The Myth of the 100-Hour Work Week

“Startup founders work 100-hour weeks.” I forget when I first heard this, but I believe it was around the same time I heard about technology startups.

At the time, I was very impressed with the tremendous passion and work ethic of these founders, who could spend 6+ days out of every week doing nothing but eating, sleeping, and working. And that really was exactly what I thought they were doing: getting 100 full hours, every week, of laser-focused productive work time, without taking breaks to chat about non-work things, or stare into space letting their minds drift, or take walks, or exercise, or anything.

Recently (for some complicated reasons I’ll post later), I’ve decided to impose on myself a work week containing as many productive hours as possible. In making my schedule, I took into account all the psychology of learning that I had researched over years of interest in such things: efficient thinking happens on 8 hours of sleep, taking frequent short breaks helps brains remember things by dint of primacy and recency effects, human circadian rhythms are diurnal and therefore napping in the “afternoon slump” is more effective than trying to work through that time, etc. When I was done filling up all my time with little blue boxes in Google Calendar, I tallied up all my productive working time and found that I had only 52 hours.

Now, to be clear, my schedule did not contain quite as much work as it theoretically could have. I had allotted myself an hour to make lunch, and two hours to exercise in the morning, and an hour and a half to socialize in the evenings. The purpose was to make the plan sustainable, so that executing against it wouldn’t burn me out.

But even if I didn’t care about that, I didn’t see how I could have gotten that productive-hours-per-week number up to 100. It just seemed inefficient, based on everything I had read about human brains, for someone to work nose-to-the-grindstone at a task for that many hours. Taking breaks to exercise and eat healthy food and sleep eight hours a night would make their thinking more efficient than just working longer hours.

I had a hypothesis, that people might say they worked for a hundred hours a week, but perhaps, they only spent 60-80 actually being productive. When I’ve worked full-time at an office, having to look productive regardless of whether I actually was, plus inefficient use of work-time doing stuff like chatting with coworkers, and the corporate busywork that comes with a salaried job like that, all took up significant time. This is a very common situation: statistically, the average number of productive hours an office worker has in an 8-hour day is 2 hours and 53 minutes.

But I wasn’t sure about this, and not having worked in a technology startup myself, I wanted to ask someone who had. So, I asked my mom. This was what she told me.

People who say they work 100-hour weeks may be at the office for a hundred hours, but they are actually productive for around 60. The remaining 40 hours is spent taking breaks of various sorts. But the reason they stay at the office for that time is so that they can take breaks in the same space as a bunch of other smart people working on the same set of projects they are. That way, discussions about not-work meld into discussions about work, and produce more productive time for the group in general over time.

This is the optimal workflow for any group of people working on a project for as much time as possible, as it turns out. And it’s used not only by technology startups but in every other area where such a thing may be needed. For example, before she got into tech, my mom worked as a researcher for NASA. They used the same system: people would work for several hours, then take a break and play foosball and talk about something unrelated, then get talking about their work at the foosball table, and then somebody would have an idea and run off to the office to go work on it.

Learning this, I was even more impressed than I had initially been. Apparently, every group of highly-productive people for a very long time had reinvented this same style of working. And now I get to use it, too.

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