The Myth of the Myth of the 8+ hour workday

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There’s a lot of popular talk out there about cutting back on time spent in the office and working a shorter shift while increasing real productivity at the same time. In other words, work 4-5 hours in a day and check out. There’s also talk about working only four days a week, and being more efferent in those four days so that you can really enjoy your three-day weekend.

I think for companies that have a lot of employees (or a lot of managers!) and there’s an absurd amount of wasted time and churn each day with all the back-and-forth, unnecessary meetings, water cooler talk, luncheons, etc., these kinds of conversations are helpful. I in fact commuted from Santa Rosa to San Francisco four days a week for almost two years. I first started out doing the usual five days a week, and that was just insane. (Leaving S.R. on the bus at 5:30am, arriving in S.F. at 7:30am, leaving S.F. at 4:45pm and getting back home in the evening at 7pm gets to you after a while!) I soon switched to working at home Fridays, and eventually changed to four days a week period. I was lucky in that I was a contractor, so my work flexibility was a bit better than perhaps it had been if I were an employee.

However, since running my own business and other side projects for over a year now, I’ve theoretically had all the flexibility in the world. I could snooze all day and work all night if I felt like it. I could take Thursday off and work Sunday, right? Or maybe I could head out to the beach in the afternoon so I can get some coding done on my laptop while feeling the sand under my toes. Who says I need to put in 8, 9, 10 hours in the office anyway?

Except it doesn’t really work like that. Like many of the freelancers/free agents out there, I get paid by the hour. Or if I don’t (fixed price bid), I’m calculating costs based on an idea of the hourly rate I expect. Here are some of the realities of my business (website design):

  • The hourly rate clients pay my company is not what I actually get paid personally per hour of work. Every service business understands this: there are billable hours and non-billable hours. The goal is to minimize the number of non-billable hours and grow the number of billable hours in a given week to keep cash flow running smoothly.
  • Thus, I need to work a minimum of # of hours per week in billable hours simply to keep the business running and me making a decent paycheck. Guess what? That number is higher than 4 hours x 4 days.
  • So, for this example, let’s say I need a minimum of 25 billable hours a week to make a basic profit and slowly grow the business (subcontract out more work, maybe hire our first employee one day, etc.). Now I can’t actually only work 25 hours a week, because that leaves no time for all the non-billable hours of work that needs to be done.
  • Non-billable work includes: marketing, sales, business networking meetings, presentations, writing blog posts, engaging social media, keeping up with industry news, breaks, etc., etc.
  • With an estimated minimum of 10 non-billable hours per week of work, 10 + 25 = 35. Add a rush job here or there and a couple of extra phone calls, and that’s starting to look a lot like a standard 40 hour work week to me.

Now you might say there are things I can do to solve some of these issues. For example, starting subcontracting out some work right now so I can make profit via their reduced hourly rate. Or simply raise the company’s hourly rate so I can work fewer hours and make the same amount of money (easier said than done). Or work towards making money off the work done in the non-billable times, i.e., all those blog posts can go into a helpful e-book that you sell for a profit.

Those are all good ideas, and in time, I hope to execute on them in my business. But the truth of the matter is that when you start a company, you take on some extra responsibility and obligation to the business that nobody else is going to have. That’s just how it is. So as much as I think the “myth of the 8+ hour workday” sounds appealing, I believe that for most of the readers here at North Bay Startup, that itself is a myth.

One clarification: I also do not believe in the 10, 11, 12 hour days, 60+ hours a week approach either. Burning out for the sake of the company ultimately does not make for a healthy business or a healthy leader of the business. You can push yourself to the point of exhaustion here and there if need be, but if you’re doing it every day, every week, you are asking for big trouble. Take some time off and enjoy yourself. Life is too short to kill yourself on the altar of money.

On the other hand, don’t expect to hang out at the beach every Friday sipping Mai Tais. That comes later….

Jared White is Editor-in-Chief of North Bay Startup. He has worked in the field of technology journalism for over 15 years and headed up several online blogs and media properties before founding NBS. He is also the owner and Creative Director at Siteshine, a digital media agency located in Santa Rosa, CA. You can reach him on Twitter @jaredcwhite.

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Comments 1

  1. Looks like this is going well. If you have a way to do an interview about the Sebastopol Entrepreneurs Project, let me know. We are in a marketing campaign to promote the office.

    Please accept our invitation to attend our “Open for Business Reception,” hosted by O’Reilly Media on Thursday, September 8, 6:30 – 8:00pm at their campus. Hope to see you there, and bring some of your associates.


    Kathleen Shaffer on August 25, 2011 as 11:33 pm
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