Friday, 28 March 2014

Something I have learned.

A few years ago, while I was still quite new at that freelancing stuff that I do, I was beating myself up because I felt that I was not getting enough work done during any given day. I chatted about that with a very good friend, lamenting my laziness and inefficiency and my general ineptness. And then she did something that changed my life - she told me about a study that had found out that in every normal day job, with its eight hours nominal work-time, the actual hours of actual work done every day, on average.... was four.

Four. That's about... half.

The rest? Lost in checking emails, nonessential phone calls, getting coffee, catching up with colleagues, whatever. (Possibly in nonessential, nonproductive meetings too.) Four hours, folks.

I took a deep breath and readjusted the expectations I had on myself to a healthier level, and one much more congruent with actual reality than before. I've thought of that ever since whenever there was a day that did not go as I had planned, and it has saved my sanity oh, uncountable times.

Some time later I heard about a study that had tested work times too, and found out that yes, you could make people work longer hours... but if you set them to work 40 or 42 hours per week, there was actually not getting more done than with 35 hours per week, because efficiency declined quickly enough to cancel the extra time out. Completely. (That's one of the reasons I try very hard not to work on weekends.)

Now, with the current project, I think I have found out what my personal ceiling on hours of actual work per day still sustainable over the medium-to-long run is. I will not share the exact number over the blog, as that's too personal and too much a part of my internal business reckonings, but you can probably guess that it is more than four and less than eight (I have .

Mind you - I am not saying that it is impossible to work much, much more for a day or a few days (that is called "managing a crisis" or "putting in an extra effort when necessary", or as another of my friends likes to call it "getting the cow off the ice"). I am also not saying that these four hours of average are the thing valid for every person, everywhere, every time. As the most patient of all husbands rightly pointed out to me, you can probably do more non-brainy, mildly taxing physical work in a day than deep thinking or stuff that requires much concentration.

What I try to say is that if you are a freelancer, do not think you will be able to work eight billable hours per day, any day and every day. You, too, will have a sustainable work hour ceiling, and it will most probably be less than eight (if not, you might be superhuman, and I might not want to know you). It's normal, and you are not alone. In fact, you are joined in this by the rest of humanity.
Of course you will be able to push through that ceiling when necessary (putting in an extra effort, see above). You might also be able to work more for a while. (That, however, is called "working too much", which should be followed by "getting some well-earned rest" and "doing normal hours again", or it will gradually slide over to being called "working yourself sick" and, if you really won't back off and care for yourself, "working yourself to death". I know people who worked themselves sick, more than one. You don't want that. Trust me.)

That's it. Now I will get coffee and try to hit my sustainable maximum number of work hours per day again, today. Chances are good.

Oh, and dear friend who once gave me that life-changing bit of information (and who also supplies me with socks sometimes, but probably does not read this blog)? Thank you. Thank you so much.


Vaire said...

My employer has something that could be translated as "required billable hours rate" for the employees who are consultants. What it means is that we who work with customers must report a certain percentage of our total hours as billable hours.

The current max rate is 80% percent, which is 32 hours per 40 hour normal work week. My opinion is that 70% or 75% would me more reasonable, but I'm not the one setting the rules.

I think that if a big international corporation has come to the conclusion that it's unrealistic to require 100% billable hours of its employees, then they may be onto something, and so was your friend.

Harma said...

Quite appropriate to read this with no energy left for finishing writing an article, but on a deadline (from a dear friend you know very well) for next Monday.
And you being partly guilty for me having this deadline. ;^) What one does for friends.

Panth said...

As someone currently in a work culture where the *minimum* is a 60 hour week, and "putting in extra effort" (i.e. working in your evenings and weekends) is expected all the time... *gah* I would like to read the study you mention about diminishing returns from increasing hours.

a stitch in time said...

Vaire, it's good to hear that - and very interesting indeed that your employer has a max rate...

Harma, should I feel bad? ; )

Panth, I tried to find the article again, but unfortunately I didn't find it. There seem to be a myriad of studies about work times, work time development and work efficiency around, with wildly varying results, and as much as it interests me, too, I currently don't have the time for a research stint in that direction...