Back in 2007, Tim Ferriss caused a stir when he released his debut book, The 4 Hour Workweek: Escape 9–5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Ferriss admitted off the bat that “the goal was never to be idle,” but rather, to reframe the way we think about work — specifically, to let go of the idea that the more time we spend working, the more successful we’ll be.
Whether you loved Ferriss’s book or not, it does raise an important philosophical debate: How many hours per week should we work?
Historically, the answer has been “40,” though these days, one-third of Americans work at least 45 hours per week, and 9.7 million Americans work at least 60 hours per week. This sort of overwork is actually what labor activist Robert Owen was trying to deter when he argued in 1817 that our days should entail “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
At the time, such a notion sounded downright utopian, even if it took many years to take off: When the government first started tracking employees’ hours in 1890, it found that full-time manufacturing workers were notching 100 hours each week.
Between CEOs who wear their triple-digit work weeks like a badge of honor to gig workers who need to hustle five jobs to survive, Owen’s vision has largely been lost in our modern landscape. So what is the right number of hours to work? It depends on who you ask.
The argument for working more
Many entrepreneurs (myself included) talk up the benefits of working smarter, not longer. But not everyone is on board with that thinking.
Gary Vaynerchuk, founder and CEO of digital marketing company VaynerMedia, says that startup founders should plan to put in at least 18 hours a day in their first year.
When you’re launching a business, “you have made a decision that does not allow you, in Year One, any time to do anything but build your business,” he says. “Every minute — call it 18 hours a day out of 24 — if you want this to be successful, needs to be allocated for your business.”
“I think one of the biggest reasons so many people go out of business in the first year, first two years…is they don’t realize how hard it is and how all-in you have to be,” he adds.
Vaynerchuk is hardly alone. FUBU founder and Shark Tank star Daymond John says that as he was launching his business, he was still working 40 hours per week waiting tables at Red Lobster. As money came in, he started cutting down on shifts at the restaurant — but just because his priorities shifted didn’t mean he reduced the time he spends working. His advice?
“Work. Bust your butt. Get up before everybody, go to sleep after everybody, and bust your butt. That’s it,” he says.
Entrepreneur and author Grant Cardone argues that, “There are 168 hours in a week. You should be working most of them.”
“If you want to change your condition, you have to work,” he says. “If you can outwork the rest of the population, you’re going to get lucky.”
Perhaps the highest profile proponent of the insane workweek is none other than Elon Musk, who maintains that it takes 80 to 100 hours per week to get ahead. An “excruciating” year for him meant putting in more than 120 hours per week, which meant forgoing showering and sometimes sleeping on the floor of his factory.
While he admits such hours will make you “a little bonkers,” he thinks that an 80 or 90-hour workweek is “pretty manageable.”
Musk was recently anointed the richest person in the world, so it’s hard to argue that his system doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a toll.
The argument for working less
There’s no denying that getting a startup off the ground is hard. Launching my company, JotForm, demanded dedication and yes, lots of hard work. But while burning the midnight oil 24/7 might suit some people, there’s lots of scientific evidence to suggest that not only is overworking bad for your health, it’s probably not even helping your business.
The first and most obvious problem with working long hours is that it means cutting down on sleep. If you’re pulling 80 or 90 hour weeks, you’re working anywhere from 11 to 18 hours per day, depending on whether you’re taking any days off. Inadequate rest interferes with your ability to focus and think creatively.
“Sleep deprivation causes cognitive impairment that can lead to dangerous and costly mistakes and accidents on the job,” Janet Kennedy, a clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, tells CNBC. “It also makes us more prone to illness, depression and anxiety — all of which compromise productivity.”
And that’s not all: Regularly sleeping fewer than six hours a night will not only prevent you from thinking straight, it can also contribute to hypertension, diabetes, breast cancer in women, prostate cancer in men, and an array of other health problems.
Physical wellbeing aside, research shows that grinding away nonstop isn’t actually helping you get ahead. In a study from Stanford University, economist John Pencavel found that productivity per hour sharply declines past 50 hours a week, and plateaus completely after 55 hours per week. Those who are working 70 hours in a week accomplish roughly as much as those who put in 55 hours.
According to Alex Pang, author of the book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, there is, in fact, a correct number of hours to work each day: Four. Over the course of his research, Pang continued to encounter one luminary after the other who constrained their work to four hours each day: Charles Darwin worked for two 90-minute periods each morning then another hour later in the day. The mathematician Henri Poincaré worked from 10 am till noon then 5 pm until 7 pm. Thomas Jefferson, Alice Munro, John le Carré followed similar patterns.
“The research is very clear that no matter what kind of work you do, overwork is going to impact your productivity for the worse,” Pang tells the Guardian. “The studies show that it’s not creative people who are affected by these things. It’s human beings who are affected by them.”
No one can tell you how many hours per week to work. But in order to find the right balance, it helps to be honest with yourself — are you really accomplishing anything in your 13th hour in front of a spreadsheet? Science suggests probably not.