Can you really spend just 20 hours a week on core production?

I’ve been writing about how to construct the perfect 40-hour workweek. (Key line: create a career that’s on fire without you getting burned out!). I was even quoted in a WSJ article this week on companies that are enforcing a firm 40-hour workweek.

Any job has the “stuff” of the work, and the soft side. The soft side includes building connections, investing in your career capital, pitching future work, learning new skills, planning and strategizing, etc. Since the “stuff” of a job looks like work and is usually there in copious quantities, it is always tempting to under-invest in the soft side of a job. The downside of this, though, is that the soft side is what compels a career forward, allows you to transition into a different job if you choose, and helps you become a thought leader. If you spend too many hours on core production, you will face a choice of under-investing in these things, or working long hours in order to give them adequate space. Both are options. I’ve worked a fair number of 50+ hour weeks in my life (real time log hours, not estimated hours). I think that working longer hours is probably necessary when you’re on the front end of your career. However, I do think mid-career folks can do a lot of core production in 20 hours (or 25 — my rubric leaves 5 hours of open space, so there’s wiggle room here).

How do you get there? One way is continuing to spend hours on the skill-building category. The more I write, the faster I get at writing. I’ve written well over 1000 blog posts here, which has the spill-over benefit of helping me organize thoughts for my paid blogging gigs quickly. Those blogging gigs feed on themselves too. Between CBS MoneyWatch (formerly BNET) from fall 2010 to summer 2013, and then Fast Company between summer 2013 to the present, I’ve likely written 500 career, leadership, and productivity-related posts. The first one took longer than the 500th, but wasn’t as good. Book writing also gets faster and easier. If I had one book in me, I might believe book writing could consume all oxygen for a decade. But given that my business model involves writing another one every 18 months to 2 years, I believe it is a skill like any other. You get more efficient with time and practice. This truth holds for people in many lines of work, whether free agent or conventional.

You can be strategic about your core production hours. Plan them out to do your hardest work at your most productive time (8 a.m to noon for most people). Be ruthless about distractions. I don’t even realize how often I’m checking email. Then one day, recently, I had a wretched tech problem that involved me needing to reset the whole system to get the internet back on, and then it would go out again after 5 minutes. So I had to plan out which emails had to get sent in that precious 5 minutes, and there was no idle web surfing.

It was an incredibly productive day! I felt unproductive because I was somewhat bored. But I got a lot of stuff written when I couldn’t cruise over to my inbox to delete Nordstrom ads.

Other ideas for conventionally employed people: train others to do some of your tasks. For instance, it doesn’t make sense for licensed, experienced teachers to be grading most worksheets; automating this (via technology) or else hiring graders to report back the results would free up teachers to dream up better lessons and share best practices.

Another way to limit core hours is to raise rates. The free agents I most admire often set their rates to bill far fewer than 40 hours per week. It’s a much more pleasant life to bill $100/hour for 20 hours than $50/hour for 40 hours! To be sure, you need to get there, but that’s another argument for continuing to invest in the soft side of the job — both visibility and skill set. I’m getting more speaking gigs as people find me because they’ve read my books. Some chunk of speaking also now comes from referrals from people who’ve seen me before and thought I was reasonably entertaining. Getting comfortable on stage comes from practicing a lot. I practice my speeches in my car. I practice them in front of the mirror at home. That’s not core production, but it needs to happen.

If you’re in certain lines of work, you can limit core production hours by coming up with revenue streams that don’t require you to invest many additional hours. Some people sell courses or other stuff that’s automated.

Do some combo of these and I do think it’s possible to free up some space from core production in many jobs. But whether you free up space or not, if you’re in it for the long haul, it’s important not to skimp on the other stuff. Savvy types don’t. From time to time, I hear someone talk about how he/she has managed to build an amazing empire in 20 hours a week. Almost universally, this person isn’t counting the soft side of the job in this 20 hours — but it truly is work. Just because it’s often fun, and interesting, doesn’t mean it isn’t, and doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the equivalent of 3 hours/day.

In other news: I’m speaking at Chicago Ideas Week! I’ll be doing an “Edison Talk” tomorrow, Friday October 16. I’m up in the mid-afternoon segment, somewhere between 3 and 4:30-ish Central Time. The livestream coverage can be seen here.

18 thoughts on “Can you really spend just 20 hours a week on core production?

  1. Do you have a travel schedule you’d be willing to share? I’d love to see you present if you were traveling near the Midwest.

  2. Agreed on the practicing! I don’t write books, but regular blogging over the years has helped me to become a faster and better writer.

    Also, lots of years of blogging has also helped me become quicker at uploading photos, tweaking post formatting, and doing blog maintenance stuff.

    1. @Kristen – there’s also the efficiency of figuring out what will make a good blog post. I like to think I’ve gotten better at that too, and that comes from doing lots of them and seeing what works…

    1. @Jana – I don’t know – interesting question. I’d be interested in doing a time diary study of SAH parents in general. I think there isn’t a whole lot on how the time is allocated.

    1. @Emma – interesting. I have interviewed teachers in districts that have made it work, particularly as a way to up the volume of writing students do, so there must be some workaround.

        1. That’s so strange – I’ve been hired many times as a TA for universities and I’ve done piles and piles of grading as part of the role (sometime as the main part) – friends have been in the same position. Privacy laws must vary from place to place.

  3. This is so interesting. I don’t know what part of my work week is spent on “production” on average—some weeks more than others, I’m sure. This week was probably 95% production, trying to meet a deadline. Maybe I’ll time track with color codes for “production” vs. “other” activities. Would be interesting to see.
    I like the idea of getting faster at production tasks. I never really thought of it that way in my field, but clearly its true. Writing a paper now takes a fraction of how long it took to write my very first paper. There is probably room to get even more efficient at it (every MORE if I can start outsourcing parts…)
    Again, your thoughts are a really refreshing & practical approach to career development.

    1. @Ana- thank you! The question is what do we do with those efficiency gains. We could bite off bigger projects, or do more on the soft side…or waste the time. That sometimes happens too!

  4. Let me throw this one at you, Laura, because I am in need of your strategic advice.
    I have 2 10-hour/week contracts with different organizations (20 hours of work weekly that is guaranteed) and fill the rest of my time with consulting work. I was working about 40 hours/week in the summer but have been working about 60 in September and October. November will slow down a bit, for which I am grateful.
    What do my percentages look like?

    1. @Maggie- I don’t know – I guess it depends how you spend the other 20-40 hours, what that consulting work looks like. Are you still making time for investing in your skills, and for figuring out what kind of work you’d like to do in the future?

  5. I think this kind of schedule would make someone, overall, maximally productive. Unfortunately it can’t work in certain fields, like law, where you must produce a certain number of billable hours a month.

      1. High producers in a leveraged practice (in a big firm, that means more than $10MM) likely do not bill as much. But, because partners bill at higher rates, their worked hours are more valuable to the firm. As a partner I bill about 2,000 hours a year. I don’t track the non-billable as closely, but it probably is a few hundred hours a year. That includes business development, speaking at conferences, writing articles, administrative tasks (firm committees, recruiting, staff evaluations), etc.

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