Recently I came across an interesting question on Twitter about average working hours per day.
A knowledge worker spends an average of only 2 to 4 hours a day on productive work. The rest of the time is not used to do any meaningful work (I read this in multiple places too, but can't find any original research on this).
Since I can't find any reliable sources to cite, I am writing this based on my personal experience. I work an average of 4 or 5 hours on a good day without any interruptions. On a bad, fragmented day, it'll be far less than that. There are multiple reasons for this.
40-hour workweek is a relic of the industrial era.
In the industrial era, the output is directly connected with the amount of time you put in. Most of the jobs don't require any thinking. Repetition was the key.
Imagine an assembly line worker putting together a few parts of a car. They almost did the same thing every day and their output is measured by the number of things they can put together per hour. When Henry Ford brought the conveyer belt to the factory, it was seen as a revolution. It eliminated all the extra movements and increased performance. But the core principle of hours = output remains the same.
Enter our knowledge work era, things are blurry. Imagine a developer sitting in his desk thinking about something. Are they thinking about the current problem or just wandering? You'll never know. We can't measure the performance here by measuring the number of hours they put in. This is a fact that everyone knows. But we're collectively still hanging to the 40 hours work week.
If you're in a position of managing people who do creative work, understanding this simple fact is essential. Hours are not equal to performance. I believe in creative bursts that let people do a lot of work within a short time. performance scientists call this a flow state.
If a worker had a flow state of 3 hours per day their brain needs recharge time. The company is paying both for the peak and the recharge time.
Can we stay in the flow state for more than 3 hours? Certainly.
Can we repeat it every day? Certainly, not.
Trying to push more than this average limit can have negative effects in the long run such as burnout. In this case, how to understand if someone is slacking? Start measuring their performance by their output, not by their time.
Knowledge workers contribute by their judgment, not time
I read The Almanack of Naval Ravikant recently and what he told about judgment struck a chord.
My definition of wisdom is knowing the long-term consequences of your actions. Wisdom applied to external problems is judgment. They’re highly linked; knowing the long-term consequences of your actions and then making the right decision to capitalize on that.
What a knowledge worker provides are their judgment and skills. Most of their job is decision making considering the trade-offs and benefits. The time they take has very little relevance. We can't rush to a decision if we care about the long term wins.
The human brain is not optimized for long, focused work
We were hunter-gatherers for a long portion of history. Humans lived and hunted as a group. The main rule is "when in doubt, run". Those who thought long and hard often perished in a predator's jaw. We're the descendants of those quick decision-makers. There was no point in history that an average human needed to use his brain for a long time and earn a living.
Our brain is not optimized for a long period of focused work, it gets tired. The attention span is an average of 20 minutes for humans. The contribution of push notifications and social media could have reduced that even further. So it is better to take breaks in between instead of pretending to be paying attention.
There is also a benefit by taking breaks which leads us to the next point based on the Zeigarnik Effect.
Knowledge work is not limited to the clock
It is not possible to shut off your brain from thinking of work problems after the clock. The brain works hard to solve difficult problems when you're doing something else on the surface. People claims about getting solutions for problems when they're taking a shower or going for a walk.
When you have an unfinished task or problem, it'll take the larger part of your attention and will stay in your brain even when you try to do other things. This factor is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. So it is natural for people to think about work after work hours and find good solutions.
In a way, knowledge workers are working outside of the clock as well. They're learning things in their spare time that impact their work at a later point in time.
A while ago, I was reading about optimizing angular performance. A couple of months later, when we faced some performance issues, I suggested a few ideas I learned from that post. The company is benefitting from the knowledge I gathered on my own time. The reverse is also true, Most of my skills are learned while getting paid from the company for it.
These are the reasons that people tend to work less than 8-hours a day. But there is business needs to measure and document everything.
How to measure productivity?
There is no actual way to measure the productivity of an individual developer. Many have tried and failed. Instead of trying to measure what's not measurable, You can think of the following.
- Measuring the outcome of their work
- How they contribute to the success of their team and to your business?
Ask the following questions about your team,
- They miss deadlines regularly?
- Your customers are frustrated because of your engineering team's velocity?
- Does your team surprise you with reasons at the last minute?
The answer to these questions can create a discussion. If your organization is transparent you can find the problems and fix them easily. Trusting your team to do their job well can take you far than nitpicking on irrelevant details.
How to improve productivity?
There are ways that you can help your team to get more done by creating the ideal environment that is optimized for knowledge work.
Open offices are bad
I am aware of the serendipity aspect of open office plans. But the noise, mobile ringtones, chatter really beats that advantage. To be honest, I hate open office setup.
Ironically, I live in India where the population density is so high, open offices are the only way to keep real-estate costs in control for businesses. It is not practical to completely remove open office plans, but can improve the quality of your office by,
- Create focus rooms and encourage people to use them.
- Enforce some rules about distractions within the focus rooms.
- Try to reduce the unwanted distractions on the open floor
- Buy noise-cancellation headphones and earplugs for your workforce.
Difference between the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule
Paul Graham wrote an excellent article about this. In short, the knowledge worker's schedule needs long periods of uninterrupted work. If you schedule meetings in the middle of such periods, time is fragmented into two less useful pieces of time.
To avoid fragmentation,
- Implement no meetings days in a week or no meetings time range in a workday.
- Plan all your meetings within the first or second half of the day.
- Reduce the number of meetings you need, asynchronous discussions are better.
If you're running a business or managing a team of creative people, stop thinking about the time and start thinking in terms of the value created. Their judgment and skills are important than their starting and closing time. Create an ideal work environment and trust your team to deliver results.
Note: My thoughts might be biased, attributed to my limited experience in other areas of business. I am happy to make any changes if someone provides a good counter-argument.
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