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People don't work as much as you think
TGIF, right? How’s your week been? Feeling tired? Like you’ve not got enough done?
As I mentioned last time, I’m doing daily writing in January so have mostly been quiet here, but there’s a conversation I keep having that I realised this morning, after having it yet again, that I’ve never really written down anywhere permanent, so here it is.
The short version is this: People don’t work nearly as much as you think they do, because everything we say about working hours is a fractal of lies (and indeed one of my examples in the fractal of lies post was about this sort of dynamic!), where everything is based on lies people tell about lies being told to them about… etc.
If you do not realise this, and assume that everyone who says they are working eight hours per day actually is, you are probably going to wreck your mental health trying to keep up with them. Stop it at once.
The details of this are somewhat career specific, and my experience is mostly with a mix of software development, writing, coaching, and consulting, so I’ll mostly talk about that. I think the general point - that people typically work less than they claim - holds across the board, but how much that actually is will vary by profession.
How much work I do
Let me start by putting my cards on the table and tell you how much work I do.
Here is my estimate of how much work I can get done in a day:
Most days I can do somewhere between one and two hours of hard thinky work. Writing, programming, etc. Good days or easy tasks it might be three. It’s rarely four, and over a week almost never averages more than two.
I can probably do some low effort reading, not very high quality code review (more at the level of “scan for obvious flaws” than “do an in depth study of the design”) on top of that without it massively eating into my energy levels.
Four hours of coaching in a day, i.e. face to face time in which I have to be on and intelligently responding, is pretty close to my absolute limit - I can do five in a push but I will not be very competent for the fifth - and I cannot do this two days running. I have estimated 20 hours to be my absolute upper bound for coaching I could do in a week, and I’ve set my comfortable limit as 10 hours if I want to be able to maintain little things like getting any writing done or having remotely functional mental health1.
I can probably do 4-6 hours of very routine stuff (e.g. mostly mechanical refactoring of code).
I can sometimes do 4-6 hours of flow-state work (e.g. debugging a hard problem). This requires a problem with tight feedback loops, no interruptions, and a good physical and mental health day. I almost never get this combination at the moment, and when I had normal jobs this happened maybe a couple of times per year for a few days running at most each time.
Idlework, where I think about a problem in the background while going for a walk or having a shower or the like, is mostly free.
For example, a day in which I run a group workshop (two hours work), write a piece (one to two hours of work), and do some nonfiction reading (half an hour to an hour) is in fact quite a busy day. I can manage one of those a week, I can probably manage two, but the rest of the week I’ll be a bit drained, and if I tried to do that every day I would probably end up pretty exhausted.
These limits can be exceeded in extremis, but it requires me treating myself badly. For example I’ve at various points done crunch time deadlines where I was writing, coding, running experiments, etc. for 10-12 hours a day, for about a week, or occasionally two weeks. Reliably this wrecked me for weeks to come, and if you look at my average for the months including that period it was probably a net productivity reduction.
Is this normal?
I think so.
My health and mental energy are a bit erratic, but I don’t think this is an unusually low amount of work, and I’m generally considered quite productive. Certainly at no point in my career as a programmer was there ever a suggestion that I wasn’t doing enough work when keeping to this sort of schedule (there have been a few periods where I was genuinely not doing any work due to mental health crises, but in those cases I was absolutely not doing two hours of work a day, and many days I was doing zero).
Some of that is because I’m good at getting things done in the time available to me, but most of that is that nobody else was doing more work than this either, even if in some cases they believed they were. They’re at their computer all day, but a lot of that is spent on Twitter, reddit, staring into space. A great deal of one’s work day is spent drifting, and this is considered normal, because you have to be present but can’t work for all that time.
I certainly don’t think this is just a programmer thing. Certainly if you look at advice to writers, they tell you to count on somewhere between two and four hours of writing in a given day, and this roughly tracks my experience with writing too. I don’t have good evidence from this, but my anecdotal impression of people who are telling you that they work 60-80 hour weeks is that they’re lying and/or deluding themselves about how much time they actually spend working, because there’s an incentive to be seen to be working long hours, but there are such diminishing returns on actually working long hours that there’s very little incentive to actually do the extra work because it doesn’t help anyone.
For other more routine work, I’m sure there are people who work more than this. Factory workers and shop workers seem to be able to manage longer days. I think however this is because a) Their work requires less intense concentration, so is less subject to hard limits on ability to actually do it when tired b) They, like us, have a lot more breaks in their schedule than they officially say they do and c) Their work is, in fact, often exhausting, but they lack the leverage to say no to it.
(Obviously I don’t think this is a good thing, and there is a different set of problems that goes on there. It’s not that their situation is fine and there’s nothing to object to there, it’s that the way it plays out is different and I’m less familiar with the details)
Does this generalise?
Here is my defensive extra section which I’ve added later because I’m annoyed at people’s reading comprehension. Sorry.
Apparently my repeatedly explicitly saying that this is career-specific advice and the details vary, and that also the way we treat service workers is bad, was insufficient for people to understand that this is career-specific advice and the way we treat service workers is bad, so let me be more explicit about failures to generalise.
Firstly, as I said above, this is very variable with the type of work. For me, I can do twice as much meeting work as I can do hard thinky work, and twice as much routine work on that. Eight hours of relatively routine work is more or less viable, although I still think it’s too much and people should have shorter work days.
Secondly, it’s not that it’s impossible to work 40 hours or more, the problem with it is (as I said right in the opening) that it will wreck your mental health to do this. People are citing doctors, architects, lawyers, and big consulting firms as examples of people who work more than that. They are (although I still think they claim they work far more than they actually work). Also they are industries with incredibly high burnout rates (and also incredibly high stimulant use in many cases). e.g. Most doctors’ mental health is trash because of how they are treated. This is bad FYI.
Thirdly, a point is being made that this is a very white collar thing and that I’m being a terrible person for talking about the problems that I have to repeatedly console my friends in white collar jobs who are wrecking their mental health due to, and won’t I spare a thought for the plight of the poor blue collar workers who I explicitly highly as having worse situations?
And you’re right. This is a very white collar thing. The blue collar version of everyone working less than they claim is not that they work fewer hours, but that they do less work per hour than they could - taking longer over doing things than is needed, inefficient transitions between tasks, etc. This strategy is more viable in blue collar than white collar, while working fewer hours is more viable in white collar ones than blue collar ones. I encourage honesty about both, but I have more familiarity with the white collar version.
Fourthly, there are definitely counterexamples. Some people are able to work very long hours without wrecking their mental health. This requires some mix of building up to it to develop the skills, being very well aligned with the job you’re doing, being very well supported by the organisation in making sure that you can work on things that are suitable for this, and probably some genetic luck or something. It’s not that there is no way to healthily work long hours, it’s that most people in most jobs are not able to do that, and those who could in principle do it are still better served by getting comfortable with the amount of work they can do right now, not feeling bad about that, and gradually building up to it.
Finally, those of you saying “RIP you but I’m different”, good for you. In the extremely unlikely event that it’s actually currently true, long may it continue.
What should we do about it?
If you’re in charge, I think you should make this dynamic very explicit to the people who report to you. There’s often an informal norm that what really matters is if you get the work done, and the literal hours you work are irrelevant if that is the case. You should make that norm explicit.
If you’re not in charge, and feel comfortable doing so, I think you should have an explicit conversation with your manager. Certainly you should have conversations with your peers about how much work they’re actually doing.
If, however, you’re not in a work environment that feels safe to have conversations with your manager about this, here is my genuine recommendation: Quit, or lie (ideally by omission).
If you can’t quit and go work somewhere with reasonable managers who understand this dynamic, you should do less work than your contract says you should, not tell your managers that you’re doing that, and not feel bad about this. Everyone else is almost certainly doing the same, and trying to do otherwise will not make you more productive but will make you miserable. Do not self-sabotage by being honest with someone who has created an environment that punishes honesty.
How to do less work and be more productive
Here are my top productivity tips:
Don’t try to do more work than you are able to sustainably do.
Don’t feel bad about how much work you are able to sustainably do.
Don’t work for people who try to make you violate one of the above rules.2
Set a time budget for how much you should spend on work per day, and adhere to that budget strictly. Figure out how to spend that budget responsibly, prioritising the core features of your job, and when people try to give you work that would make you blow your budget, say “Sure, I’m happy to do that, but I’m currently working on XYZ, is it higher priority than that?”. Do not take on work that causes you to blow your budget, because it will result in stress and bad work.
Your goal every day should be to spend your budget, then pat yourself on the back for a job well done and not feel like you need to get any more work done today. If you are reliably failing to do that, treat that as a problem to be solved rather than a moral failing - what’s preventing you from spending all your budget? Is something fixable stopping you, or is your budget unrealistically large and needs to be adjusted downwards?
The budget can and should be heterogenous, with certain amounts of time allocated for different types of work that drain you differently, and should be based on what you actually think you can realistically do in a day. For example, I think the following would be a reasonable budget for me in a full-time programming job:
1-2 hours focused work (coding, debugging, etc)
1-2 hours unfocused work (meetings, code review, etc)
1-2 hours “being actively available” - not being particularly productive, but available for questions, hanging out in Slack, etc.
Total ideally not to exceed 4 hours, certainly not to regularly exceed that.
Active availability time might include idly noodling on some code, or doing some code review or something, but importantly those aren’t success criteria. Any work you get done in that time is pure bonus, and if you’re tiring yourself out trying to get things done during it, that is the opposite of helpful and you should look at cat pictures on the internet or something.
And honestly even looking at that budget, sure looks like a lot to me. I suspect if you try to get that done every day you’re going to have to have at least one day a week where you get more like half of that done. It’s more like a daily budget for a four day week than a five day week.
It’s also probably far more gentle a workload than many of you intuitively believe that you’re supposed to be doing, and maybe that you think other people are doing.
All of this of course flies very much in the face of the idea of a 40 hour work week that is allegedly normal, but that’s because the idea of a 40 hour work week is completely disconnected from reality. There isn’t actually a one-size fits all number of hours you can expect people to work independently of the sort of work they’re doing, and 40 hours is too large for many jobs.
The 40 hour work week is almost never actually enforced. You may be punished for not being present for 40 hours a week (or for not being present for more than that if your employer is bad), and you may be punished for unrelated reasons where the 40 hour work week happens to be a stick that is being used to beat you, but actually working the contracted hours is a rule observed more in breach than observance, because it’s mostly impossible and most people find it easier to quietly pretend they’re doing it while working fewer hours than to make a fuss about it.
The problem is that there is no incentive to fix the expectations because doing so is politically hard (you’re paying these people how much and you want them to work less??) and lying about how much work you’re doing is so widespread that it looks like the system is working.
This, unfortunately, screws people over when nobody has taken them aside and explained to them that everyone is lying. So, this is me taking you aside and explaining it to you. I hope it helps.
Want some more help figuring out what actually goes on at your workplace and how it’s supposed to function? Well, I offer consulting services and would be delighted to help. My expertise is primarily with software companies, but I’m happy to talk to people in other industries too. You can find out more on my consulting site, or just book a free intro call to chat about it.
In addition, if you’re a software developer I offer open-enrolment group coaching sessions every Friday morning UK time. This is an opportunity to talk about the challenges you face at work with me and up to three other developers. It’s a mix of me providing coaching and moderating discussion between you all, allowing you to get a wide variety of perspectives and a more affordable version of my one-on-one coaching practice. You can sign up for these group coaching sessions here.
Also the cover image is The Women’s Work in the War Industry, provided by the Imperial War Museum.
This is why I’ve switched to consulting over personal coaching - I can charge rates where that’s an amount of work that nets me a decent salary, which I can’t do when providing personal coaching.
But do check whether they actually want you to, or whether you’re just reading in things that aren’t there based on lessons you’ve learned at worse employers.