How many hours?

There’s a limit to how much work you can get done on any given day.

Beyond a certain point, working more hours won’t result in getting more important work done.

Will you get more of the important stuff done working ten hours in one day than working eight? Perhaps once. But day after day, you won’t be able to focus for that long. You’ll make lots of mistakes, which you’ll spend time fixing the next day. And the lack of sleep will get to you.

What about working eight hours compared to six? Six compared to four? What’s the optimal number of work hours in one day?

You might have seen articles that claim to have the answer: “This Swedish firm reduced its work days to six hours and its employees are MORE productive!”

I applaud firms who try shorter work hours or shorter work weeks. But listing a few examples is anecdata. We’d need a rigorous, scientific study to find out what the optimal number of work hours is for most knowledge workers.

Fortunately, you don’t need to wait for such a study. You can experiment with your own work.

Why not track how many hours a day you actually spend on important work? Perhaps track it for a week. What are the results?

When I worked more-or-less regular hours, there was a huge gap. If I were at the office for eight hours, I worked productively for three of them. Maybe. The rest of the time I filled with meetings, chatting with coworkers, browsing the Internet, snacking, playing card games, etc.

That doesn’t mean I can’t work productively for more than three hours a day. But I can’t do it while sitting at the same desk for eight hours straight. Can you?

Most people I’ve discussed this with come in around three hours a day too. What about you?

And if you do find that you’re only working productively a few hours a day, can you give yourself the rest of your work day off? Or can you change something to spend more time working productively and less time trying or pretending to work?


— Peter

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