Redefining Modern Working Hours
Destruction is a form of creation.
We often picture this as a violent act, but it doesn’t have to be. Industry disruption is a tamer form of destruction that’s fueled by technological progress and efficiency improvements. You see it played out in the real world all the time with companies like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, and Warby Parker.
And while progress has killed everything from horse-drawn carriages to telephone books, at least one more thing lies in its crosshairs: the workday.
Meet the four-
In 2007, the publication of his bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, And Join The New Rich made Timothy Ferriss an instant philosophy-of-work guru. Ferriss’ book recommended a disruption-style approach to the workday, and Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Netscape Communications co-founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen thought it was brilliant.
As schmaltzy as it now sounds, it’s hard to overstate the influence this book had on a younger generation who came of age in the Office Space era and yet were eager to cash in on the stabilizing tech industry post-Dot-Com Boom. There’s no way to definitively prove this, but Ferriss’ book may very well be largely responsible for the current romanticism with tech-entrepreneurship and digital nomadism.
The last time I checked, most people aren’t working four hours a week now, but Ferriss was definitely onto something with his “less is more” approach to productivity. In 2015, The Atlantic published a short documentary about Treehouse, a Portland-based online coding school that had been operating on a 32-hour workweek since 2006 (as of 2016, they reverted to a traditional 40-hour workweek).
Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson reported no loss in productivity after the change, but he did attribute lower employee stress levels to working fewer hours a week. Recently, Auckland, New Zealand-based financial services company Perpetual Guardian also attracted media buzz when it decided to go all-in on a four-day workweek, and fast-casual New York-based burger joint Shake Shack is reportedly testing a four-day workweek in Las Vegas.
Could the modern 40-hour workweek be on its way out? But where did we get this seemingly arbitrary measure of normal working hours anyway?
You can thank Henry Ford
Before President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, the typical American worked 48 hours a week. Industrialization really took off in the late 19th century, and with it came appalling working conditions by modern standards.
The FLSA passed after years of outcry over dangerous and exploitative working conditions, but Henry Ford also gets a lot of credit for the eventual passing of this bill. Ford argued that longer work days were bad for employee productivity, and he garnered praise in 1914 when he switched the Ford Motor Company over to a 40-hour workweek.
A 40-hour workweek is now the norm in the U.S., but arguments over whether or not this workload is ideal have it under scrutiny once more. Elon Musk— never one to shy from the limelight—made headlines in November 2018 when he Tweeted “…nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”
Musk said this in reference to the long hours his employees at SpaceX and Tesla often clock, but he got a lot of people talking about the so-called “hustle” or “burnout” culture rippling out from tech centers like Silicon Valley and New York City. As someone who has had a few very public overworked, overstressed moments, some said Musk himself is proof that working too much is a bad thing.
So what’s the magic number of working hours then? Should you work more or less than 40 hours a week?
Embrace creative destruction and do what’s best for you
In addition to informing the public of its switch to a four-day workweek, Perpetual Guardian also partnered with Auckland University of Technology and the University of Auckland Business School to publish a white paper detailing the tangible and intangible benefits of working fewer hours every week. Based on research conducted by these two schools, the findings presented in the white paper point clearly to a shorter workweek being better for the company overall.
But this is only one company. What works well for them may not work well for others, as we’ve seen with Treehouse deciding to return to a 40-hour workweek. Instead of jumping right into changing your schedule, take time to consider what works best for you.
Practice deep work
Inspired by the working methods of highly influential psychologist Carl Jung, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport outlines a guide for accomplishing high-quality, focused work in his 2016 book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.
In practicing what Newport dubs (you guessed it) deep work, you set aside one to two hour chunks of time for intense, distraction-free cognitive work. Unlike the way many of us work now where we’re constantly bombarded by overheard office chit-chat, Slack notifications, and a million open browser tabs, deep work advocates giving a task or project 100 percent of your undivided attention and brain power to achieve better results.
Work when you work best
Working whenever you want to is a luxury few can afford, but for small business owners and freelancers, this method of working is doable. Obviously there are times when you must be available during working hours to please a client or make a deadline, but you have much more wiggle room than you give yourself credit for when it comes to your work schedule.
Do you find it impossible to focus between 12 and 2 p.m? Go for a walk around the neighborhood or play guitar. Are you not fully awake until 11 a.m? Take early morning to make a nice breakfast or just sleep in. If you prefer this timeframe like I do, you can use the early hours of the day to relax, and you won’t mind working after the sun goes down.
One door closes, another door opens
Yes, we experience a lot of changes in our modern world, but that doesn’t always have to be scary or nerve-wracking. By understanding that our current definition of a workweek is relatively new, recognizing that it’s changing again, and taking smart steps to make that change work for us, we can unlock new opportunities to work smarter, not harder.
Destruction (or disruption, depending on how you choose to mince words) can be an act of creation, and creation is inherently messy. The death of the 9-5 is shaping up to be no different, but before you know it, this, too, will seem like a thing of the past.