In praise of the 30-hour work week

I’ve been working about 30 hours a week for the last two and a half years. I’m happier, healthier, and wealthier than when I was working 40, 50, or 60 hours a week as a full-time salaried software engineer (that means I was only paid for 40 hours a week). If you are a salaried professional in the U.S. who works 40 hours a week or more, there’s a pretty good chance you could also be working fewer hours, possibly even for more money. In this post, I’ll explain some of the myths and the realities that promote overwork. If you’re already convinced that you’d like to work fewer hours, you can skip straight to how you can start taking steps to work less.

A little about me: After college, I worked for about 8 years as a full-time salaried software engineer. Like many software engineers, I often worked 50 or 60 hour weeks while being paid for 40 hours a week. I hit the glass ceiling at age 29 and started working part-time hourly as a software consultant. I loved the hours but hated the instability and was about to lose my health insurance benefits (this was before the ACA passed). Then a colleague offered me a job at his storage startup, working 20 hours a week, salaried, with benefits. I thought, “You can do that???” and negotiated a 30 hour salaried job with benefits with my dream employer. I worked full-time again for about 5 years after that, and put in more 60 hour weeks while co-founding a non-profit. After shutting the non-profit down, I took 3 months off to recover. For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked for myself as a diversity and inclusion in tech consultant. I rarely work more than 30 hours a week and last year I made more money than any other year of my life.

Now, if I told my 25-year-old self this, she’d probably refuse to believe me. When I was 25, I believed my extra hours and hard work would be rewarded, that I’d be able to work 50 or 60 hours a week forever, and that I’d never enjoy anything as much as working. Needless to say, I no longer believe any of those things.

Myths about working overtime

Here are a few of the myths I used to believe about working overtime:

Myth: I can be productive for more than 8 hours a day on a sustained basis

How many hours a day can I productively write code? This will vary for everyone, but the number I hear most often is 4 hours a day 5 days a week, which is my max. I slowly learned that if I wrote code longer than that, my productivity steeply declined. After 8 hours, I was just adding bugs that I’d have to fix the next day. For the other 4 hours, I was better off dealing with email, writing papers, submitting expenses, reading books, or taking a walk (during which I’d usually figure out what I needed to do next in my program). After 8 hours, my brain is useless for anything requiring focus or discipline. I can do more work for short bursts occasionally when I’m motivated, but it takes a toll on my health and I need extra time off to recover.

I know other people can do focused productive work for more than 8 hours a day; congrats! However, keep in mind that I know plenty of people who thought they could work more than 8 hours a day, and then discovered they’d given themselves major stress-related health problems—repetitive stress injury, ulcers, heart trouble—or ignored existing health problems until they got so bad they started interfering with their work. This includes several extremely successful people who only need to sleep 5 hours a night and were using the extra time that gave them to do more work. The human body can only take so much stress.

Myth: My employer will reward me for working extra hours

Turns out, software engineering isn’t graded on effort, like kindergarten class. I remember the first year of my career when I worked my usual overtime and did not get a promotion or a raise; the company was slowly going out of business and it didn’t matter how many hours I worked—I wasn’t getting a raise. Given that my code quality fell off after 4 hours and went negative after 8 hours, it was a waste of time to work overtime anyway. At the same time, I always felt a lot of pressure to appear to be working for more than 40 hours a week, such that 40 hours became the unofficial minimum. The end result was a lot of programmers in the office late at night doing things other than coding: playing games, reading the internet, talking with each other. Which is great when you have no friends outside work, no family nearby, and no hobbies; less great when you do.

Overall, my general impression of the reward structure for software engineers is that people who fit people’s preconceptions of what a programmer looks like and who aggressively self-promote are more likely to get raises and promotions than people who produce more value. (Note that aggressive self-promotion is often punished in women of all races, people of color, disabled folks, immigrants, etc.)

Myth: People who work 40 hours or less are lazy

I was raised with fairly typical American middle-class beliefs about work: work is virtuous, if people don’t have jobs it’s because of some personal failing of theirs, etc. I started to change my mind when I read about Venezuelan medical doctors who were unable to buy shoes during an economic recession. Medical school is hard; I couldn’t believe all of those doctors were lazy! In my first full-time job, I had a co-worker who spent 40 hours a week in the office, but never did any real work. Then I realized that many of the hardest working people I knew were mothers who worked in the home for no pay at all. Nowadays I understand that I can’t judge someone’s moral character by the number of hours of labor they do (or are paid for) each week.

The kind of laziness that does concern me comes from abuse: people using coercion to extract an unfair amount of value from other people’s labor. This includes many abusive spouses, most billionaires, and many politicians. I’m not worried about people who want to work 40 hours a week or fewer so they can spend more time with their kids or crocheting or traveling; they aren’t the problem.

Myth: I work more than 40 hours because I’d be unhappy otherwise

When I was 25, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do other things with the time I was spending on work. With hindsight, I can see that’s because I was socially isolated and didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety other than by working. If I tried to stop working, I would very quickly run out of things to do that I enjoyed, and would end up writing some more code or answering some more work email just to have some positive feelings. It took years and years of therapy, building up my social circle, and developing hobbies before I had enough enjoyable things to do other than work.

Working for pay gives a lot of people joy and that is perfectly fine! It’s when you have few other ways to feel happy that overwork begins to be a problem.

Myth: The way to fix my anxiety is to work more hours

The worse the social safety net is in your country, the more anxious you probably are about your future: Will you have a place to live? Food to eat? Medical care? Clothes for your kids? We often respond to anxiety by shutting down any higher thought and focusing on what is in front of us. For many of us in this situation, the obvious answer seems to be “work more hours.” Now, if you are being paid for working more hours, this makes some sense: money contributes to security. But if you’re not, those extra hours bring no concrete reward. You are just hoping that your employer will take the extra work into consideration when deciding whether to give you a raise or end your employment. Unfortunately, in my experience, the best way to get a raise or keep your job is to be as similar to your management as possible.

If you can take the time to work with your anxiety and pull back and look at the larger picture, you’ll often find better ways to use those extra hours to improve your personal safety net. Just a few off the top of my head: building your professional network, improving your resume, learning new skills, helping friends, caring for your family, meditating, taking care of your health, and talking to a therapist about your anxiety. The future is uncertain and only partially under your control; nothing can change that fundamental truth. Consider carefully whether working unpaid hours is the best way to increase your safety.

Myth: The extra hours are helping me learn skills that will pay off later

Maybe it’s just me, but I can only learn new stuff for a few hours a day. Judging by the recommended course loads at universities, most people can’t actively learn new stuff more than 40 hours a week. If I’ve been working for more than 8 hours, all I can do is repeat things I’ve already learned (like stepping through a program in a debugger). Creative thought and breakthroughs are pretty thin on the ground after 8 hours of hard work. The only skills I’m sure I learned from working more than 40 hours a week are: how to keep going through hunger, how to ignore pain in my body, how to keep going through boredom, how to stay awake, and how to sublimate my healthy normal human desires. Oh, and which office snack foods are least nauseating at 2am.

Myth: Companies won’t hire salaried professionals part-time

Some won’t, some will. Very few companies will spontaneously offer part-time salaried work for a position that usually requires full-time, but if you have negotiating power and you’re persistent, you will be surprised how often you can get part-time work. Negotiating power usually increases as you become a more desirable employee; if you can’t swing part-time now, keeping working on your career and you may be able to get it in the future.

Myth: I can only get benefits if I work full-time

Whether a company can offer the benefits available to full-time employees to part-time employees is up to their internal policies combined with local law. Human beings create policies and laws and they can be changed. Small companies are generally more flexible about policies than large companies. Some companies offer part-time positions as a competitive advantage in hiring. Again, having more negotiating power will help here. Companies are more likely to change their policies or make exceptions if they really really want your services.

Myth: My career will inevitably suffer if I work part-time

There are absolutely some career goals that can only be achieved by working full-time. But working part-time can also help your career. You can use your extra time to learn new skills, or improve your education. You can work on unpaid projects that improve your portfolio. You can extend your professional network. You can get career coaching. You can start your own business. You can write books. You can speak at conferences. Many things are possible.

Real barriers to working fewer hours

Under capitalism, in the absence of enforced laws against working more than a certain number of hours a week, the number of hours a week employees work will grow until the employer is no longer getting a marginal benefit out of each additional hour. That means if the employer will get any additional value out of an hour above and beyond the costs of working that hour, they’ll require the employee to work that hour. This happens without regard for the cost for the employee or their dependents, in terms of health, happiness, or quality of life for their dependents.

In the U.S. and many other countries, we often act like the 40-hour working week is some kind of natural law, when the laws surrounding it were actually the result of a long, desperately fought battle between labor and capital extending over many decades. Even so, what laws we do have limiting the amount of labor an employer can demand from an employee have many loopholes, and often go unenforced. Wage theft—employers stealing wages from employees through a variety of means, including unpaid overtime—accounts for more money stolen in the U.S. than all robberies.

Due to loopholes and lax enforcement, many salaried professionals end up in a situation where all the people they are competing with for jobs or promotions are all working far more than 40 hours a week. They don’t have to be working efficiently for more than 40 hours a week for this to be of benefit to their employers, they just have to be creating more value than they are costing during those hours of work. Some notorious areas of high competition and high hours include professors on the tenure track, lawyers on the partner track, and software engineers working in competitive fields.

In particular, software engineers working for venture capital-funded startups in fields with lots of competitors are under a lot of pressure to produce more work more quickly, since timing is such an important element of success in the fields that venture capital invests in. The result is a lot of software engineers who burn themselves out working too many hours for startups for less total compensation than they’d make working at Microsoft or IBM, despite whatever stock options they were offered to make up for lower salaries and benefits. This is because (a) most startups fail, (b) most software engineers either don’t vest their stock options before they quit, or quit before the company goes public and can’t afford to buy the options during the short (usually 90-day) exercise window after they quit.

No individual actions or decisions by a single worker can change these kinds of competitive pressures, and if your goal is to succeed in one of these highly competitive, poorly governed areas, you’ll probably have to work more than 40 hours a week. Overall, unchecked capitalism leads to a Red Queen’s race, in which individual workers have to work as hard as they can just to keep up with their competition (and those who can’t, die). I don’t want to live in this world, which is why I support laws limiting working hours and requiring pay, government-paid parental and family leave, a universal basic income, and the unions and political parties that fight for and win these protections.

Tips for working fewer hours

These tips for working fewer hours are aimed primarily at software engineers in the U.S. who have some job mobility, and more generally for salaried professionals in the U.S. Some of these tips may be useful for other folks as well.

See a career counselor or career coach. Most of us are woefully unprepared to guide and shape our career paths. A career counselor can help you figure out what you value, what your goals should be, and how to achieve them, while taking into account your whole self (including family, friends, and hobbies). A career counselor will help you with the mechanics of actually working fewer hours: negotiating down your current job, finding a new job, starting your own business, etc. To find a career counselor, ask your friends for recommendations or search online review sites.

Go to therapy. If you’re voluntarily overworking, you’ve internalized a lot of ideas about what a good person is or how to be happy that are actually about how to make employers wealthier. Even if you are your own employer, you’ll still need to work these out. You’re also likely to be dealing with anxiety or unresolved problems in your life by escaping to work. You’ll need to learn new values, new ideas, and new coping mechanisms before you can work fewer hours. I’ve written about how to find therapy here. You might also want to read up on workaholics. The short version is: there is some reason you are currently overworking, and you’ll need to address that before you can stop overworking.

Find other things to do with your time. Spend more time with your kids, develop new hobbies or pick up new ones, learn a sport, watch movies, volunteer, write a novel – the options are endless. Learn to identify the voice in your head that says you shouldn’t be wasting your time on that and tell it to mind its own business.

Search for more efficient ways to make money. In general, hourly wage labor is going to have a very hard limit on how much money you can make per hour, even in highly paid positions. Work with your career counselor to figure out how to make more money per hour of labor. Often this looks like teaching, reviewing, or selling a product or service with low marginal cost.

Talk to a financial advisor. Reducing hours often means at least some period of lower income, even if your income ends up higher after that. If like many people you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, you’ll need help. A professional financial advisor can help you figure out how to get through this period and make better financial decisions in general. [Added 19-June-2018]

Finally, we can help normalize working fewer hours a week just by talking about it and, if it is safe for us, actually asking for fewer hours of work. We can also support unions, elect politicians who promise to pass legislation protecting workers, promote universal basic income, support improvements in the social safety net, and raise awareness of what working conditions are like without these protections.