Only Chumps Work More than 40 Hours a Week

Last month, I pointed out that Elon Musk was horribly wrong when he stated that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” That column got more than the usual amount of pushback, half of which seemed to come from worker-bees inside high-tech firms and the other half from people who are starting their own business. Both groups of critics are wrong but for different reasons. Allow me to explain:

If You’re Employed by Somebody Else

Not to put too fine a point on it, if you’re working 100 hours a week while being paid for 40 hours, you should listen carefully for the sound of a power tool and trumpet fanfare, because you’re being royally screwed.

Let’s suppose you’re an entry level programmer in Silicon Valley who makes the industry average of roughly $100,000 a year. Pretty good money, eh? Well, let’s see.

If you’re working 100 hour weeks and take two weeks off for vacation (good for you!), you’re spending 5,000 hour a year at work, which means you’re making $20 an hour, which is about what you’d make if you were doing auto body repair. And you wouldn’t have any student loans.

Now let’s suppose you’re an entry level marketer making $50,000 a year. (Note: in high tech, women are MUCH more likely to land a job in marketing than in programming.) In that case, if you’re working 100 hour weeks, you’re making $10 an hour, which is less than you’d make working as a cashier at WalMart. And again, you’d have no student loans.

So even though your salary looks as if you’re firmly in the middle-class, you’re really working for peanuts. You may be thinking at this point: “Well that’s the way it is. Companies need us to work extra-hard to remain competitive.” That’s total bullsh*t.

Take Rock Star Games, for instance–a company that’s been recently in the news for requiring programmers to work many hours of unpaid overtime. RSG is a subsidiary of Take Two Interactive, which is traded on NASDAQ as TTWO.

According to the Take Two’s fiscal year 2018 10K SEC filing, the company grossed $1.8 billion and netted $174 million. Their R&D budget was $196 million so, if they wanted to, they could increase their R&D personnel across the entire company by 50% and still maintain a net profit of around $74 million.

Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that because “General & Administration” expense tends rise when R&D expenses get higher. But you get the point; the money is there. Of course, not every high tech firm is profitable but where does it say that the burden of unprofitability should be borne by the workers rather than the investors or the often-quite-highly-paid top managers?

When I named Don Lyon’s excellent book Lab Rats as one of my 7 best books of 2018, I included a quote that neatly summarizes the ridiculous implicit contract that high tech firms (and the many others that imitate them) foist upon employee:

First, you are lucky to be here. Also, we do not care about you. We offer no job security. This is not a career. You are serving a short-term tour of duty. We provide no training or career development. If possible, we will make you a contractor rather than an actual employee, so that we do not have to provide you with health benefits or a 401(k) plan. We will pay you as little as possible. We do not care about diversity: African Americans and Latinos need not apply. Your job will be stressful. You will work long hours under constant pressure and with no privacy. You will monitored and surveilled. We will read your email and chat messages, and use data to measure your performance. We do not expect you to last very long. Our goal is to burn you out and churn you out. 

While the summary itself is brilliant, I emphasized the last line because research shows that working consistently long hours gives a short-term burst of productivity, which then declines and turns into negative productivity. The plan is literally to burn you out.

This personnel strategy is idiotic, especially in industries where highly talented people are difficult to come by. But companies, even (especially!) high tech ones embrace all sorts of idiotic strategies. Witness the open plan office, a well-document productivity toilet that’s become ubiquitous.

Now, you may think that you don’t have a choice and that you must participate in the insanity simply to remain employed. Not true. Here’s an alterative: Stare reality right in the face. Realize–at a gut level–that if you burn yourself out you’ll be fired, regardless of how much you’ve contributed to the company’s success.

Therefore–and this is important so read the rest of this graf very, very carefully–you may very well have MORE job security if you don’t burn yourself out… even if you irritate your bosses by refusing to work crazy hours. But let’s suppose that you DO get fired because you won’t work-til-you-drop. You’ll be far readier to find another job if you’re fired when you’re still sane than after you’re burned-out.

In fact, maybe you should spend a few hours a week lining up new opportunities, just in case. Something to do in the free time that you’ll have when you’re smart enough not to succumb to Stockholm Syndrome.

If You’re Self-Employed

The “calculate your hourly wage” stuff described above doesn’t apply when you’re self-employed. Just to be clear, by “self-employed,” I mean starting your own business with multiple clients and customers rather than a contractor with a single client–which is the same thing as being employed but worse.

When you’re self-employed, you’re going to put whatever resources you have available into creating your own personal success. Those resources very much include your time. Indeed, when you first go freelance (for instance), the one resource you’ve got a-plenty is your time.

That’s the way it is. You may not even make minimum wage in your first year. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is getting your business up and running. I get it. I’ve been there. You’re playing the long game. Good for you!

Nevertheless, even if you’re self-employed, it’s both unwise and shortsighted to work more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis because, while you’ll get a burst of productivity (you’ll get more done), the extra hours have diminished returns over time and within any time period. Let me explain.

Working long hours over a long period of time is a recipe for burn-out. No matter how committed you are, or how much you “love” your job, you will end up killing the proverbial goose that might otherwise lay you the golden egg of success.

In addition, working extra hours within a day or week has diminishing returns. Even if you get 25% more done working 50 rather than 40 hours, you’re not going to get 20% more done if you work 60 rather than 50 hours. It’s probably more like 10% at most.

Similarly, working 70 hours rather than 60 hours won’t even give you that 10%. Chances are you’ll start making mistakes that will need correction which means extra work, so the productivity “gain” is probably negative 10%… or worse.

Entrepreneurs who willfully and unwisely burn themselves out like this remind me of an observation that a dear friend of mine made a while back: “Every boss I’ve ever worked for has been an *sshole, including now that I’m self-employed.”

The challenge when you’re self-employed is to have both the self-discipline and self-confidence to NOT work long hours. That’s especially true if you truly love your job. If you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, the LAST THING you want is to work yourself to the point where it’s no longer fun. 

If you quit work each day in the middle of doing something you enjoy, you’ll start the next day excited and motivated to do more. If you continue to work each day until you simply can’t do any more, you’ll start the next day tired and bored. Again, I know this because I’ve been there and done that.

So there you are. While all of us will have “crunch times” when we need to put in some extra hours, we can’t afford to make it a habit, much less let dysfunctional corporate cultures force it down our throats.