Challenging The Math of a Work Week

April 25, 2012 § 46 Comments

I like to color outside of the lines.  In business, I feel most comfortable when I am least comfortable.  My favorite quote is Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena.” I have patterned my career by this advice.  So I love people who break convention too.  I am fascinated by them.  I celebrate them and defend them from critics…unless what they say is wrong.

Challenging the Math of a Work Week

In this blog post yesterday, Ryan Carson, the CEO of Treehouse, made a compelling argument for a 4-day work week.  You should read it.  It has some great points.  And it would be so awesome if it shifted the dynamics of our society.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend more QT with the kidos?  Unfortunately, while there is no doubting his initial success, any company with a culture of a 4-day work week will not stand the test of time against competition.  It simply can’t.  The math is too overwhelming against it.

The Math

Since most development teams are using sprints these days, I will put the math in those terms.  We do two-week sprints.  For comparison sake, let’s take two companies.  Company A (ie Treehouse) works the 9-6, 4-day work week (or 36 hour work week, assuming no lunch).  Company B works 9-7 for 5-days and puts in 4 hours on Saturday (or 54 hours).  The difference in output (assuming same productivity) is that team B could produce 50% more code.  Think about how much your development team accomplishes in a sprint.  Now think of the difference in the product between 26 sprints/year and 39 sprints/year.  There really is very little in the technology world that can’t be copied.  Giving up an extra 13 sprints/year to a competitor is simply unsustainable.

“But Productivity Shouldn’t Be Held Constant!”

One of the key arguments that Ryan makes is that the team is fresh every Monday and thus uber productive.  It just feels so good to type that.  A self-fulfilling prophesy that feels so good.  But the reality is talented people are able to sustain a high level of productivity at long hours.  Some of the best engineers in the world work insane hours at Google, Apple and facebook and put out great products.

And The Best Companies are Filled With These Type of People

Sometimes, we get stuck in our own local bubble and we think that we are simply more talented than other people.  Our product ideas are so great that we will stay ahead of the competition just by out-thinking them.  Early success validates this theory.  So you write a blog post proclaiming that you are so much more intelligent than others that you can work 50% less and still kick their ass.  You pound your chest, look in the mirror, give yourself a wink and then hit the submit button on your blog.  Ahh…it feels so good to be king.  And then one day, a competitor comes out of nowhere, and has your same features, for less cost and a few new features that are awesome.  And now you are playing catch up.  But you will never catch up.

Here is what I believe

One of the biggest benefits of going to a place like Harvard Business School is that you are surrounded by people who are insanely talented.  And you realize that while your Mom believes you are the smartest person in the world, you really aren’t.  There are so many other people who are wicked smart.  And they all work so damn hard.  They don’t work 54-hour weeks.  They work 70-80 hour weeks.  And they sustain that level indefinitely.  Holy crap…that is humbling.  And as you start thinking about competing with them, you realize that the profits in almost all markets accrue to the top company.  As Viper in Top Gun says eloquently, “there are no points for second place.”

So here is what I believe, sustained success is not an accident.  You have to be very talented and work very hard.

In the blog post, Ryan argues that he gets to see his kids a lot due to the 4-day work week.  And that is awesome!  I love my two sons more than anything in the world.  I would jump in front of moving train to save my children.  There is nothing more valuable to me than my children.  And while I selfishly love spending time with them, I also believe that a big part of my responsibility as a father is to train them how to succeed in business.  That is the reason that I blog.  So that 25+ years from now they have a record of how I think as a business man and hopefully can learn from my lessons.  And so here is my best advice to my sons…Be the first guy in the gym and the last to leave!

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§ 46 Responses to Challenging The Math of a Work Week

  • Matt says:

    “But the reality is talented people are able to sustain a high level of productivity at long hours.”

    This is where you went wrong. All the scientific research shows you are wrong and people constantly over estimate their own productivity when working long hours.

    Do yourself, your life and your sanity a favour and go read some scientific studies before advocating this.

    • v1again says:

      Matt – I appreciate your comment and the passion behind your statement. However, I have seen evidence supporting my assertions first hand many times over.

    • Martin says:

      Matt brings up a very good point. Everything I’ve been taught is that longer work weeks over time do not equate to higher productivity but in fact in the long run wind up equating to the same as a 40 hour work week.

      Several key points though: usually the studies I read were about physical labor instead of mental; passion may be able to overcome some of this; and there are exceptions to the rules … sometimes.

      Have you read any scientific studies looking at this type of productivity? I have to agree with Matt though, because it is really hard to have a definitive answer on this without some sort of measurement.

      For example, I know how long it takes me to bike across town and how fast I am going not because I intuitively felt my speed, but because I timed it a few times and recorded my speeds until I know roughly what it feels like to go that speed.

      In the same way, I guess what we’re both asking is: what is your measurement tool? How are you defining productivity and in all of your experience, have you been using this standard to measure what you’ve seen?

    • merennulli says:

      I’ve seen plenty of these studies as well, and I have to concur. The burnout rate is much higher, and the fiction that someone you have working longer hours is magically superior enough to handle it is just asking to ruin your best talent.

      I’ve seen plenty of supervisors, my own included, who thought the truly talented were an exception to reality. It NEVER works that way, not in any studies that have been conducted, nor in the reality behind the anecdotes of people who believe it worked out fine for them. I don’t know your team, but I’ve seen dozens like it that wondered why they had high turnover and were uncompetitive in the long haul despite working harder and burning through the coffee.

      “Work smarter, not harder.”

  • Ryan says:

    The trouble is that more time in front of the computer != better products. Clear-thinking, happy Team Members == better products.

    Also, if I had to ultimately choose, I would always choose to work in a company that was built upon 4-day weeks that was worth $x then a company that was built on 5-day weeks (or 6 or 7) and was worth $x(1.5).

    I think once you make a certain amount of money, hustling for another day, in order to achieve more money, is just a bad trade. When I die, I’ll be SO glad I traded money for more time with my loved ones.

  • Frank Orwell says:

    “There are no points for second place”. That’s just a lie. You’re an idiot. You don’t have to be Microsoft or Google or Facebook to be a successful business. Not everyone’s goal in life is to be the richest person on the planet. You can live a fine life by running a 7-11 or many other things. Life is about living, not about money, or business. Your quotes are as juvenile minded as Will Ferrell’s in “Talladega Nights” – “If you’re not first, you’re last!” The only thing you apparently want to teach your children is that success and money are the only things that matter which is a piss poor message. Travel the world and see that there are billions, literally billions, of people that don’t believe that and live perfectly reasonable lives. You’re American-dream views are young and many in the modern world have already outgrown them. Here’s a quote for you to ponder, “Life isn’t about competition, its about creation.”

    • v1again says:

      Frank – Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your POV and the passion behind your statements. And I agree with it…under certain circumstances. If you make the decision to run a family business, that is all good. I would never begrudge a personal decision. However, some people are driven to be the best. To win. And if you are shooting for second place, then you shouldn’t take VC money. And you shouldn’t hold up yourself as a rule for VC backed companies. You should just be honest that you want to build a small business and spend more time with family.

  • Moschops says:

    “And so here is my best advice to my sons…Be the first guy in the gym and the last to leave!”

    I suppose gym janitor is at least steady work.

    • v1again says:

      If my son is passionate about being a janitor and gives it his best effort, then I would be very proud.

    • frank says:

      The gym metaphor is very apt for this discussion because it is an area where less is usually more. And Americans in particular fail to grasp this.

      Eastern Block countries knew/know that strength training sessions generally should be limited to 40 minutes, and for many athletes sessions must be at most three times a week. Americans over train: too much volume, not enough focus. This is a major reason Americans lose at strength sports.

      I’ve seen similar arguments for why Americans lose at wrestling. The Americans train with a “push harder and longer” mentality, whereas the consistently great international programs do lots of light and easy days just focusing on the fundamentals without breaking a sweat.

      In terms of office work there’s probably something to be said about how many Asian firms go for the death march approach and have lousy profitability.

  • caryfitzhugh says:

    Your company may benefit from 54 hours a week. For now – but the same dynamics you are trying to make work in your favor (50% more time at work) – would also balance itself out.

    Your company is pushing 54 hours a week – and the really talented people may just decide to leave your company for one which has shorter hours but the same pay. (Assumption being you aren’t paying your guys 50% more $$ – since then it wouldn’t be much of an advantage).

    So now you are putting in 54 hours with less productive talent, which may make you come out about even in the end (i’d imagine it may even make you negative at some point). The guys who can’t leave for the shorter work week company stay, but aren’t as skilled.

    So now you are almost in the same boat as you were before, but putting in 54 hour weeks. And you have less free time to get inspiration or let things simmer in your head.

    In a startup, extra time can make a difference, yes. Productivity is probably a bell curve for each individual, and peaks somewhere around 30 – 50 hours depending on a lot of variables.

    In my limited experience though – the most successful part of a product is figuring out which feature to *not* put in, which complexity to *not* add. And then refining it to be something a user really can use.
    Those sorts of decisions can only come with experience with the product, which can only come with time (not necessarily coding time, but time being in / around the product and the users).

    So doing longer hours could also just make you run faster, but you still don’t know which direction to run w/o stopping to think for a bit.

    • v1again says:

      I appreciate your comment, but I think it is filled with a lot of false choices.

      • caryfitzhugh says:

        I may have spoken unclearly – I didn’t think I was really describing choices(either true or false) – but simply that it’s more like a zero-sum game than not.

        Your argument (I believe) is sortof based on the idea that if everything is relatively the same and I increase hours by 50%, then => large increase in productivity. You can go faster than the competition, kick butt, win!

        Most every brute-force advantage you try to gain – will more often than not, produce opposite counter-effects unless you change other variables. Brute force is things like more pay, more time, etc. Things which are not unique to you as a person / team.

        Who wants to work 50% longer for the same pay? To compensate you’d have to raise salary / stock options – which means your costs are higher, etc. etc, etc).

        That didn’t seem to be what I got across, given your response. ?
        Oh well!

      • v1again says:

        @caryfitzhugh – I would gladly give more equity to employees to work harder than a competitor.

  • MauerJ says:

    > “And then one day, a competitor comes out of nowhere, and has your same features, for less cost and a few new features that are awesome. And now you are playing catch up. But you will never catch up.”

    > “It just feels so good to type that. A self-fulfilling prophesy that feels so good. ”

    Who uses this self-fulfilling prophesy — Treehouse to justify 4 day work weeks or OP to justify hard-work trumping a different view? Both can use the same argument.

    > “And so here is my best advice to my sons…Be the first guy in the gym and the last to leave!”
    …but are you on the field playing the game?

    Good article, thank-you for the perspective.

    • v1again says:

      I don’t believe hard work guarantees success. Just that it is near impossible to have sustained success without it.

      • MauerJ says:

        I apologize, I did not mean to imply that you thought hard work guaranteed success.

        To keep context with your article, you have defined success as being in the gym and part of that sustained success is “being the first guy in the gym and the last to leave”. For competitors that define success as being on the playing field and not in the gym, I don’t think the same rules apply. I’d argue they aren’t even competitors, because they do not share the same definition of success.

  • Anonymous says:

    I don’t disagree with the post but I do disagree with the first one in, last one out comment. Giving people the flexibility to work hard but on their own schedules can help attract and retain people. Honestly I don’t know how a couple with two meaningful careers and kids can do it otherwise. Lastly, the most successful people I know are also the most efficient people capable of mutli-tasking at a staggering level.

    • v1again says:

      I completely agree with (and support in my company) flexible work hours. Personally, I get in every day at 8:15 and leave at 6. I am home to tuck my sons in to bed and eat dinner with my wife. I then jump back online to finish up the day’s work.

      • Scott Bram says:

        Fuck. That. Shit.

        You keep reinforcing the idea that equates a numerical accumulation of hours with passion or “hard work”. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take some tragic or shocking event before you realize it is simply not how life was meant to be lived. Your wife and and sons deserve better,

      • v1again says:

        Hi Scott. My wife and sons appreciate your concern, however it is not needed. We have a very happy family life and I spend a lot of time with them. See above comments about my work hours.

        Also, I never “equated a numerical accumulation of hours with passion or “hard work”.” Those are all separate and important parts of the equation. I hope my sons find a vocation that they are truly passionate about. And when they do, it won’t feel like work. It will be truly enjoyable.

      • Scott Bram says:

        Here’s some math: Assuming you work from home (no commute) and get a comfortable minimum of 8 hours of sleep, you’re still saying that 18% less time with your family (56 vs 36 hrs/wk) is justified because it’s sustainable (by those who are capable)?

        Can != Should

        Have you tried to be “successful” while NOT working that much? It seems foolish to not to attempt some sort of A/B testing, as it were, with your schedule since others have clearly achieved what any reasonable businessperson would classify as a success while doing so. (I suppose that’s all predicated on one’s own definition of success, though I think there’s at least an arguable median for it.)

        Besides, do you really think at the end of your life, you can look your children in the eyes and tell them you’re glad you did that? What about your wife? Or yourself??

        Sadly, having known, worked with, and worked for people like that, you just may have fooled yourself enough to think so…

      • v1again says:

        Scott, I appreciate your faux concern for my family. However, it is not needed. I spend a lot of time with them and I am able to also work a full week.

        And to answer your question, yes, I have AB tested a short week vs a longer week. I always produce more in the longer week.

        But to be clear, you are free to do whatever you want with your life/career. I am not telling you how to live your life. I am simply stating that I think it is wrong to make the argument that a VC backed company (i.e. not a lifestyle business) can be successful over time against other VC backed companies that work 50% more than them. It is hubris to think that you will always be smarter than the field.

      • Scott Bram says:

        As you feel that I am being insincere, I will stoop temporarily to meet your presumption eye-level: Your claim is without merit. Your evidence is anecdotal at best and deadly at worst. The gains of your “ability” are laughably temporal and, sadly, largely material. To use your apparent passion in pursuits that produce only selfish gain is imprudent and ill-advised (I would hope there are not mentors who feed such vanity.)

        I am sure you would refute by stating in defense that you are making a better life for your family and the hope of a better future for your progeny. This is true…

        …If you are a creature lacking self-awareness and conscious free will, guided only by base survival instincts and the drive to propagate the species.

        Unlike most other resources at your disposal, Time is one that cannot multiplied, manufactured, recycled, or replaced. How a minute is spent, will it remain spent eternally — never to be recaptured or reinvested.

        Forgive my high-mindedness (or don’t, that is your choice), I only sought for you to consider how your finite allocation of that precious resource is applied. Perhaps you have and it is my own selfishness to assume you might view your folly with anywhere as near equal distaste as I have.

        tl;dr
        I acknowledge your dedication and respectfully abhor it.

  • Greg Meece says:

    At the risk of cutting too close to the quick, let me start by quoting what you say in your last paragraph:

    “I love my two sons more than anything in the world. I would jump in front of moving train to save my children. There is nothing more valuable to me than my children.”

    The truth is – no, no you don’t. You don’t love your children more than anything else. You love your job and what you do, and the fleeting promise of “success” more than them. Of course, I can’t know your heart and what you intend to esteem, but how you invest your time is the actual currency of value.

    I used to think as you do. I am in my 50’s now, and my 3 sons (insert 60’s sit-com joke here) are out of the house, and my daughter will be off to college in the fall. The biggest regret I have in my life is spending so much time on the job early in my career, such that my oldest two and I have a strained relationship to this day.

    It could be that, in your value system, teaching your sons that succeeding in business is the most important thing in life. Granted, it is important, and they should learn a good work ethic. I hope, for their sake, they don’t learn from their father that business success equals life success. It’s a lesson I wish my older sons could un-learn.

    • v1again says:

      You mis-understood my post which led you to draw incorrect assumptions about my argument and then challenged my love for my children. I see my children every day before bed time and spend great time on the weekends with them. What I don’t do is sit in front of a TV very much being a couch potato. So my work time comes out of my personal time. Not my time with my kids. That is absolutely a lesson I want my sons to learn. And let’s be clear here, we are talking about 54 hours a week. Not 100 hour weeks. Your comments are overly dramatic.

  • mattvanhorn says:

    The evidence you cite is pure anecdata. The actual science – and there is a lot of it, some of it available in HBR – does not support your view. The truth is, productivity starts to drop off after 40 hours, and it drops off much faster than people subjectively estimate.

    There is a reason that airline pilots and surgeons are limited in the number of hours they can work.

    Besides productivity, creativity also suffers when people are tired, so in the end, you are neither working harder, nor smarter than your hypothetical competition.

    I’m a developer and a jiu jitsu practitioner – there’s a motto that is applicable to both: Maximum effect from minimum effort. You should teach your kids to aspire to that, instead of grinding out the hours.

    Running out of gas leads to defeat in combat, and in business.

    • v1again says:

      Thanks for your comment Matt. I am advocating putting in a few extra hours per day. I would love to see evidence that supports that the productivity fall-off is so great that you don’t gain any benefit. Please post any of the articles you referenced. If I am wrong, I will gladly admit it.

      • mattvanhorn says:

        The tl;dr version is that you can do those 54+ hours weeks for up to about 2 months, before you are getting less productivity than you would have with a 40 week. If company A works 36 hour weeks, and company B works 54 hour weeks, then company A is outperforming company B for 10 months out of the year.

  • mattvanhorn says:

    Here’s a quick set of links to peruse:

    In 1908 — almost a century ago — industrial efficiency pioneer Ernst Abbe published in Gessamelte Abhandlungen his conclusions that a reduction in daily work hours from nine to eight resulted in an increase in total daily output.

    There are some interesting diagrams here:
    http://www.worklessparty.org/timework/chapman.htm
    Sidney J. Chapman’s 1909 address on the “Hours of Labour” was considered the “classical statement of the theory of ‘hours’ in a free market”, (J.R. Hicks, Theory of Wages, 1932)

    Hugo Münsterberg’s 1913 Psychology and Industrial Efficiency confirms Abbe’s work:
    http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Munster/Industrial/chap17.htm
    Ernst Abbe, the head of one of the greatest German factories, wrote many years ago that the shortening from nine to eight hours, that is, a cutting-down of more than 10 per cent, did not involve a reduction of the day’s product, but an increase, and that this increase did not result from any supplementary efforts by which the intensity of the work would be reinforced in an unhygienic way. This conviction of Abbe still seems to hold true after millions of experiments over the whole globe.

    From the Executive Summary of Scheduled Overtime Effect on Construction Projects, published by The Business Roundtable in 1980:
    Where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week.

    From here: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_pnih/is_200303/ai_90467367/
    …a study on the effects of sleep deprivation, investigators at the University of Pennsylvania found that subjects who slept four to six hours a night for fourteen consecutive nights showed significant deficits in cognitive performance equivalent to going without sleep for up to three days in a row. Yet these subjects reported feeling only slightly sleepy and were unaware of how impaired they were.

    • v1again says:

      Matt – thank you for taking the time to research. I think it misses the point, however. Top talent at top performing companies prove refute these studies daily. Example: look at all of the top tier consulting firms – McKinsey, Bain, etc. All brilliant minds and Type A personalities that work well past a 40-hour week at high productivity. It is the same in many other professions. Personally, I have worked more than 40-hours most of my career and have seen very little drop off in productivity until I get to about 65/70-hours.

  • Matt says:

    37signals work a 4 hour work week, it seems to work for them and I count myself among a large group of developers who would just love to work there.

    Personally, when Friday comes, my head is “swiss cheesed”, I can’t really do heavy mental lifting any more. Truth be told I’d probably be better having Wednesday off.

    Monday is my most productive day, by about a third. Tuesday slightly less so, and so on throughout the week until Friday when I’m crap. So it stands to reason that if I had two sets of two high energy days, instead of the gradual drop into exhaustion, I’d produce about the same amount. I’d also be happier of course.

    “Doing the math”, output = f(hours) is a non-linear function. Exhaustion is a real thing and you will see some kind of decline of your abilities over time without adequate rest. I see so many business owners who push themselves so hard that they are constantly fried, unable to think straight, causing them to serially make unreasoned decisions, many of which lay waste to these volumes of extra hours they put in. I soo agree with Matt above: ‘Maximum effect from minimum effort’ should be written above the door of every office.

  • Anonymous says:

    “But the reality is talented people are able to sustain a high level of productivity at long hours.” [citation needed]

  • Ian Sigalow says:

    Steven – in spite of what some people have said in the comments I agree that it is possible to work more than 40 hours per week without degrading performance. Taking short breaks throughout the day is helpful but people can easily log 60 or more productive hours in a week. There are plenty of studies that emphasize this among high achievers. There are of course some people who don’t operate this way but they are not going to be a good fit for many high performing teams. It also requires a lot of practice to get into a state where you can focus for this long. Kind of like running a marathon or Navy Seal training…

    There are few environments as competitive as the startup world, and while a few companies have done ok with 30-40 hr work weeks most companies in my experience need to put in much longer hours to succeed. And many of the Internet businesses are “winner take most” so being third or fourth is not going to produce much of an outcome.

    Anyone who really contests this fact should spend some time trying to start companies in France… you will figure out quickly that even with a highly educated workforce you cant be successful in a global market with low labor productivity (as defined by hours worked per week).

    • v1again says:

      Thanks for your comment Ian. As someone who has worked those hours my entire career, I can attest that it is absolutely achievable.

    • Matt says:

      For programmers, it’s all about sustainable pace. I can work 60 hours no sweat, I just have to make what I do more pedestrian. Similarly, I can destroy my ability to think for the rest of the week in 20 hours of intense graft. I tend to operate between these two extremes and 40 hours is plenty enough, even with all the ninja mental discipline a guy learns working under constant time pressure for over ten years.

      Just out of interest, do either of you know your way around a computer science algorithm, or have the ability to draw up an application design using software engineering principles? I’m wondering what depth of thought you have to maintain throughout the day. I’m pretty sure I could live at my desk if I was just knocking out PHP pages, though boredom might kill me before exhaustion.

      I tried to gague my performance at one point (rather unscientifically, as you must in software development) and discovered I produce about six times as much as the average coder. That sample includes the long hours brigade and I very rarely work overtime. i.e. I’m a 9-5er and I’m definitely a good fit for a high performing team.

      It’s just not the panacea you think it is. More mental stress just leads to a propensity for mental stress, it’s not a muscle you can train. Software development is nothing to do with military or sports. Jees, it’s closer to arts and crafts than those and I don’t see many macho leadership books espousing first principles from those professions.

  • Matt says:

    I’m glad we agree on that. I read this and thought that you believed a four hour week just couldn’t work because, across the board, development companies working more hours (and the more the better) would naturally produce more and trounce their competitors.

    I reckon that long hours cultures are borne on the back of false assumptions: that hours cause output rather than effort; that tired, unfocussed, demoralised, crabby staff are okay, that only difficulty leads to achievement, the more the better. It’s a belief that runs rampant in the development industry. It causes widespread misery, illness and has never actually helped a business in anything but the shortest term either. Maybe apart from the gaming industry where they let their burnt-out team go if they want and get a new one every cycle, but I’m trusting that you agree that’s not the right way to do things.

  • Nate says:

    Steven, it’s funny to me that you keep asking others for citations and evidence of their claims that productivity drops off after 40 hours/week, but you have produced no such evidence for your claims that so-called “high-achievers” are immune to these effects. Please produce some evidence, or I will be forced to categorize this post under ‘BULLSHIT’.

    PS. We shouldn’t try to make rules for 99% of the population based on the top 1%, or 0.01%.

    PPS. Life and happiness aren’t about making money and being “successful” in a business sense. Happiness comes from strong relationships with people. Who knows though, maybe you have a degree of Asperger’s syndrome and don’t do well socially.

    PPPS. At a glance, your product looks lame. Minor facebook add-on in my opinion.

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