Over at Wandering Scientist about two years ago, the blogger known as Cloud posted a graph highlighting a fascinating little observation about productivity. Charting her hours at her desk/office against actual hours worked, and also against actual work produced, she found that her optimal work week was around 45 hours. At 45 hours in her office, she produced pretty close to 45 hours worth of work. At 50 hours, however, she was only working — defined as being anything close to on-task — for 47 of those, and producing the equivalent of 45 hours of work. At 55 hours, she was still working for only 47 hours, and she was down to about 41 hours of usable stuff as she made mistakes and had to discard things.
In other words, those last 10 hours worked were not only wasted, which would stink in terms of personal opportunity cost. They actually destroyed value for her organization. Working past her work limit was a big mistake.
I thought it was an interesting idea at the time, so I was happy to see Cloud elaborate more on her work limit concept in an ebook that’s out today (under the less bloggy name M.R. Nelson) called Taming the Work Week. In it, Nelson describes her strategies, as a project manager in biotech, for keeping both her work week and her team members’ work weeks, under control. That’s not just because she wants to be a good boss — though I’m sure she does — it’s just that she’d rather get 45 hours of work per week out of her team than 41 hours. And if keeping them at the office 55 hours means she gets 41 hours, and keeping them there 45 hours means she gets 45 hours, well, it’s clear which one is better.
She advocates keeping track of your time, and figuring out ways to keep making progress even if you don’t feel motivated on a project. It goes without saying that if you want to produce 40-45 hours of work in 45 hours, you need to spend the lion’s share of your time on task, rather than surfing the web and feeling sorry for yourself. That doesn’t mean you can’t take breaks — breaks are productive and count as work! — but take conscious breaks, rather than losing an hour to reading something you didn’t mean to read. Nelson, for instance, enjoys tea time many afternoons.
She also, interestingly, doesn’t leave a bit early if she’s finished her major tasks for the day. She could walk out, but part of getting a lot done in 40-45 hours per week is to consistently work 40-45 hours per week, even if a week’s load is on the light side. Instead, she picks a 15-minute task or two from her list of future tasks, and knocks some of them off. “Getting these little tasks done before they become urgent means that I can usually find some longer increments of time during the day in which to tackle my larger tasks,” she writes. “I’ve learned that if I let the little things slide, they inevitably pop up as emergencies when I can least afford the time to handle them.”
I’ve tracked my time for many weeks over the past few years, and have found that 45 hours per week is pretty much my happy space, too. I have worked more — the week I logged for the “Mind Your Hours” week of the #SuccessAtWork challenge was 56 hours — but I often have trouble focusing the next week after a week like that. I have worked less, too. I have three little kids, and they get sick, or I take on personal projects like running a marathon. I don’t miss deadlines on things I’ve committed to. But I do find myself under-investing in the soft side of work: sending emails to reconnect with people, taking a phone call that might lead to something later on. For me, 45 hours per week is a pretty good balance. If I sleep 8 hours per night (56 per week), that leaves 67 hours for other things: runs, reading One Morning in Maine several times, reading Night of the Moonjellies several other times, dandelions, hugs, etc.
What’s your work limit?
In other news:
The paperback of All the Money in the World will be out a week from today! This updated version of the book also contains, as bonus material, the first ever print version of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. Thanks for checking it out!
If you are looking for the 168 hours time log, it’s here.
Photo courtesy flickr user thecrazyfilmgirl