Why the Eight Hour Workday Is a Recipe for Disaster in Modern Jobs

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Most Americans know nothing different than an eight-hour workday. Well, it’s about time to change that way of thinking – at least according to one writer.

Ironically, the idea behind the eight-hour workday that became standardized in American work culture can be credited to…a Welsh textile mill owner. Robert Owen put the practice in place in the early 1800’s as a compromise to the typical 12-14-hour shifts that factory workers, including children, were forced to work.

His motto of “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest” certainly makes sense on the surface. Then again, life was a little bit different before iPhones, e-mails, bills and other technological stress-inducers.

The American work culture continued to undergo changes over time, most notably with Henry Ford mandating a five-day, 40-hour workweek in his factories in 1926. Less than 15 years later, Congress made that 40-hour workweek the American standard, a standard which far outpaces many other developed countries around the world.

Nearly 100 years later, however, the landscape of the American workforce has changed dramatically. Manufacturing jobs are few and far between when compared to service- and office-based positions. And according to writer Lizzie Wade, the very nature of most modern-day jobs makes it simply impossible to actually work an entire eight-hour work day.

As Wade puts it, knowledge workers, such as coders, writers and graphic designers, often spend the majority of their day sitting in front of a computer. Whether this occurs from the comfy confines of a couch or the dreaded desk chair in an open office, the fact remains that it is incredibly difficult to maximize intellectual productivity for eight hours a day, five days a week and then shut work off.

RescueTime Reveals the Truth About Hours Worked

To test this theory, Wade tracked her computer usage utilizing an application called RescueTime. The full-time freelancer was mired in a hectic workweek, as she had to finish a lengthy magazine feature in addition to a technical science news story on a tight deadline. The stress from trying to achieve both tasks left her feeling depressed and anxious. Throw in some poor eating habits and a lack of exercise, and Wade unsurprisingly got sick immediately after finishing her work.

Upon reviewing her RescueTime stats from Wednesday to the following Monday, she found she had worked a total of 35 hours and 17 minutes and spent 84 percent of her time on work (as opposed to the many of us who get distracted by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube videos). And it’s not like she stopped to spend her weekend at the bar or club; she worked two hours on Saturday and another seven on Sunday – the days that people are supposed to rest.

The numbers revealed that Wade never worked eight hours in a single day (though she did exceed seven hours on three occasions). Remember that those stats were based on a busy week. Her stats from a more typical week in October showed she worked just 27 hours and 11 minutes with an 82 percent productivity score. Interestingly, that fell in line with many of her fellow freelancers, who reported that they spent about five or six hours per day actually working.

Considering the amount of brain power and creativity that many of these jobs require, those stats shouldn’t be so shocking.

Productivity expert Cal Newport explained that deep work, which requires intense focus and pushes humans to their intellectual and creative limits, is essential not only to our jobs but our intrinsic happiness. Any writer who puts the final period at the end of a breaking story or any artist who makes that final brushstroke can attest to that feeling of accomplishment. Yet, those same workers can also testify that it is incredibly challenging to maintain the level of discipline and concentration that their craft requires for more than a few hours at a time.

The Proper Creative Work Schedule

Completing tedious administrative work is a necessary evil that comes with many of these jobs. Taking the time to answer an e-mail from an editor or setting up interviews or meetings with clients comes with the territory. However, Wade suggests dedicating most of your time on deep work and keeping the more menial work at a minimum (if you can).

If that means you fall short of the eight-hour workday, that is just fine. In fact, according to Wade, five hours of work is the optimal time frame for anyone in the creative space. She’s not alone in her thinking – a New York Times article recently reported about a German-based startup with a strict schedule of 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Could you imagine a U.S. company implementing the same idea?

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While some jobs will inherently require more than five hours to complete effectively, those in the creative space would benefit greatly from a shift in thinking. As a writer myself, I can attest to the problem that many of us face: burnout. Maintaining fresh ideas and allowing the mind to flow freely can be difficult once you’ve been staring at a screen for hours on end.

So put me on #TeamWade when it comes to the five-hour workday idea. It’s about time.