The 80-hour Myth

Let’s get serious. Nobody works eighty hours a week. Not eighty real, productive hours. Look closely at workaholics (and I’ve been one, and worked with ones), and a lot of the time is spent idling, re-charging, cycling, switching gears, etc. In the old days this was water-cooler talk. In Silicon Valley, it’s gaming, email, IM, lunches, and idle meetings. Let’s drop the farce, ok? Even when you had to work eighty hours, you didn’t, really. In economic terms, there is lower diminishing marginal productivity beyond some point. This point hits differently for different problems (some, like software engineering, require a lot of startup time to load a complex problem into your working memory).

In fact, your best work was probably done in tremendous, focused bursts, surrounded by long periods of dullness and inactivity. So, let’s try to figure out how to maximize the probability and productivity of such a burst, rather than try and force it to be predictable and prolonged.

First, measure outputs, not inputs, in yourself and your organization. Otherwise, you will be fooled by the modern knowledge worker, who is highly adapted to spend time at the office and manage upwards.

Second, measure productivity over a longer time-scale, say weeks and months rather than days. Some of the most creative and productive people that I have ever met work in multi-week bursts and then have weeks where they just idle with little done. It’s the nature of the human animal.

Third, introduce peer pressure into the mix. This is often done in software via “Extreme Programming” or in business by “Teamwork.” Whatever. Get two productive people in the same room on the same problem, and as soon as one hits the upward oscillation and is ready to work, odds are that he / she will inspire the other one and move them along.

Fourth, create a physical environment conducive to oscillatory productivity – eschew offices for non-traditional settings, let people have space, and let them keep their own hours.

Lastly, be ruthless on accountability and output over the long term. Nothing damages a startup like a mediocre and reliable performer.

Now go work harder…

31 thoughts on “The 80-hour Myth

  1. The interesting thing is that, for programmers or any internet workers, there is no consistent measure of "work" that one can use. Using my own experience (only because I know it), there are weeks where 60+ hours will be spent effing aroundand then there is one 2 or 3 hour burst of intense, very productive activity, while other weeks will be full of 40+ hours of mindless copy/paste activities or needless meetings. What is interesting about this is, even though the week where I only "work" for a few hours will have me up for 85% of the week, I find myself drained both physically and mentally when I spend a week doing busy work or in meetings.Keying off of your 5-point plan, I would also add that there can be no really effective productivity without an environment of like-minded, inherently curious people. It is very difficult to find the right mix, and to foster a culture of creativity without slipping dangerously into a lack of productivity. But when you have the right people, it is like a well tuned sports car; nothing will handle better, move faster and "wow" people more.Who are these people? Well, I have found that you need to find people who meet whatever definition you have for: – curious – creative – knowledgable – open-minded – introspectiveNote that none of the above are things like "smart" or "talented" because, to me at least, those kinds of attributes usually demonstrate an ability to retain fatcual minutia, and not the ability to be effective problem solvers. In the end, that is what you want. Not someone who knows every key binding in vim or emacs, but someone who will go find out how to use vim, because they need to edit a file to make their work, and everyone else’s better.

  2. Excellent and insightful post. I reposted with the following preface on my blog,"I don’t think I’ve ever reposted a post from another blog in its entirety before, but I read the following on and I was still thinking about it 24 hours later.I found this interesting because I agree with his perspective, and try to manage employees in the way he suggests. But at the same time, it’s a philosophy I find hard to implement in my own work – I find too often that my instinct is to work harder, and to feel behind unless I am working constantly. Something I’m trying to work on…"

  3. Well if 80 hour work week is a myth, then there is a legend of a fight against the 80 hour work week by the American Medical Student Association. Residents used to get screwed working not just 80 hours, but 120 hrs… the result was demoralizing and turning doctors into monsters…

  4. Re: measuring outputs and productivity:“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” — Peter DruckerThe anecdotal high failure rate of even venture-backed startups indicates that most startups are not doing the "right things". Most startups are instead wrongly focused on doing "things right". Sad to see so much effort and talent wasted.

  5. "Nothing damages a startup like a mediocre and reliable performer."What’s so dangerous about a reliable mediocre output?

  6. I love seeing posts like this.I recently joined a startup where somewhat long hours are the norm. Leaving before 8pm many nights feels like you are being a slacker.When my energy is drained & I _know_ my productivity is low (if pushed, often-generating too many bugs in the code for it to be useful), I often feel like taking off early and making it up some other time.What could be ideal for companies is a graphical display (or some indicator / brief meetings / etc) that indicates the output / production of everyone on the team.Of course, people usually know in the general ballpark how much everyone is working.I’m just thinking of the scenario of someone who might only have 40 hours of his/her butt in the seat, but deliver 2x output. That person should be rewarded, not pushed, of course.For coders, working code and/or tests checked into a Subversion repository is a pretty good indication that you’ve actually been productive.

  7. Great post. I’ve been wading through the Four Hour Work Week (which is hard, because it feels like a damn sale pitch), and it has a similar message.There’s no easy measure for output or output quality (for most jobs). One of the things I’ve wanted to know for a long time is exactly how much time I spend on various apps and sites (I had a sneaking suspicion that I did a lot of things that made me feel busy, but weren’t particular productive). Over the last 6 months, some friends and I have whipped up a tool that measures how you spend your computer time and my results were pretty damn horrifying.If we ever find our way out of private beta, you can be horrified, too! 🙂

  8. here’s a corollary scenario I’ve seen over and over:1. the team is perpetually sprinting to the next looming product deadline2. most of the team works until 8 or 10pm. this seems good3. so let’s start bringing in dinners for the guys. Keep em happy and keep em here late.4. Pretty soon they realize that they get free dinner every night and know they’ll be here until 10, so they roll into the office around noon6. next thing you know, people settle into 50 hours AND get a free dinner.

  9. As someone who’s "drunk the XP kool-aid," as certain acquaintances of my like to say, I find your point about "introduc[ing] peer pressure" interesting. I completely agree, it’s just that I call it "fun." Perhaps I’m just a social creature.As far as the programming stuff goes, I find that when I’m pairing with another good programmer, I’m burned out after six hours or so. (Mind you, six *very* productive hours.) It’s hard to figure out what to do after that. Maybe have a meeting or something…

  10. Totally true.

    Would you then say that employees can use this argument for more flexibility in their schedules?

    For me,I’d say that idling is part of the job. I find myself thinking about problems I’ve been trying to solve while doing the most mundane tasks (showering, walking, etc.). It’s like I’m always working on some problem whether it’s in my direct conscious or not.

    Sometimes, when I used to work in an office, I’d have a harder time coming up with solutions just because of the pressure to look like you are working. My best moments we’re simply crunching through an issue with a colleague at a coffee shop, but I always felt like these “breaks” were frowned upon.

    I don’t really want to work in a place for 80 hours anyways, but I am more than happy to work hard to provide deliverables that take “80 hours of work.”

  11. Is “work harder” the correct answer to your proposed natural human tendency to idle about a bit?

    What about something like “take an extra day off a week” ? Put only the productive hours in at work and have a better quality of life.


  12. Great post! Both because the focus on output not hours is so critical for a startup. In addition, as the CEO of start-up making internet programs to improve marriages (, this post implies that folks would be better off just going home and having some recuperative, real time with their loved ones and friends.

    That is a great way to have more inspiration, more productivity, and oh yah, happy marriages too!

  13. Having managed the People and Recruiting “departments” in 3 start-ups before starting my own company, I mostly agree with your premise. “First, measure outputs”, you say. Absolutely. The whole “job description” concept is a farce as are most attempts at training. Job descriptions focus on tasks not outcomes; training focuses on hours spent, not what was learned. Rather, you should define what success looks like (including milestones and due dates). And, yes, hold people accountable for the quality of their work product, not total hours spent “working”.

    The whole question of “the best place / time to work” is a challenging one. For me, the vital component of a work environment that stimulates maximum inspiration and productivity is not hours worked; it’s the synergistic and unplanned “meetings” when two or more people start to feed off each other and generate bursts of creativity / coding / new ideas that would never have happened had everyone been working alone. In the corporate environment, a lot of this happens around the water cooler. In a start-up it happens where and when you find it. A lot of really creative stuff comes from those chance conversations that almost never happens when people aren’t in the same office at the same time.

    So, the answer for me is to forget about counting hours and encourage some amount of “self-directed” work during the time and at the place of the employees’ choosing as long as everyone has a core set of hours when they’re in the same place at the same time. Give everyone clear deliverables and time tables and make sure that everyone knows who is responsible for what.

    And to all of you who feel that icy pressure to “look like you’re working” I’d say you are working in the wrong company, no matter how hip the product is or how famous the CEO is.

  14. Great post. It’s not about 9-9.. I don’t have 2 week stretches but often I leave the office around 3 to go for a run cause I find myself unproductive. Get back at it around 7.

  15. I’ve tried Youtube and Googling it with no ssucecs. All I could find were teasers, no full episodes. So do you know anywhere that you can watch it for free? Or possibly buy it for a reasonable price? I’m not willing to fork up $200 to get it off Amazon.

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  17. Thanks for sharing these great tips. I especially enjoyed the thought about restarting the day at 2pm and reassessing your priorities; great tips!

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