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How Much Work Are You Really Supposed To Do at Work?

If you work an office job, your life is likely run by eight-hour intervals set by a corporation: 9 to 5, 8 to 4, 10 to 6. Working from home, those hours tend to expand—scrolling emails at seven, sitting at a monitor for in between snippets of childcare and chores, more emails before bed. These hours dictate our sleep schedules. They determine when we have free time and how often we see our families. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are slotted around time spent at work.  

But, while it’s true you’re at work during those eight hour figures, you probably aren’t sitting at your computer doing work the entire time. You might grab a coffee with coworkers, or take a personal phone call. And probably, you spend at least some of the time doing nothing but checking TikTok or browsing Zara. 

That’s not only reasonable, it’s innate. As humans, concentrating on work for every minute of an eight hour day is “impossible,” says Malissa Clark, a psychologist at the University of Georgia whose research focuses on employee wellbeing and workaholism. 

But how many hours should we actually work? What are other people doing?

In a 2016 UK survey, 1,989 full-time office workers reported working an average of 2 hours and 53 minutes per day. That’s just one survey. But there’s a lot of evidence that office work just isn’t as productive as we think. In 2006 Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, gathered data from phones and computers and found that the average time people spent working on a device at a time was two minutes and 11 seconds, shorter than some Tiktok videos. And in survey of 1,000 American office workers in 2018, 36% of millennial and Gen-Z employees estimated that they spend two hours a day distracted by their smartphones. 

No matter your intention, whether you’re working from a home office or next to your coworkers, it really is hard to work consistently at work. We’re being set up to fail, and to feel bad about it. There has to be a better way. 

Why do we work eight hours a day? 

If we know people can’t focus for that long, why insist that workers put in at least eight hours? “The length of the working day is not based on science, it’s based on struggle,” says Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back. Eight hours is not a figure that reflects how long a human can focus, or the amount needed to keep the economy running. It’s based, says Jaffe, “on the fact that factory workers used to work 14 hours, and then they struck and fought until they got it down to 10, and then they struck and fought until they got it down to eight.” 

In the 1800s, the eight hour day was radical. But why is it still being applied almost 200 years later? You know what’s changed—we have tools that allow almost every kind of production in almost every industry to be more efficient than it was. In the past, I would have spent hours in a library verifying the spelling of the last names in this article. Today, it took about 50 seconds.

The other problem with a 19th century work model is that it was designed for a time when most women were homemakers. “This 40 hour workweek was designed when we still had this breadwinner model in families where one person would be the worker and one person would stay home and take care of the family role,” says Clark. If you’ve ever struggled to work 40 hours a week and meal prep and clean and run errands and care for your child, this is why. 40 hours of work is a reasonable expectation for someone who has a full-time worker at home. 

How productive are we, even? 

Given new technology, maintaining long work weeks should lead to amazing productivity, right? Not necessarily. “There’s diminishing returns when you get to a certain total number of hours,” says Melissa Nightingale, co-author of the upcoming Unmanageable: Leadership Lessons from an Impossible Year. “The quality of work, the more hours you’re putting in—it sort of drops off a cliff.” 

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