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Research does not say that people produce more when working 40 hours per week (metarabbit.wordpress.com)
221 points by barry-cotter on July 8, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 190 comments

TL;DR: you can get more done if you work 60 hours instead of 40 hours in a week, but the work done in that extra 20 hours might be a small fraction of what gets done in 20 hours during a 40 hour week.

This is self-evidently true for many jobs. E.g., if you pick apples for 40 hours, then even if you only pick one apple per hour after that, you will still pick more apples working 50 hours than 40.

We software developers, though, have an additional consideration: creating software bugs which can (easily) push the productivity of a given period of time into the negative, sometimes deeply.

In my apple-picker example above, this would be like the tired picker driving the loaded apple truck off a cliff, destroying all the apples picked in the first 59 hours of the 60 hour work week (along with the expensive truck).

That example is contrived and unconvincing for the apple picker case, though; nobody makes their tired apple pickers drive the apple trucks back via treacherous mountain roads after a hard day of work.

That's not the case for software development, however; looking at my own 20+ years of professional software development through the lens of an extremely rigorous scientific n=1 anecdatal analysis (which undoubtedly thrills the OP hehe), in my own career probably 75% of the negative productivity caused by bugs I've created was the direct result of code I wrote while trying to work more hours than I should.

I suspect this holds true for other programmers as well.

I think you might be missing the author's last point which is that in a competitive field, even a small increase in output can lead to a large increase in payoff.

In his example of getting research funding, it's a step function: either you get funded (y=1) or you don't (y=0), and because you're competing with others, even a small output increase can take you from the 0 side to the 1 side.

i've never thought about how these two things relate to each other: asymptotic productivity of work, and winner take almost all nature of capitalism. seems like a very succinct way of explaining why people work so damned much. i'm actually kind of embarrassed i've never connected the two. it seems to make the argument against it more clear too- if marginal hours worked grow less productive, and marginal improvement to the product is negligible in every day terms, we ought to mitigate that somehow, unless its something people are doing because they love it.

One of the greatest examples for this is the Astronaut program requirements [1]:

1. A bachelor's degree in engineering, biological science, physical science, computer science or mathematics.

2. At least three years of related professional experience obtained after degree completion OR at least 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft.

3. The ability to pass the NASA long-duration astronaut physical. Distant and near visual acuity must be correctable to 20/20 for each eye. The use of glasses is acceptable.

4. Astronaut candidates must also have skills in leadership, teamwork and communications.

Checking all the boxes on that list isn't particularly hard to do. However you aren't competing with the list.

You are competing with a 29 year old Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in Chemistry, who runs Ultramarathons, ran a 40 person volunteer organization in Kenya during her gap year, and manages a 200 person 50 Million dollar research lab on pluripotent stem cells at Oxford.

Now just change out anything there with whatever would be relevant for your line of work, and thats who you are competing with - give or take.

[1] https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/postsecondary/feat...

The astronaut program is not an example of capitalist winner take all.

Mostly is - specifically around hiring and work, so it's relevant to this discussion. It's a highly competitive market for talent where small incremental differences make a big difference.

To clarify, your point is about the nature of competition. Capitalism is but one type of competition. Hiring for astronauts is certainly a competition for resources, but since it is not a flow of transformable resources among a network of profit seeking nodes, it ain't a market.

Spot on. Perhaps I should have clarified that it's a metaphor in the original post.

That is not capitalism. Socialism could have athletic competitions and rigorous selection for public sector programs as well. That is not inconsistent with public ownership of resources.

To demonstrate something about capitalism, one should use an example from capitalism, not try to contort something from government into capitalism.

Isn't this essentially a winner-take-all situation, though?

Capitalism tends towards winner-take-all systems, but not all winner-take-all systems are capitalistic. I find the example fitting.

Capitalism actual doesn't veer toward winner take all. Government does, elections do, etc. Capitalism leads to people voting with dollars so instead of a red or green car being given a vote, the red car may be cheaper if lots of people want it.

Yeah, that's why there is AMD and Intel, NVIDIA and AMD, Apple and Microsoft, Google and Facebook.

> the red car may be cheaper if lots of people want it.

Also see the pharma industry, right? The US government isn't all governments either, in some countries parties actually rule together, compromise and whatnot. And considering getting money out of elections isn't even attempted in earnest, the question really is what is the tail and what is the dog here.

The US government rules as a big power structure. Now Red happens to be on the pinnacle of that, but that doesn't mean Blue has no say in what happens.

It just means things are a lot more "costly" for Blue and/or Blue things (like climate change policies).

But of course in the primary layer a lot of things become infinitely costly for Blue things. (Because they fall under executive rights.) But there are a lot of other layers. (State legislatures/governors, city level issues, and so on.) And though a higher layer can force things on a lower layer, but it's not zero-cost, so usually things settle into an ugly compromise.

Good example. Elections are definitely winner-take-all, i.e. we get red cars or green cars. But under capitalism, I can choose which I want. Elections are not about individual choices.

elections are winner take all in the literal sense (except where you have representative democracy), but to they extent that they are about policy, i wouldn't say its as simple as that.

It is a winner-take-all situation, but it is not an example of capitalism, and should not be used as an example of capitalism.

Use an example of capitalism to justify an example of capitalism. If capitalism is a winner-take-all system, there should be endless examples.

Great insight! You can see this not only at the macro level (Google winning all of search by being marginally better than competitors), but at the micro level (top employee out of a team of 10 gets the bonus/promotion while everyone else gets nothing), and probably everywhere in between.

What I wonder is: Is this really an intrinsic quality of capitalism? What causes this "winner take most" reward system emerging in some areas of the economy but not others? In many industries, multiple competitors can exist with stability and split market share, and in others, having multiple competitors leads to a blood bath where only one can survive, winning it all.

> Is this really an intrinsic quality of capitalism?

Hardly. The history of capitalism shows that absent government intervention to prop up companies, they rise and fall. When I started out, everyone was a-feared that IBM would inevitably take over the world. Then Microsoft dethroned them, and Microsoft was going to take over the world. Then Apple dethroned Microsoft. And on it goes.

There was Sears that dominated retail. Then Walmart shoved them aside. Now Amazon stepped all over Walmart.

See "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Christensen for a book full of examples.

All of those companies exist in a world with the threat of anti-trust regulation, and some were directly affected by it.

There are plenty of counterexamples from before that regulation, and there are still some today (e.g. ISPs).

> There are plenty of counterexamples from before that regulation

Name one :-)

Literally the entire reason antitrust laws were written? Standard Oil? General Motors? AT&T?

A little disingenuous to pretend that never happened.

Let's take Standard Oil. They never had a monopoly - at their peak they had a 90% market share. SO's market share slid steadily throughout the years of the anti-trust trial, and Rockefeller was unable to stem the slide. (The competition figured out how to beat him.)

See "Titan" by Ron Chernow

> pretend

I know what the popular wisdom is. But dig a little deeper and you'll find it is not correct.

> General Motors

was formed in 1908. The Sherman Antitrust Act was in 1890, so GM could not have been the reason for it.

> GM could not have been the reason for it

...which, to clarify, was not my point.

That is, going back up-thread a bit, it's still clear that capitalism intrinsically encourages monopolistic behavior, and that "government intervention propping up companies" is not the cause.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that even if there were no capitalistic tendency toward actual monopolies, it would still have the same winner-take-all problem, merely due to the prospect of a "winner".

Every company wants to be a monopoly, sure. But free market forces prevent that from happening. It takes government to prop one up.

A prospect and an actual problem are two different things.

SO was never convicted of being a monopoly, either. A subtle but crucial point, and usually overlooked.

I'm not sure on what basis you're claiming that free markets prevent monopolies, but even if they do, free markets self-destruct. Once corporations in a free market have enough money to start influencing politics they use it to start regulating in their favor and the market ceases to be free. You can regulate to prevent that, but then the market isn't free, yet again.

It's also a bit myopic to view companies as a binary monopoly/not monopoly. A company with 90% market share isn't a monopoly, but has most of the downsides of a monopoly, and likely is a monopoly within subsets of the market.

Free market forces don't prevent it from getting close enough to cause a problem (if that's even possible under capitalism- the problem we're talking about is due to the attempt to gain a monopoly, not having one). I couldn't care less what Standard Oil's maximum market share was, you're arguing an irrelevant technicality.

My point is, again, that in this case the prospect is what causes the problem.

> cause a problem

The "problem" was that kerosene prices dropped 70% under SO.

The real problem was that Rockefeller was rich, and then (like today) a lot of people just can't stand the idea that others are rich.

If you're really interested in going beyond soundbites and understand what was happening, I really recommend Chernow's "Titan". Chernow actually agrees with you, so you can't argue his book is unfair. Chernow's opinions, however, are not congruent with his presented facts in the book. He's just so convinced of Rockefeller's evil nature that he is blinded by his own narrative :-)

> The real problem was that Rockefeller was rich, and then (like today) a lot of people just can't stand the idea that others are rich.

dont you think its kind of upsetting when someone could improve someone's life drastically without any (practically speaking) detriment to their own. obscene wealth is upsetting to me, and i know lots of people who have it, and i dont hate them. so its not about the person, per se. i just find it extremely unfortunate, knowing first hand how things could be different, in an almost pareto improvement way.

right now there is someone who will die because they cannot afford proper medical care. the is almost certainly someone with a lot of money, doing nothing with it, that could fix that at no cost to themselves. thats a little upsetting right?

Neither of those are the problem I'm referring to, which should be obvious based on the thread we're in...

But to spell it out, the problem is that the winner-takes-all aspect encourages people to overwork themselves or their employees, despite the diminishing returns that brings.

Maybe you're just so convinced of capitalism's good nature that you were blinded to what we were talking about in the first place? ;)

I think you're inventing a problem. I don't know many capitalists or employees who believe they must work themselves to death because of some presumed winner-take-all aspect. In fact, I don't know any.

Few define business success as erasing all competition. Success is making a good profit.

> Let's take Standard Oil. They never had a monopoly - at their peak they had a 90% market share.

Out of curiosity in calibrating your definition of "monopoly", can you give an example of a monopoly (past or present) together with an estimate of their market share? Thanks.

Sure. The USPS has a monopoly on first class mail. Market share = 100%. The government prosecutes anyone else who tries to do it.

Up until a couple years ago, in Washington State, hard liquor could only be sold through state stores. 100% market share.

The plumber's union is a monopoly. It is illegal to hire a non-union plumber. 100% market share.

Anyone holding a patent, trademark, or copyright has a monopoly. 100% market share by law.

Are you aware that federal law uses a different definition of "monopoly"?

Isn't Christensen one of those thought leaders who are paid by megacorps to spread Gramscian false consciousness and make the masses think capitalism really isn't so bad?

Yes, facts don't matter, only the political pedigree of the person relating them.

I prefer to read books where the author tries to prove me wrong. Books that agree with me are boring :-)

Sounds like you already have your conclusion in mind, so why ask the question?

Is this irony?

I suspect that in industries with strong network effects, the winner-takes-most system is most prevalent, as say, one additional unit could mean stealing three units away from competitors in the long-term.

yes i wonder about that too. i never thought of myself as someone interested in economics, but i guess thats where you'd look for answers to why some markets are weighted towards winner take all and some aren't. my guess off the top is that it has to do with how easy it is to switch between two competing products, and how economies of scale work in the industry. if there is a big economy of scale, and its easy to switch between competitors, i think that makes for the biggest winner take all scenario.

I think the more fundamental connection is that when goods are perfect subsitutes for each other, under perfect information you always choose the "cheaper" good (where "cheap" is defined by whatever metric you're using).

Somewhat ironically, this fact actually has connections to the concept of dual variables in constrained optimization problems, the theory of which was largely developed in the Soviet Union for use in central planning.

very interesting! that seems to make sense. do you know of any good writing on examples?

asymptotic productivity of work, and winner take almost all nature of capitalism. seems like a very succinct way of explaining why people work so damned much

A myth of capitalism is that the donkey can reach the carrot hanging from the stick if they work harder, that "almost all" can be won by those who are being driven to work more hours. However, this doesn't take into account that there are at least as many carrots-on-sticks as donkeys, and that carrots are cheap.

Well personally I've come from a family where hardly anyone make a productive decisions, where nobody had a college degree, and a tiny portion are even middle class. And now I'm 22, self-taught, and make $70k a year in the Midwest. And I did get there by working endless hours and catching the carrot, repeatedly. I think the truth of how these things go is probably somewhere between where your typical anti capitalist and your typical social Darwinist would expect it to be.

>I think the truth of how these things go is probably somewhere between where your typical anti capitalist and your typical social Darwinist would expect it to be.

What isn't between those two poles?!

Fewer people than what would be reasonable

>A myth of capitalism is that the donkey can reach the carrot hanging from the stick if they work harder

That's the myth of the "American Dream", not Capitalism per se.

Capitalism is more simple, if you have capital, you have control, and with control you can profit.

neither is true. Having capital means you will blow it a good portion of the time. Control is illusionary, just as it was for Sears, IBM, and Microsoft.

i dont get what you are trying to say. something about how its easy to mislead people into working long hours?

In this context, that "the nature of capitalism" is not evenly distributed, though the rhetoric says it is.

How much of winner-take-all is due to other factors like timing, luck and self-selection-bias?

The point your predecessor was making was that if you make bad design decisions or create bugs, your output isn't growing.

So design while you're fresh, and do the grunt work when you're tired.

And I find (have found) that I'm much more inclined to do the boring things when I've finally exhausted my curious/creative mental faculties.

Recognizing that a problem is hard enough that you shouldn't solve it tired is hard to do tired.

There's a ton of conflation going on in the article. Most importantly, what defines "productive work" versus just "output" is not defined. He seems to focus on "academic" work but doesn't define terms well.

I've written about this here before, in summary:

1) Work has a cost to the endeavor too. Even with salaried workers.

2) If what you're doing can be boiled down to time-and-motion studies, you can always make cases where longer hours yield more "output". BUT pushing even these types of work beyond marginally has been found to incur large ongoing cost the mission. This is backed by research that has been done many times since WWII with thousands of subjects.

3) Then, what software developers do is NOT amenable to time-and-motion studies. So even the marginal increases in time working has an even greater case of dubious value.

TL;DR: MS Paint [0]

[0] http://imgur.com/a/YrlD7

That graph doesn't reflect the gist of the comment you're replying to. It explicitly talks about negative productivity, not asymptotically zero output like the graph.

Your reasoning can be applied to a regular job: if I am tired I make more mistakes and every mistake has a cost. If the cost of mistakes made during the extra hours exceed the value of the job done, those extra hours didn't produce anything useful.

Even not taking into account mistakes, there is another important factor to consider: you need to recover energy from one day to another. The more you work the more you need to recover and less time you have to do it. If you don't, you will be less productive the following day.

I think that for this reason it is reasonable to say that there is a limit after which the productivity start to drop, though it probably depends on the individual and on a number of factors.

Is this really so? Perhaps in the long term 40-hour-a-week pickers pick more than 60-hour-a-week pickers in absolute terms simply because the extra recovery time helps them be fitter and have more energy.

Apple picking is like crunch time – or at least like crunch time should be – it's not a long-term activity: the time between apples ripening and the first frost ruining them is not long.

Semi-true; it depends how the extra 20 hours are spent for myself. I've had weeks where I program 60 hours or more and it's all spent well, and then the next week I might be a little more burnt out.. take it a little easier and then sprint again.

Which goes towards 60 hour weeks are not sustainable...

Which is a good reason not to work 60 hours regularly over the long term, but not a reason to never put in a 60 hour work week or even a few in a row.

Elsewhere, I've written how it may be better to switch between periods of very long hours and downtime rather than a steady pace:


I agree. This leads to burnout and it is not a pattern for a lengthy or successful career. I had to recently take time off in order to recharge from burnout... avoid getting to that point at all costs!

A have a couple friends who work dawn until dusk for their startup. After several months they struggled with depression and managing their work life. After a little over a year they've adjusted and it's just routine.

> After a little over a year they've adjusted

You mean they developed depression and gave up having a healthy work-life balance?

I can sympathize, as this recently provoked myself to take a vacation for my mental health to recover. I went to an island with horrible internet and phone service and disconnected.. this helped me restore the fragile work/life balance I require. ^

60 hours weeks aren't sustainable, but just look at teams during crunch weeks. They sure get a lot of work done.

Sometimes you've just got to put the hours and effort in to get the work done on time.

Now I quit very quickly after doing stupid hours a week. But I'd like to think the work produced was fine. Not that much different to a normal week. The work was all planned in detail, there weren't any big surprises, just lots of code to type in, lots of tests to write and run. I was just more tired.

How much of that extra work was because of the extra hours put in and how much was because people work harder when deadlines are close?

I was talking with a colleague the other day about "strategies for how to focus for 4 straight hours".

The one that works best for me is for the deadline to be 4 hours and 15 minutes away.

That's a popular adage: "I have a motivation problem until I have a time problem."

At my previous work, we attempted to find the correlation between faulty code and the time of commit in the version control. Most bugs were written after 14:00. (And no: we didn't check-in all code at the end of the day).

A fellow student of mine did a study back in 2005 about this. He found that the worst time to fix a bug was Friday afternoon, as it introduces the most (new) bugs into the code.

I see similarities to another area where I have more experience: business meetings. I believe that most people are terrible at meetings held in the afternoon, either due to heavy lunch, or just because it's after 3pm and they are simply tired. A single meeting like this can cause great damage to the individuals and whole teams, measured in intangibles such as motivation, trust, momentum.

Is there something peculiar around 14:00 beside lunch ?

> This is self-evidently true for many jobs. > E.g., if you pick apples for 40 hours, > then even if you only pick one apple per hour > after that, you will still pick more apples > working 50 hours than 40.

That logic presumes that the first 40 hours aren't affected by the additional hours. IIRC, one of the premises of the "sustainable pace" rule for Extreme Programming was that people know when they are being pushed to work a lot of hours and either consciously or unconsciously slow down at the outset (with the mind or body shifting out of a sprint-mode and into a marathon-mode).

It seems plausible that programming while tired doesn't do a whole lot of damage in itself (more than the usual amount of bugs), provided that you also write unit tests and do code review. This could include self-review: that is, don't check in while tired, and read it over the next morning.

On the other hand, the shortcuts people take while under deadline pressure seem more damaging, and people are more likely to work longer hours when under time pressure. And the cumulative effects of working while tired might result in worse results the next day, even if a single day doesn't do it.

But I'm just speculating. It would be interesting to see a study that tries to distinguish between these different effects.

> provided that you also write unit tests and do code review

Not necessarily. Imagine submitting a patch on 8 PM, when everyone has already been in the office for 10 hours. It has a glaring bug in a particular branch that's not covered by the unit tests in a way that coverage testing doesn't show, yet everyone is too tired to see that bug. Thus the patch gets greenlit and applied to production. Just as everyone is heading home to fall into bed, pagers start ringing because prod is on fire.

> It seems plausible that programming while tired doesn't do a whole lot of damage in itself (more than the usual amount of bugs)

I can tell you in embedded devices that simply isn't true.

In a lot of embedded programming, you can cause real damage--short out boards, crash equipment, etc.

If I have been at something for too many hours, I may simply stop. I will certainly stop if I recognize that I just did something really boneheaded and simple. That means that I'm likely to continue doing boneheaded things and cause real damage.

I doubt that the bugs provoked by tiredness have an aggregate of negative productivity.

And even if so, it can be mitigated. As a webdeveloper, when Im tired i do the most menial tasks which means that bugs introduced there are rare and not important.

What is a menial task in software development?

I mean, our entire field exist for pushing menial tasks into computers. If you have as many of them to fill 50% of your work load, there's probably something wrong.

Besides, are you sure bugs in menial tasks are not important? When did you judge those tasks to decide this?

So many: fleshing out test suites, setting up that build server, automating your documentation generation process, making that internal tool a bit more generic to be useful, fixing those warnings from that analysis tool, checking for performance regressions against the data from when you last did it 3 months ago, refactoring some of that code from 3 years ago for which there is now a more idiomatic way of doing it, issue tracker triaging, ... There is so much in software development that is menial yet isn't worth or can't be automated.

Just talking about the first item: you're asserting that first verifying your understanding of specifications, discovering then specifying currently implicit requirements of an in-production system, then automating your system's compliance with specs in a way that does not require changing the automation while specs remain constant but the system grows, is menial. At least to me, as a person who struggles even with math proofs, and is trying to figure out a robust way to discover features in complex systems (for example, to reverse engineer/port video games without access to the source), that is -very surprising-.

tasks.sort { |a,b| b.difficulty <=> a.difficulty }

Readable code FTW.

O(n logn + n)??? do you think computing power grows on trees?

Then use Perl. Perl has this weird feature where "reverse(sort(...))" gets optimized into a single op.

That is just his guess tho. He does not have study to confirm it nor appears to know what actually was done in studies he criticises nor their conclusions.

Studies found that crunch slows down only after few weeks of crunch and 40-50 hours a week had same product long term. He article implies different results.

OP here.

"Studies found that crunch slows down only after few weeks of crunch and 40-50 hours a week had same product long term" [citation needed]

Can people please stop claiming that "studies found..." without citations?

> even if you only pick one apple per hour after that, you will still pick more apples working 50 hours than 40.

How about your 2 week total? Or 52-week total?

If weeks 2-52 are one apple per hour, 50 hours per week, you've done less work in more time.

I love how things like the 40 hour work week with two days off get enshrined as some kind of natural phenomenon that has always been with us.

40 hours is an arbitrary number that came from trade unionists demanding fair hours and Robert Owen's slogan:

“Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

I mean those two things: 8 hour work day and 8 hours of sleep have been considered to be the biological/natural requirements, when the research isn't there for it at all.

The reality is, some people can work for 100 hours while others can only work for 20 hours per week without without losing productivity.

This is why I'm sick of this stupid trope that nobody should be working 80 hour weeks. Guess what, I want to, that's how my body works, why are you trying to stop me from doing that? When I was in the military I would work 12 hour days every day and my co-workers would complain because I was "making them look bad" that they only worked 8-10. What? Go home if you want.

The kind of person you are should push you into those types of roles - not the other way around. A 20 hour a week capable person isn't going to last very long in a 100 hour a week job, and they shouldn't be going out for it.

I think the major contention though is that you can't realistically succeed and live comfortably anymore as just a 40 hour a week person, because all of those jobs are gone. So inevitably 20 hour a week people, get put into 60 hour a week jobs and then say the whole system is screwed up (maybe it is, I dunno).

It's actually flawed because there are other things that need to be done in a week besides work, recreation, and rest. For example:

- eating: 12-15 hours/week

- making food (or travelling to get food): 7-10 hours/week

- showering, shaving, grooming: 4-7 hours/week

- laundry, cleaning, house chores: 2-4 hours/week

- commuting: 5-10 hours/week

- waiting in line (checkout lines, customer service reps, Comcast/DMV/insurance, etc.): 2-3 hours/week

And that's for me, and I'm single. If I had children, add to that:

- taking care of children: 15-20 hours/week

None of the above counts as work, rest, or recreation. If work stays at 8 hours, that leaves very little time for rest and recreation.

Cutting rest beyond that is physically unhealthy.

Cutting recreation beyond that is both mentally unhealthy AND physically unhealthy (I get all my exercise in my recreation time).

I believe those were accounted for in those times with the notion of a stay-at-home spouse (in reality, read: wife) who did most if not all of that non-job work; food purchase/prep, laundry, chores, children, etc.

Correct, which kind of begs the question, why have the work hours not gone down when society started employing both men and women?

Because households basically use all extra income to bid up the cost of real estate in neighborhoods with "better" schools. So if every household has both parents working, then no household is the better off for it. And single parent households are well and truly fucked.

Your estimate on time to take care of children is ridiculously low.

I was thinking the same. I don't have children, either, but observing my friends and siblings who do would make me estimate this at 40+ hours/week. (Estimate applies to children below age 6-8. Of course, it's progressively less the older and more independent the child grows.)

It's an exponential back-off kind of a thing. Our 6 month old probably requires 30 hours/week by himself (and that's already much reduced from what it was). Our 3 year old probably requires 10 hours/week. And our 4 year old maybe requires 3 hours per week.

The bigger issue is that this time is spread out pretty evenly throughout the day, so in practical terms it takes up every single hour that the kids are awake. What changes is that, as they get older, you have an increased ability to do other things in the in-between moments.

I easily put 30 hours a week in getting my 3 yr old dressed, to daycare, entertained while my wife makes dinner, and on weekends. My wife puts in similar time.

I guess we just live a different lifestyle. My wife is a full-time mom, so no daycare. The three year old dresses himself at this point, plus he and the four year old entertain each other pretty well.

I think there's also an element of once you have multiple children you just don't have any extra time. As a result, all the inessential time expenditures get cut. For instance, neither my wife nor I spend any time whatsoever entertaining our children. We don't have the time and they can entertain themselves.

100% agree -- made a small free time calculator along these lines awhile back [1]

[1] - http://www.datadriventhoughts.com/2016/09/27/how-much-free-t...

Right, it was a completely different world when the 40 hour work week was proposed and people were pretty interchangeable in the industrializing shift.

The issue is that a normalized office environment will demand or imply that all workers work the same number of hours. The suggestion that you can consistently work 80 hours a week might be viable for you, but what about those who only get 20 hours before their productivity craters? What should you, or that person, do in the normalized 40-hour environment?

And what if the 20 hour worker produces more than you in 80 hours? For many environments, pay is by hour because that's the easiest thing to measure. Or it's per annum (salary) and it's supposed to track some loose or arbitrary or indirect metric.

If you shake loose the norms of a 40 hour work week, you have an awful lot of reconciliation to deal with before we efficiently extract the optimal and earnest amount of labor from all workers and compensate them appropriately with respect to their output and not their hours.

If you shake loose the norms of a 40 hour work week, you have an awful lot of reconciliation to deal with...."

Yes agreed.

The point is that people should be given roles and responsibilities commensurate with their personality type and then given the flexibility to execute their job as they see fit.

"Why doesn't every sports team just get good players and have those players play consistently well?"

As usual, the difficult part is among the details.

Guess what, I want to [work 80 hours], that's how my body works, why are you trying to stop me from doing that?

No one's going to "stop" you. We're just not going to believe you when you say that's how many hours you work.

Elon Musk says entrepreneurs should work 80-100 hours a week.


Where can I find this research showing the health of these 100 hour persons?

Not reasearch but still relevant: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-39981997

No research on sleep requirements ? are you serious ?

Have you been sleep deprived ? There's a clear limit under which you're useless. For an extreme instance, I lost sleep for 5 days and went borderline insane.

Maybe 6h of sleep is adequate but saying 8 is arbitrary bulls$t is... exactly that.

Can you elaborate on what you believe to be the reasons you're able to work productively for 12 hours a day? I'd love to have that superpower.

Couldn't tell you for certain. Probably some combination of genetics and intense training, with previous periods of long sustained critical work.

Often I find I compare whatever my current situation I'm in, with previous tough situations I've dealt with, and know that if I made it through those, then my current situation is tractable.

On multiple occasions in a previous life I've worked multiple 24-36 straight hours doing intense cognitive and physically intensive work for multiple crises in Korea, Iraq and other wartime places. So that's a good benchmark to compare to.

I suspect having peoples lives in your hands is a different kind of pressure than pleasing your manager

Right, everything else is trivial in comparison. As a result, working an extra few hours on some Python is just a great thing to be able to get paid for.

The secret according to my business professor who was an electrical engineer, a sniper in the military, and started a multimillion dollar PE firm, and sleeps <6 hours every night: eat more.

I honestly think most programmers do best with about 10 hours of actual coding a week.

You must have no life, and no outside interests.

And yes, I've succeeded just fine on less than 40 hour weeks throughout my career. The obsession with stupidly long hours doesn't extend much into Europe, or Australia.

I mean seriously, by the time you add in a half hour for lunch and a half hour each way for travel, 80 hours translates to over 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, working.

That's not a life.

I wonder how they got this curve. A lot of things can be sustained for 1 week cannot be sustained in the long term. I'd say in the long term:

* 140-168 hours/week --> almost certain death.

* 100-140 hours/week --> at risk of cardiovascular disease and many other serious medical conditions. Possible early death.

* 80-100 hours/week --> still super-bad for your body. Forget raising children, dating, getting married, or even making friends. You won't have time for any of those. Expect clinical depression.

* 60-80 hours/week --> you might be able to have meals with friends but forget having a life, hobbies, or anything outside of work. Expect depression and overall culture of unhappiness.

* 50-60 hours/week --> sustainable but not really fun. You can't join family or friends for dinner. Expect talented employees to leave because they'll find something that they enjoy more than being in your company.

* 40-50 hours --> reasonable level for long-term sustainability and retention

I'm curious what you consider "work" when thinking about these numbers. Do you also consider chores, exercise, side projects/hobbies, etc to be work, or are you strictly referring to work for an employer? Do your numbers only apply to situations where people don't enjoy their jobs? If it's the weekend and I want to explore a cool work-related idea I had, does that count as work according to your numbers?

I'm considering "work" to be related to things you have contractual or financial obligations to, i.e. your primary employment or company that you own. Work that you enjoy doing still counts as "work" if you have obligations to customers, bosses, employees, investors, or anyone.

I consider "recreation" to be things that you are doing because you want to, and do not have obligations to do (of any kind, including but not limited to contractual, health, etc.).

I consider side projects (real side projects, not 20% projects) to be recreation. You're allowed to rest when you're tired, you're allowed to procastinate, you're allowed to take breaks whenever and however long you want, you're allowed to take your laptop to the beach, you're allowed to abandon them, change them, and do as you please with them. This kind of mental freedom is very, very important to qualitatively count as recreation.

If side projects evolve into a contractual obligation, then it becomes work by my book.

Exercise counts as recreation if you're doing it because you want to. It doesn't count as recreation if your work makes you do it (i.e. move boxes in a warehouse). It doesn't count if you're working 100 hours a week and spend 5 of those hours exercising in the office gym out of necessity for your health because you couldn't find time to exercise in a way that you find fun.

I hike for exercise. I hike because I want to, and nobody makes me do it. That counts as recreation.

What about these?

* 30-40 hours

* 20-30 hours

I think it depends on the nature of the job and whether or not I "own" my work.

If I "own" my work in some capacity, e.g. a freelancer, a co-founder, getting public recognition for my work, getting to publish papers in my name, getting to talk about my work in public, get the chance to open-source my work, then I'm happy working more.

If I work for somebody else, or some big boss always takes the recognition for my work, as is often the case in some large companies, then I'd probably be much happier on the <40 side so I have time to learn and build things that are truly my own, outside of work.

I think 20-40 might be a sweet spot for certain fields where creativity drives money. In those cases, rest and recreation time are paramount to work productivity.

We only question hours/week > 40. It's edgy and cool. Past that, you are looked upon as a sluggard or kook.

If this is your perception of an hourly break down, that's fine. But just because you think working 100 hours a week results in "Possible early death" doesn't mean it's like that for other people.

For example, in your chart, I'm currently in the 60-80 hour a week range, split between a full time job and a side hustle. Personally, I've never been happier, I have a life outside of work, a beautiful girlfriend, time to meet with friends, etc.

It's just, I don't spend 5+ hours a day when i get home from work watching Netflix or fucking around on the weekends. Don't equate hustling with depression, unless you're just looking for an excuse to justify why you don't want to work harder.

Yes, but they are attempting to describe what happens to a population (i.e. in general terms). You claim to be an ubermensch, yet don't seem to grasps how distributions work.

Your side project does not count. You are working 40 hours a week, which makes your high horse comment about watching Netflix and not wanting to work harder sound pretty bad.

It's very easy to work on a side project, or side hustle, or whatever you want to call it. I don't doubt that you're happier. Making things yourself is fulfilling and fun. But that is your free time & your social life. That is your choice, not your day job. You are misunderstanding what the 40 hours per week concept is all about.

The parent comment is correct; working 100 hours a week for someone else, for extended periods, is possible early death. That's not an exaggeration, it will compromise a person's health if done for long periods of time. It is definitely like that for many, many people. Have you ever worked more than 40 for a single job? How about 60/80/100 for longer than a week? Do you know what 100 hours at one job feels like?

If you have a life outside of your job and 20-40 hrs/wk side project, with time to meet friends, you might be working less than you think. A real 80 hour week is hard to maintain without any social life, it's enough time for meals an maybe an hour of social or alone time per day, and not much else. 80 hours/week is 11.5 hours per day, 7 days a week, on average, sustained. Factor in eating, sleeping, bathing and travel to & from work, and you have maybe 10 hours left. If you exercise, you're probably down to 5 hours of free time for the week. If you try to drive anywhere in those 5 hours, you'll run out of time before you get there, activities very close to home are the only sane option. At 100 hours a week, you only have time to work, eat, and sleep, there is physically no time left for anything else.

An employer of mine measured how many hours people worked during crunch, and found that almost everyone in the studio overestimated their own hours. I overestimated my own hours, and I've worked a real 80 hours a week multiple times before. It's not fun, and I did not have time for a social life. It's not maintainable for long periods, at 80 hours a week you're trading your entire life for your salary, it's not a good deal.

Agree with dahart. Among the things I typically do on nights and weekends:

- Travel to national parks and state parks. Exercise during the day, do photography at sunrise, sunset, and at night

- Build funny robots at home that don't do anything useful but I learn a lot from. Through that I have also gained some ideas for potentially useful robots that I might hack at later that are orthogonal to the robots I'm working on for work

- About 4 software projects I have going, not intending to commercialize, but maybe release into FOSS if they materialize into something useful

- Learn to cook new dishes, especially healthy ones, so I can eat less unhealthy crap outside. Visit farmer's markets to get better-quality ingredients and support local economy

- Practice piano. Occasionally perform locally at meetups and things

- Review things that I spent years learning during my undergrad and PhD that I wish to not forget, for the sake of my future (e.g. quantum mechanics, quantum computing, quantum communication, signal processing, CS). Occasionally re-take past final exams or homework assignments to make sure I don't lose my skills.

- Learn new stuff online, watch lectures, read recent academic papers.

I don't have time for Netflix, and don't have too much time to socialize without purpose (although some of the above things I do with friends).

We need to delineate manual, low-effort work from mental exercise. I can perform manual work virtually unendingly, but have a very finite ability to do mental exercises before mental exhaustion or simple boredom/distraction undermines the work. Individuals will differ, but data for manual work has no application to research, software development, etc.

Having said that, there is shockingly little research or proof for any position, and if there was it can never be generalized to all people.

Any creative work does not follow a timeline. Butt in the seat means nothing. In fact, the opposite -- the more relaxed and freeing the structure of work, the better the output.

Yes, I've thought the same thing. Wasn't 40 hours mainly about factories and coal mines --- though 40 hours in a mine would also be exhausting. But I think you meant something like a barista.

To my bosses and other non-programmers, I try to describe programming as doing math problems all day. I wonder what the history of hours is for clerks, architects, and other jobs more like ours.

I feel like I would be less tired if I just worked trouble tickets all day. Actually, writing a program too would be easier if that's all I did. Instead, I switch among writing a few different programs, working tickets, and the normal bureaucracy of emails, meetings, required training, etc.

Being a barista can be exhausting at fast-paced place. Not as hard or deadly as coal mining, of course.

I work with architects. They work as much as they want to but are paid salary. The minority walk out of the office after their 8 hours is up but many work late into the night and on weekends. They say it's their "industry standard" but, from my observations, it's a) lack of boundaries and b) poor project/time management.

Not to mention the amount of time studying to take their many exams to become licensed.

> the point of productivity inflection is just about 40 hours per week

To me, that does seem to support the claim “research shows that 40 hours per week is the best”. I don't know who's claiming that overall output goes down the minute you hit 40, that's obviously exaggerated, so why take it so seriously? There's strong evidence that productivity starts to decline somewhere around 40ish, and it obviously varies by individual and situation.

I think the more common, and more correct claim is that 40-ish is optimal, rather than anything above 40 is a negative return.

That bit of data he referenced is for munitions workers doing a low-skill monotonous job - easy to measure productivity. Who would expect to produce solid high quality thought output for 40 or 50 hours a week? I'd be surprised if most academics & programers managed more than 15 hours of conceptual work in a week, the rest we fill with coffee & lunch, browsing the web, talking to people, and loads of other stuff that doesn't require much thinking.

The author's completely right about many of his points; this just isn't clearly defined or unambiguously supported by data. There are obviously some people out there rationalizing and mis-presenting the evidence in favor of a 40 hour work week. As with all studies, there are people who summarize incorrectly and decide that weak evidence justifies a hard line decision. But why get twisted over the worst arguments? Let's discuss the strongest arguments instead.

Do we need data to support the idea that 8 hours is enough? Productivity is only a tiny part of the equation, so this debate is academic. Why are we obsessing over unmeasurable productivity and ignoring labor & poverty issues? Do you need data to prove that when you work 12 hours a day, you physically can't have much life outside of work? The idea of an 8 hour work day is meant to work for everyone. It's guaranteed to be conservative, because it has to be good enough for teenagers as well as people near retirement, for single people as well as parents, for everyone.


1. Go read the linked article: http://ftp.iza.org/dp8129.pdf

2. It's about munition line workers in 1920 UK during the war.

3. The blog post claims generality based on this.

I think the real problem is presentialism – people would likely contribute more if they are provided with the flexibility of working according to their body rhythms. Each human peaks at different hours of the day. And being in the knowledge economy, it makes more sense to access these spikes of output by providing flexibility.

40 or 50 or 60 hours, i believe that if we could just eliminate the presentialism from our work life, build more trust with each other about being honest with our work – i think the whole research into how many hours we need to work will not even pop up. Everyone would be happy contributing their share of work in return for a paycheck.

This essay and most of the comments saying, "of course more work time yields more work completed" ignore the fact that there is no magic reset to full productivity Monday morning.

If you work every hour of week 1, your output of week 2 will be drastically reduced. There is therefore some optimal balance between work time and recovery time. It may be 40 hours, or 20, or 80. It probably varies between tasks and individuals and situations.

Just don't fall into the trap of thinking that spending more time working is necessarily going to be more effective.

Sometimes the best thing you can do to get the job done is to stop working on it for a while.

> Sometimes the best thing you can do to get the job done is to stop working on it for a while.

This. I like to have several side projects at once so I can switch to another one when I'm stuck on the current one.

On the downside, this procedure made me question if I can actually work as a programmer professionally, where I don't have the liberty to just leave any task assigned to me lying around for a week (or a month). It worked out nicely, though, since I found that I can get my train of thought unstuck by discussing the problem with a colleague.

Article is focused on the academic world so doesn't talk about interruptions, meetings, and quiet time.

If you work in an open-plan office the 10 hours you do at night, at home, and on the wkend can be the most productive.

I've had months where I put out more real fires on a kayak, on vacation, than at my desk; people bother you when you're at a desk but they can't get to you on the water.

All these things happen in academia. Nowadays, many people regularly work from home for the quiet (I do 1 day a week from home).

Academia isn't exempt from those things. A professor (PI) is as much a manager as anything.

We work a 9/80 flex schedule. 44 hours one week, ,then 36 hours the next with Friday off. So every other weekend we have a 3 day weekend, or 4 if there is a holiday on Monday. Works great, moral increases, productivity increases. Its a win, win.

One point I'll agree with is that a lot of times, people use the argument that working 40 hours a week is actually the most efficient to mask their real argument, which is socially unacceptable in today's business climate (particulary tech):

People ought to have more to their lives than their jobs, and working 50, 60, or more hours a week makes that difficult.

Personally, even if people had inexhaustible energy, I still would think it would be wrong to spend more than a third of your day at work. It so happens that it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint to, but I want people working under me to be able to have hobbies, families, and something other than their career.

Which says to me that the game development culture of "work 80 hours per week for months on end" is largely about incompetent management, and/or deliberate abuse. It's not about getting things done.

I think you may have misunderstood the article - if anything this is an argument for death marches.

I wonder if the author being a student pushing for a European PhD[1] warps his thinking about this. With a PhD all the reward is at the end. You either make or break. None of the work you do has any tangible results outside of the end goal.

Most work isn't like that. The rewards are continuous and ongoing. Meaning every task has captured value. If a loan officer closes 19 loans this month instead of 20, productivity is down 5%. BFD. Vs PhD student, complete 19 out of 20 required classes, no PhD. You totally wasted a couple of years of your life.

[1] Europeans historically are way more creditialist than Americans. Learning something isn't very helpful unless there is a credential to go along with it.

> None of the work you do has any tangible results outside of the end goal.

Depends on the field. From what I hear [citation needed], what you describe generally holds true in the humanities.

In contrast, I have two friends who're submitting their PhD theses around now, and they already have a ton of tangible results: They're required to publish papers during the research period for their thesis. They got to speak at conferences because of their published findings. They collaborated with other researchers whom they met at these conferences. And that, again, fed back into more papers and a better thesis. Even if they didn't get their PhD (which I'm sure they will), they still have made a name for themselves in their respective fields.

I have a PhD already (from an US institution), but there are elements that are pretty specific to academic research: it's fairly competitive (and wins are not that constant) and it's very individualized. It's also one where we have almost complete control of our time. It's more like being a freelancer, albeit with a fixed salary in an often bureaucratic environment.

I agree with you 100% that most work is not like that at all.

(Btw, most PhDs in Europe do not have required classes or, if they do, they tend to be pretty easy; it's the research component that's hard)

I think it's largely a loyalty and fealty signaling mechanism. Even though you are not achieving anything more, you are signaling your dedication to them by sacrificing leisure time.

During WW2, the government wanted to increase production, so did some studies. They found that a 60 hr week boosted production for a couple weeks, but then it fell below what was produced by a 40 hr week.

The solution to a sustained increase in output was to do 60 hr weeks in bursts, not continuously.

"In bursts" as in "40 hours with the occasional 60-hour week" or "60-hour weeks with weeks off in between"?

the former

"If you are managing as a group, go for the average"

This is a point I strongly disagree with. Just the way some people need fewer hours of sleep than others OR some people can run further than others. I have found that people have vastly different ability to focus and personal drive.

Orienting around averages is a terrible way to develop a team and people. It also demotivates people that want to work harder and they end up leaving. Instead of setting an average, create an environment where people can push harder if they want to AND get incremental rewards.

OP here.

I agree and my phrasing may not have been exact. I meant that if you need to pick a number for a whole group of people, then you look at the average.

This can be in the context of industrial production where you have thousands of workers and are forced to have fixed shifts (because you cannot run the assembly line without all the stations filled).

Or, in more modern example, a public sector bureaucracy where you cannot be very flexible as these things are negotiated with a union as whole.

A bit surprised not to see a reference to Henry Ford. I thought he was the father of the 40 hour work week? He did include in his thinking the idea that more leisure time would allow workers more time to enjoy his cars, but IIRC the basis of the change was not social, but productivity, and based on his own studies.

The 40-hour workweek was conceived of and fought for by many socialists and labor activists over many years. What can be said for Ford is that they instituted it without being forced to (by strike or law), but it was nearly 50 years after it had been instituted for federal employees (and 2 years after it was a part of FDR's platform.)


I wonder which had the biggest effect on its widespread adoption, Ford on the unions. I'm sure I read that once Ford did it, it became almost fasionable in the factory owning classes!

As an interesting remark, I still find myself quite productive working 50 hours a week thanks to context switches from working in 2 different languages at my jobs (node and python), and in different areas (data engineering and backend)

I think the key thing for me is that maybe I produce more one week, but working 60+ hours is going to make me useless the following week.

When I read the title, I thought: if there's no evidence that people produce more when working 40 hours, why would we work 40 hours? Let's work less!

I didn't expect anyone to argue for working more than 40 hours. But then again, I don't live in the US.

Ability to perform is in part a function of age which the article leaves out completely. 40h/week is doable for most but there are plenty of posts by more experienced developers here who have said they strictly limit hours or report that when they were younger they were able to perform longer.

There is also the question of sustainability. Not only health wise but also the social system around one gets impacted imho. somewhere beyond 45-50h. More work directed output may well be possible but at the cost of weakening the support system and with that increased risk in times of crisis.

I'm willing to discuss this more in depth with the author once he's got a few grey hairs.


That encourages bad behavior and ultimately decreases productivity.

Does this include side projects? ie if you work 10 hours/week on a side project you shouldn't work more than 30 in your job.

Maybe employers should be able to ban side projects for this reason.

Given the source of employment law is the masters and servants act I think you might find that employers can veto outside work certainly getting permission for out side work is often required by contract.

Maybe if you don't want any good employees

The question is how long you can maintain a pace (hours worked) before that pace begins to impact performance. Usain Bolt can't run his 100m pace for the duration of a 400m race.

The study I have seen claimed that 40-50 hours long term have same output and then it goes down.

The studies on game development teams found that crunch raise productivity of short (don't recall if 3 or 6 weeks) and productivity goes down only after.

This article does not seem to adress concrete studies nor their results - it just generally theorise about what might be wrong about them without knowing what is on them.

OP here.

Do you have a citation? The post is mostly to address this constant claims that 40 hours is proven by science and no convincing citations are provided.

I am also writing in the context of self-managing knowledge workers who can manage their own time. I explicitly write that the flexibility we have may mitigate many of the downsides observed in mandated long hours. For example, I do work >40 hours, but I rarely have to wake up with an alarm clock. I can follow the occasional 16 hour day with a 10 hour sleep cycle and stroll into work at lunch time the next day feeling pretty relaxed.

What a strange article, his first issue: "I am happy to be contradicted with data, but too often I see this issue being discussed with links to web articles citing other web articles, finally citing studies which suffer from the issues listed below. Maximum output at work is traded off" while he him self does not cite a single scientific article

I do cite one study, but burden of proof of producing citations is on people claiming that "science shows". I never claim that.

In fact, I found few scientific articles on the subject and the few that I did find were not relevant (for some of the reasons in the text).

Productivity is the greatest source of waste.

At my last job I probably did 20 hours of work a week due to the awful environment. I started burning out from frustration. I'm not convinced the number of hours is as important as the suitability of the environment.

No one seems to have mentioned the value of the work done. Like market value or impact. The quantity of work is kind of a distraction, and focusing on it implicitly says that presentalism is ok. Which is not true.

I think we should be looking at efficiency. If we can find a way to maximize the tradeoff between productivity and hours worked it would greatly benefit employers and employees.

i think the author did a pretty good job at looking at the tradeoffs.

in a lot of ways, some businesses are already trying to take advantage of both options by using a mix of contractors/consultants and full time employees.

I guess my opinion is that we should all be working less and earning a living wage. I feel that's the trend that must happen with all the automation taking place. And welcome UBI.

The author addresses that and suggests that 40 hours is generally the right number there - productivity on a units per hour basis is maximized. For salaried employees though employers rationally care more about units per week, which continues to increase as hours per week go to 50 and beyond. Of course this is all research of factory work, so its application to software development is questionable.

Obviously the more you work the you produce. From his graph the best productivity is less than 40 hours but he thinks 40 is a good trade off between production and productivity. I disagree. In my ideal world we would be working less and still earning a good wage. I hope to see that in my lifetime but probably unlikely.

> Obviously the more you work the you produce.

That's not so obvious in software development, where mistakes from yesterday or 5 years ago can mire you in unproductive work for hours or days.

But then I look at lines of code not as value produced but as a resource spent.

yes, and i would like to see people thinking of efficiency in terms where hours not worked are considered a good. putting it in overly simplistic terms, if someone has a better time not working than the sum of (them working + people consuming their product) then they shouldn't work.

My goal in life is to automate myself so I can spend more time at the beach.

that would be great, but many employers would just use that as a reason to pay employees less, or not give them benefits.

Yeah that's the problem. Potential solution is universal basic income.

40 hours is good for me for "you must do work" but lots of times when I'm working on projects I find interesting I'm just inspired to work on the project.

On a phone so I can't really crunch the raw data, but looking at that chart example, Is the difference between 48 hours and 60 statistically significant?

This title is very odd, I suggest an edit: Research is unable to prove that working more than 40 hours a week increases productivity.

Yes, coming from the UK, where my hours in academia were 37.5/week, I was surprised to learn (from my incorrect interpretation of the title) that those 2.5 hours/week I work here in the US were pointless.

I had one boss who had worked in the valley and the uk he said he got no more work out of the USA teams who worked longer hours and much less leave than he did in the UK where we where on civil service terms

40 hours per week is detrimental to the health as well, especially if you don't take breaks where you exercise vigorously. I've seen research that showed a 4% reduction in lifespan for people that worked 45 hours versus 40. I'll look for it and be back with more details.

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