How Many Hours Should You Be Working?

Over at, I have a piece on where the point of diminishing returns comes with work. Clearly working 1 hour per week is not enough to do a bang-up job in most lines of work, and working 168 hours (the total number of hours in a week) isn’t going to fly either. Such a sleep-deprived person would be non-functional, not to mention smelly, due to a lack of showering. The optimal point must be somewhere between those two, where previous hours help productivity a lot, and additional hours don’t help much. So where is that point?

I throw out a few ideas for Fortune readers, including some from the study of Italian CEOs I wrote about here a few weeks ago, and some thoughts from the head of a 65-person consulting firm, who says she works almost exactly 40 hours a week. It was still enough to double her revenue from 2009 to 2010!

I have been trying to figure out where the point of diminishing returns is for me. Like Melissa Gerstein, the Moms and the City producer I quote in the Fortune piece, I do worry I’m below it. There is always more outreach I could be doing to promote my books and this blog, not to mention articles I could be pitching and writing, speeches I could be drumming up and so forth. I could be doing more writing, but also the “inefficient” networking that fills the pipeline — not to mention reading other people’s stuff to improve my own writing! I am always working on being better about planning my workdays so those hours are used well. I know I spend too much time on email, so it’s an ongoing challenge. I think my point of diminishing returns is about 50 hours per week, and I’m working closer to 45 on a good week. But I take comfort from time use surveys knowing that many people claiming 60-hour workweeks are working closer to the 45 I am anyway. So when you take the bragging out, 45 hours is a pretty good week.

How many hours do you work per week? Where is your point of diminishing returns?

(photo courtesy flickr user Earls37a)



5 thoughts on “How Many Hours Should You Be Working?

  1. I talked to a very successful guy who never opens email — his assistant opens all his email… clearly he might be exagerating but the idea is great… I have two kids under 3 and I have no desire to myself work more than 45 hours a week but I would like to see the time log of that person who doubled revenue on 40 hours a week.. and i have no problem creating enough work for others to work 45 hours more a week, just not me!

    1. @Cara- agreed, dealing with and prioritizing email can be a huge time suck. I think very successful people have often figured out a way to get others to help with this.

  2. I was working a 30 hour/3 day week as I wanted to prioritise my family, especially while the kids are young, and I had really had enough of the 60+ hours of work/zero social life hamster wheel! I can honestly say that it made me work a lot smarter (and faster) as I was keen to get home to the kids which meant that I actually still got the same amount done if not more/better delivered. Not many colleagues/clients considered me to be part-time which meant I was included in any opportunities that arose (occasionally this was a problem when they expected me to be around but not often as I was very clear). When I return to work in September after a year off to study, I am sure that 3 days will be my maximum before dimishing returns! I need family time and most importantly, me time, in order to be at my best, at work or otherwise.

    BTW – the CEO above most definitely has an assistant (or two) reading her e-mails and prioritising her to dos to a certain extent, I have no doubt. Once you go beyond 100 e-mails (at work alone) a day, you can’t keep up with it all as well as do the rest of your job. SO, if you expect to be able to, don’t be too hard on yourself…one trick I heard from someone was that he used an autofilter – anything he was cc’d on, went straight into archive! (He did tell everyone beforehand that he wouldn’t read a cc’d e-mail – it worked for him so you never know!).

    1. @Tip- I definitely think having someone else read your emails could save a ton of time. The problem for many of us is email is so addictive! There’s something psychologically pleasant about it, like unwrapping a Christmas present every time you see an unopened message.

  3. I do think you have to be careful about someone else reading all your emails especially if they pertain to an important deal — I do find that some very powerful people are only reachable via email, if you call them you only get the assistant. The challenge is to go through the email maybe not in the morning before you do your first one or two big things and then skim through it to get to anything important. I also think educating your own people (especially those under 30) that sometimes a phone call is more efficient. I give more attention to the client who calls me and then sends an email then to folks who blindly send email. I find the younger set thinks that only email or only text is OK and the phone is not dead; nor is the in person meeting. I never read that book don’t check your email in the morning but would like to. I also like this woman’s point about down time, a social life etc. If you work more than 40 hours a week and you have kids, especially kids younger than say 9 who really do still want to spend time with you, you have to be careful about work but also other things like shopping or cleaning that can become such a time suck that you don’t read magazines or browse at the book store or get your nails done or whatever that makes you a human being. I find I even have to start scheduling my down time, and sometimes that means, a pedicure or going to a romantic comedy movie like a chic flic by myself etc. But it is very hard b/c you can always work more and your kids are hard to put to the side.

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