literature of hedonic psychology. Unfortunately, some of the advice from the literature will be difficult to fully implement given the reduction in your free time. It's extremely unlikely that the set of activities that are optimized for your long-term happiness are the exact same set of activities that are optimized for your career success. Mapping out your schedule should confirm for you that adopting a 70-hour work week, and following the productivity mitigation advice above, will leave you with extremely little free time.

How to mitigate: Pick a career you find meaningful.

I would conclude the 70-hour work week as described is not for everyone. If you're prone to stress (for example, if you tend to score high on the Maslach Burnout Inventory), or if you value happiness more than your career goals, you should pursue a more conventional work schedule.

Further reading:

3 comments:

FrankAdamek

As for #3, mildly reduced health, another concern is direct bodily strain. As I recall the main elements of that are carpal tunnel, soreness, and any other effects of maintaining a position for a long time. Not too hard to mitigate, good posture and moving around regularly probably suffice.

samantha

I have worked 70 hour weeks. I have even worked bursts of 80+ hour weeks. If you are working 70 hour weeks then you have nearly zero time to increase skills, rejuvenate, or contemplate the problem space much differently. You become a "commander in an air raid" - very monomaniacal. There are times when this is good but only for the task at hand. It is not good for your long term growth and happiness. It is not good for maximizing creativity. You get a bit of a boost from the deep immersion but you lose in flexibility I think.

One other difficulty is that you are working nearly twice as much as others in your organization. They are not going to appreciate that comparative standard nor trying to make sense of that much output from you. Rewriting the code base on the weekend is not going to make your co-workers happy when they come in on Monday.

Jason Jackson

For me, I have a hard time distinguishing between what is work and play for me. I limit myself to ~40 hour weeks a week at my internship. But when I come home, I just transition to learning, thinking, planning, new endeavors.

I'm very much interested in the workaholic lifestyle. And following Samatha's thinking, I would never encourage or fall victim to a sort of immediate reactive type working style. I always spend time thinking about the larger picture, prioritizing, and skill acquisition where it makes sense.