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Is it time to rethink the 8-hour workday?

The Motley Fool logo The Motley Fool 9/12/2017 Maurie Backman
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Americans certainly aren't strangers to working long hours. In fact, 40% of U.S. employees regularly put in over 50 hours of work per week, while 20% top the 60-hour mark. But even if we choose to consider these numbers extreme, the reality is that most employees are expected to adhere to the standard eight-hour workday.

Now when you think about it, 40 hours of work per week sounds a lot more reasonable, and doable, than 50 or 60 hours per week. But depending on the nature of your work, putting in an eight-hour day may not end up being all that productive, especially on a consistent basis.

Should you be working 8 hours every day?

In the U.S., working eight hours (or more) per day has unquestionably become the norm. But many of history's most brilliant and creative figures were known to spend just a few hours each day doing their most important work (think Darwin, Dickens, and a host of personalities who could easily command their own Jeopardy category).

And it's not just the famous scientists, authors, and artists of the past who conformed to the "less is more" theory. In a survey conducted in the 1950s, scientists who spent 25 hours at work per week were no more productive than those who only spent five. Not only that, but scientists who worked 35 hours a week were half as productive as those who put in 20 hours a week. A similar pattern, in fact, was observed among violin students who were the subject of a study in the 1980s.

The takeaway? According to author and researcher Alex Pang, four hours is actually the optimal amount of time to spend per day if your work is creative in nature, or requires a notable degree of thinking and concentration. In other words, if you work on an assembly line, you'll most likely maintain your productivity during an eight-hour shift. But if your job requires imagination, ingenuity, and above-average mental focus, you may be better off limiting that work to four hours per day, as opposed to eight or more.

Making better use of our time

Now, this isn't to say that all creative or scientific professionals ought to work for four hours and then go home and call it a day. But what the above findings teach us is that there might be a better way to go about organizing our days. Most of us, for example, have what we call busy work as part of our responsibilities.

Architects, for example, don't necessarily come to work and hammer out drawings all day; they're often required to attend meetings, answer emails, and compose updates. So if you're an architect, your takeaway here is that you may be better off limiting your hard-core architectural work to four hours a day, and spending your remaining hours on tasks that are less mentally taxing, like filing paperwork or clearing out your inbox.

Here's another strategy to consider: Many of us spend a significant chunk of our time in meetings, which often have a negative connotation in the context of the workday. But if you schedule your meetings strategically, they might serve as the mental break you need to be more efficient at the challenging tasks your job requires. So if, for example, you're a copywriter who can only hammer out so much content without regressing into brain-mush mode, arrange your schedule so that you're typing away for two hours, but then have a 90-minute break in the form of a team meeting.

Remember, though four hours might be the ideal amount of time to focus each day on your key responsibilities, you don't necessarily want to do the same thing for four hours in a row. Quite the contrary -- giving your brain some time off is essential to your ultimate success.

It's unlikely that Corporate America will soon change its ways and embrace the four-hour workday, but in the meantime, what the rest of us can do is express and acknowledge our mental limitations -- and plan our workdays around them.

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