It’s a seductive fantasy: the longer you toil away at your job, the more work you’ll get done.
But as more people push into working 50, 60, 70 hours a week, effectively turning their desks into second homes, research suggests the smarter approach might actually be to commit the ultimate American sin and work less.
Consider the research of K. Anders Ericsson, one of the top experts on the psychology of work. (His research led author Malcolm Gladwell to devise the 10,000-hour rule, the idea that experts need at least 10,000 hours of practice to master a given craft. However, Anders has since criticized the rule.)
Multiple experiments done in Ericsson’s lab have shown that people can commit themselves to only four or five hours of concentrated work at a time before they stop getting things done. Past the peak performance level, output tends to flatline, or sometimes even suffer.
“If you’re pushing people well beyond that time they can really concentrate maximally, you’re very likely to get them to acquire some bad habits,” Ericsson tells Tech Insider. What’s worse, those bad habits could end up spilling into the time people are normally productive, and suddenly even the shorter weeks are wasteful.
Put into practice, shortening the work week seems to reap all kinds of rewards.
Ryan Carson, CEO of the technology education company Treehouse, has seen his employees become happier and more productive since he implemented the 32-hour work week back in 2006. Core to Carson’s leadership philosophy is the belief that forcing people to work 40-hour weeks is nearly inhumane, he told the Atlantic last year.
“It’s not about more family time, or more play time, or less work time — it’s about living a more balanced total life,” he said. “We basically take ridiculously good care of people because we think it’s the right thing to do.”
The company isn’t struggling to make ends meet, either. Its yearly revenue is in the millions, and according to Carson, people love to come to work each day.
A similar story is playing out at Reusser Design, a Midwest web development company that changed to a four-day week in 2013. Even though the company works longer hours to make up for the lost Friday, company founder Nate Reusser says productivity and engagement have never been better.
“You wouldn’t believe how much we get done,” he told CNN last year, adding that the policy motivates people to work harder, similar to how people hustle to finish projects before they go on vacation.
Kids can also potentially benefit from four-day weeks.
A study published last year, for example, found fourth and fifth graders in Colorado saw increases in their test scores when they attended for just four days compared to kids who attended for all five. Their math scores went up by 12% and reading by 6%.
Even in the classroom, in other words, people have trouble concentrating on difficult tasks for extended periods of time. “Looking at most of the school system, most of the students are sitting there for maybe six, seven hours a day,” Ericsson says. “And I think the idea here that they’ll be fully concentrated during that entire period is unreasonable.”
Some evidence suggests the solution isn’t even in working fewer hours, but in how companies allocate people’s time.
In 2008, in the middle of America’s financial crisis, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman implemented a plan to reorganize the work week.
With only a month’s heads-up, nearly 75% of state employees changed from working five eight-hour days to working four 10-hour days.
On the one hand, the extra day off saved public resources that were normally used to heat, cool, and power the buildings — a big win when cash was tight.
But the change also produced increased worker morale. People enjoyed the extra day off and the easier commutes, since they were no longer slogging through rush-hour traffic.
So while psychologists and work-life consultants might not know where the sweet spot of productivity exists, or if it’s the same spot for everyone, the evidence suggests you shouldn’t need 40 hours to get there.
For maximum productivity, people should stay mindful of when they start to feel burnt out. For everyone’s sake, it might be time to cut back on clocking in.