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How Many Hours of Work is Enough?

There seem to be two camps that are at different extremes of the work-hour debate. On one hand, we have a push for a 35 hour work week and the concept of “right to disconnect.” On the other hand, we have the idea of the 100 hour work week.

Rachel Thomas wrote an interesting piece about tech’s long hours, and how they are discriminatory and counterproductive. Consider the following point that Thomas made.

Elon Musk posted a declaration that to change the world, people need to work 80 hours per week, peaking above 100 at times. Uber formerly had an explicit company value to “work harder, longer, and smarter” and served dinner at 8:15 p.m. “Working seven days a week, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., was considered normal,” said one former employee.

This is indeed toxic. But why is that? Obviously we can only work so many hours a week, no matter what, before we reach burnout. And there are only 168 hours in a week! That means that people like Musk are suggesting that downtime should constitute 40% of our week, including time for sleep, while we should be working 60% of the time.

So who is right? Honestly, I think both parties are right and both parties are wrong, although 100 hours a week, every week is extreme. But what determines whether it makes sense to be working 35 hours a week, or 80–100 hours a week, really depends on whether you’re just doing a job, or if you’re building a career.

Journalism as an Example

Let’s take journalism as an example, and specifically, let’s consider Medium. If you’re a journalist and are writing for a company, you need to spend time researching topics, thinking of what to write, and actually writing. You might have to do some basic engagement with your reader base as well. And that very well could take up 35–40 hours a week.

But that’s not what I’m doing. That’s because I’m working on integrating my journalism into my career. So instead of just doing a little bit of interacting with my readers, I also interact with the broader Medium community. I try to read as many articles as I can. I try to read information on ways to improve my writing, as well as grow my reader base. I interact with the other writers on Medium, comment on articles, and respond to people commenting across the platform.

I also spend a lot of energy on other areas, including setting up my own websites, promoting them, working on other projects, including writing scholarly papers. I am investing a lot of time, each week, into my work. I don’t know how many hours a week I really spend on all of this work, but I’ll often be online, working, from early morning until late at night. In fact, if I happen to wake up in the middle of the night (I do have somewhat of a biphasic sleep schedule), I’ll check to see if there are responses to my articles or comments, and respond to them.

Very rarely am I disconnected from these projects. Honestly, when I’m asleep is the only time that I am truly disconnected. Now why would I dedicate so much of my life to this work? It’s because it’s not a job. I am building my career. I am investing in myself. And yes, while your brain does need downtime, as Markham Heid points out, and 35–40 hours a week may very well be enough time spent investing in someone else’s success, it isn’t even close to enough if you’re investing in yourself.


So, I think it is indeed wrong to work a 100 hour week, if you’re working for someone else. And I think that productivity does indeed drop when you work over a certain number of hours, as suggested in Debbie Madden’s piece on long work weeks. But I think that it isn’t necessarily true, when we’re working those kinds of hours in order to invest in ourselves. I don’t think the psychology is even the same. We’re awake for 112 hours a week. Our brains are active for 112 hours a week. That’s assuming we get eight hours of sleep a day.

So our brains can handle being conscious for that long. I think it’s more the monotony of the work day, and the stress of spending so much energy on others, rather than yourself that results in the kind of stress that occurs at 66+ hours. That’s not to say that everyone should work 100+ hours a week, every week, but I think that long work hours are reasonable for self investment.