The number of hours you should work a week to be the most productive: 35

Takeaway: To be the most productive and creative, studies have shown that you should work 35 hours a week.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 9s.

Coffee in front of the computer

A lot of people think that to be the most productive they should work for 60 hours a week, but study after study has shown that the optimal number of hours you should work is about half that number, at 35.

An interesting thing happens after you work more than 35 hours a week:1

1-2

Though your productivity may spike up at first, over time, as you don’t step away from your work, your productivity takes a nosedive as you become increasingly fatigued and stressed, even though you might not notice it at first. It also costs you because you can’t take a step back from your work to see it from a higher, more elevated perspective.

The problem is that even though people aren’t actually more productive when they work overtime, they feel more productive (multitasking has a similar effect):

2-2

According to studies, if you give two roughly equal teams the same job to do, and Team Hardcore works on overtime and Team Relaxed works only 35 hours a week, Team Relaxed is (surprisingly, to me at least) going to create a much better product at the end of the day.2

The reason for that is even though they may be doing more actual work, when people work more than 35 hours a week3, they cost themselves a lot in productivity. That’s because putting in too many hours:

  • Costs you time, energy, and money to fix mistakes in your work
  • Costs you because of the poor higher-level decisions you make (i.e. what you decide to work on in the first place)
  • Costs you because of the opportunities that you miss because you’re too focused on your work, and too stressed out

Though this research applies mainly to creative work (as opposed to repetitive, factory-type work), I think it underscores just how important it is to destress, take breaks, and relax every once in a while.

Productivity isn’t just the work you get done; it’s the work you get done, minus the time and energy you spend to clean up after your mistakes and bad decisions. After you work more than 35 hours in a week, especially when you do creative work, research has shown that you tend to do more harm than good.

As one manager put it, “if you have a programmer who can churn through 10 features in a week working overtime, imagine how far your project would be along if he was programming 8 features that were actually the right ones instead of 5 that needed to be ripped out and reworked?”

If you consistently work more than 35 hours a week, you might just be working too much.

One strategy I love to make sure I don’t invest too many hours into work each week: timebox my work, as well as my other life elements.

  1. Source: http://www.slideshare.net/flowtown/rules-of-productivity-2756161 

  2. Source: http://www.slideshare.net/flowtown/rules-of-productivity-2756161 

  3. research has shown that it doesn’t matter how you distribute those hours 

  • Very interesting. I love what you said about productivity being the work you get done minus the time and energy you spend to clean up after your mistakes. Yes, exactly. I’ve talked to people who put in 60 hour weeks for months at a time. They’re exhausted and overworked. It kind of resembles a trap. They work too much which means they make mistakes, but they want to be more productive so they keep going. They think it will make them more productive, but they’re just sabotaging their own efforts. More work isn’t always better. With each hour, you’ll get more marginal returns.

    • Exactly! I think the problem is that a lot of people mistake doing work for being productive, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Something I’m experimenting quite a bit with is focusing on results, and not how much time, energy, or anything else I use to get them. When you look back on how you spend your time, I think results are the only thing you can see in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to fall into that trap of putting in incredibly long weeks, and those folks might even get rewarded more because they put in the long hours, but you’re right; they’re exhausted and overworked, and a lot of the time get way less done.

  • Very interesting. I love what you said about productivity being the work you get done minus the time and energy you spend to clean up after your mistakes. Yes, exactly. I’ve talked to people who put in 60 hour weeks for months at a time. They’re exhausted and overworked. It kind of resembles a trap. They work too much which means they make mistakes, but they want to be more productive so they keep going. They think it will make them more productive, but they’re just sabotaging their own efforts. More work isn’t always better. With each hour, you’ll get more marginal returns.

    • Exactly! I think the problem is that a lot of people mistake doing work for being productive, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Something I’m experimenting quite a bit with is focusing on results, and not how much time, energy, or anything else I use to get them. When you look back on how you spend your time, I think results are the only thing you can see in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to fall into that trap of putting in incredibly long weeks, and those folks might even get rewarded more because they put in the long hours, but you’re right; they’re exhausted and overworked, and a lot of the time get way less done.

  • Damn! I have been working too darn hard! Time for vacation!

    Seriously, though, this is some really interesting stuff. More volume of work certainly does not equal better work. It is all about making the most of your time!

    • Haha! Absolutely brother, I couldn’t agree more. Hope you had a good Christmas!

    • SJ:
      –>Haha be careful, you might die from burnout! :O

      Chris:
      –> Good post. I often use the idea of timeboxing myself, but it can be challenging to abide by at times, perfectionism kicks in occasionally.

  • Damn! I have been working too darn hard! Time for vacation!

    Seriously, though, this is some really interesting stuff. More volume of work certainly does not equal better work. It is all about making the most of your time!

    • Haha! Absolutely brother, I couldn’t agree more. Hope you had a good Christmas!

    • SJ:
      –>Haha be careful, you might die from burnout! :O

      Chris:
      –> Good post. I often use the idea of timeboxing myself, but it can be challenging to abide by at times, perfectionism kicks in occasionally.

  • Notstatusseeking

    I worked over 4000 hours in 2013 and found this article an excuse for people who don’t want to try to work to there limits. Bottom line I have been workling long hours for over a decade. With the overtime my quality of life has improved. My wife does not need to work and raises our daughter beautifully. I have a home that is modest and my health is good. I have been sick 2 days in 25 years. Sixty hours a week is part time for me. If your work long hours, mistakes actually will come down. I average 78 hours a week and I have learned my job backwards and forwards. Try it one year, and you will find a new zone that is rewarding in ways beyond your statistics and graphs. Stop vacationing and get to work.

    • Are you able to play video games? How about watch sunsets from your back deck? Not trying to be judgmental, just curious how “the other half” views the world.

      I’ve always (successfully) aimed for 40 hour workweeks, and still managed to bank a lot of money and live a very comfortable life.

      • Notstatusseeking

        This is my deal, and I am good with it. I was just responding to the article about being productive. I do see sunsets and sunrises, sometimes more than once without going to sleep. Battlefield 4 is my game. love playing it on line.(built my computer) . Your comments on wasting time and “the other half” are definitely something you should rethink when your a little older. AT 33 your just warming up, anyway don’t plan your life to much. Take care and with that extra time you have think of a way to save the planet from all that non productive thinking there having at the NSA headquarters. Fix that, then you can apply it to the people destroying the planet with pollution. These two projects will keep you up longer than me working 4000 hours a year.

    • Prashant Srinivasan

      I found your message very inspiring and valuable. Besides, without hard work, skills and talents will go wasted. Can you share some tips or advice on how you go about getting better, and finding the motivation to put in long hours day after day after day? Is it incremental improvement, or do you think one just needs to bite the bullet and go full throttle, learning along the way? Thank you.

      • Notstatusseeking

        I need no motivation, love my job. Since your post I have put in over 20 paid hours. Started Friday at 4 pm and finished Saturday at 1 pm. Went back at 8 pm for two more hours. I came home and went to see a movie at 10pm. I have been thinking how to respond to you and I can only generalize. It is very hard at first, the first ten years were very difficult. Now it is going great. I learned that vitamins do work. also taking an aspirin a day does wonders. I have only missed work for being sick one day in 16 years. Go incremental start at 57 hours and move up. The perfect amount of hours in a week I find is 67. Also don’t drive tired and keep your stress level low. Stress will take hours of your day. The best advise is stay focused and stop comparing your life to others. Your friends and colleagues will tell you how great there lives are working 40 hours a week. Don’t believe it, the world we live in requires a great deal of money. Be yourself and professional, this will get you far. Finally if you can you show your employer your trustworthy that will get you the farthest. Good luck and now to play Battlefield 4.

        • Jacqueline Waters

          While I find this fascinating I also believe in the work smart not hard. I am looking to keep my income rising and outsourcing and working less and less, so far so good..the less I work the more money I make..why? Because I use my head and pay other people to do the heavy lifting (leverage). If hard work made people wealthy, then all construction workers would live in mansions and fly around in private jets….oh wait those aren’t the people working hard…unless you consider yachting as hard work.

        • What’s your job, why do you love it? If you had the option of making the same amount of money with 40 hours would you do it? Just wondering.

  • Notstatusseeking

    I worked over 4000 hours in 2013 (I can prove it,not like most others who claim similar) and found this article an excuse for people who don’t want to try to work to there limits. Bottom line I have been working long hours for over a decade. With the overtime my quality of life has improved. My wife does not need to work and raises our daughter beautifully. I have a home that is modest and my health is good. I have been sick 2 days(work days) in 25 years. Sixty hours a week is part time for me. If you work long hours, mistakes will come down not go up. To make it simple, try playing a video game that is difficult. You beat the game by playing long hours and learning from your mistakes. When you use your brain, you will see it works. I average 78 hours a week and I have learned my job backwards and forwards. Who said it was going to be easy, I do get very tired after work, but the next day I wake up strong and ready to go.Try it one year, and you will find a new zone that is rewarding in ways beyond your statistics and graphs. Stop vacationing and get to work.

    • Are you able to play video games? How about watch sunsets from your back deck? Not trying to be judgmental, just curious how “the other half” views the world.

      I’ve always (successfully) aimed for 40 hour workweeks, and still managed to bank a lot of money and live a very comfortable life.

      • Notstatusseeking

        This is my deal, and I am good with it. I was just responding to the article about being productive. I do see sunsets and sunrises, sometimes more than once without going to sleep. Battlefield 4 is my game. love playing it on line.(built my computer) . Your comments on wasting time and “the other half” are definitely something you should rethink when your a little older. AT 33 your just warming up, anyway don’t plan your life to much. Take care and with that extra time you have, think of a way to save the planet from all that non productive thinking there having at the NSA headquarters. Fix that, then you can apply it to the people destroying the planet with pollution. These two projects will keep you up longer than me working 4000 hours a year.

    • Prashant Srinivasan

      I found your message very inspiring and valuable. Besides, without hard work, skills and talents will go wasted. Can you share some tips or advice on how you go about getting better, and finding the motivation to put in long hours day after day after day? Is it incremental improvement, or do you think one just needs to bite the bullet and go full throttle, learning along the way? Thank you.

      • Notstatusseeking

        I need no motivation, love my job. Since your post I have put in over 20 paid hours. Started Friday at 4 pm and finished Saturday at 1 pm. Went back at 8 pm for two more hours. I came home and went to see a movie at 10pm. I have been thinking how to respond to you and I can only generalize. It is very hard at first, the first ten years were very difficult. Now it is going great. I learned that vitamins do work. also taking an aspirin a day does wonders. I have only missed work for being sick one day in 16 years. Go incremental start at 57 hours and move up. The perfect amount of hours in a week I find is 67. Also don’t drive tired and keep your stress level low. Stress will take hours of your day. The best advise is stay focused and stop comparing your life to others. Your friends and colleagues will tell you how great there lives are working 40 hours a week. Don’t believe it, the world we live in requires a great deal of money. Be yourself and professional, this will get you far. Finally if you can you show your employer your trustworthy that will get you the farthest. Good luck and now to play Battlefield 4.

        • Jacqueline Waters

          While I find this fascinating I also believe in the work smart not hard. I am looking to keep my income rising and outsourcing and working less and less, so far so good..the less I work the more money I make..why? Because I use my head and pay other people to do the heavy lifting (leverage). If hard work made people wealthy, then all construction workers would live in mansions and fly around in private jets….oh wait those aren’t the people working hard…unless you consider yachting as hard work.

        • What’s your job, why do you love it? If you had the option of making the same amount of money with 40 hours would you do it? Just wondering.

    • HomeAttendant

      I thought like you did. Sometimes, I work from 4 am till 8 pm, non-stop. I noticed that towards the later half of the day, my mind just can’t think. It’s depleted. I’m starting to think that what I’m doing is actually counter productive. I notice that throughout my day, I waste a lot of time, even though it seems like work.

      I don’t know if 35 hours is optimal but I’m starting to doubt the long work week.

      *I know this is a very old article.

    • buttercatz

      Sadly I think you you measure productivity and happiness incorrectly. Based on the math, you spend little to no waking hours with your kids or wife. This plants seeds for a bad marriage and relationship with kids. You are also doing work wrong. Instead of working so many hours, you should be focused on setting up income streams from multiple sources that do not require work (i.e. investing, property, self-running small businesses). I don’t live in a modest house and I don’t work more than 20 hours a week. Instead, my house is by the beach and huge.

  • Really interesting and insightful post. It’s hard to think of rest as being an essential part of work but it’s a way of thinking I’m gonna have to adopt more I think. Thanks for the insight.

  • Really interesting and insightful post. It’s hard to think of rest as being an essential part of work but it’s a way of thinking I’m gonna have to adopt more I think. Thanks for the insight.

  • Great article, Chris. And the 2 minute reading time estimate was spot on. :)

    Even though I’m retired now (at 33!) I still focus on productivity. I’m at the point where doing tasks inefficiently means not that I’m wasting some faceless employer’s time, but I’m wasting my own time. And since we have only a finite amount of time in our lives, it would be a shame to waste such a limited and precious resource.

    • Thanks man! I absolutely agree, and I’m finding the same during my project. I find it’s often something I have to remind myself, especially when it’s so easy to get sucked into all of the mindless vortexes around you (smartphones, TVs, etc).

    • So how did you retire so early? :)

      • The good ole fashioned way. Lots of saving and investing and keeping our expenses low. The money kept piling up and eventually I had enough.

  • Great article, Chris. And the 2 minute reading time estimate was spot on. :)

    Even though I’m retired now (at 33!) I still focus on productivity. I’m at the point where doing tasks inefficiently means not that I’m wasting some faceless employer’s time, but I’m wasting my own time. And since we have only a finite amount of time in our lives, it would be a shame to waste such a limited and precious resource.

    • Thanks man! I absolutely agree, and I’m finding the same during my project. I find it’s often something I have to remind myself, especially when it’s so easy to get sucked into all of the mindless vortexes around you (smartphones, TVs, etc).

    • So how did you retire so early? :)

      • The good ole fashioned way. Lots of saving and investing and keeping our expenses low. The money kept piling up and eventually I had enough.

  • This reminds me of Cal Newport’s post where he tells his readers to check the churn out rate of any activities.

    More time doesn’t equal better results.

    Sadly, I’m below the 35 hour mark by a large margin. Haha

  • This reminds me of Cal Newport’s post where he tells his readers to check the churn out rate of any activities.

    More time doesn’t equal better results.

    Sadly, I’m below the 35 hour mark by a large margin. Haha

  • Tomas

    Something that I find confusing is why people work 60 hours a week all year, then take 3 weeks off or so at Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have a reset once in a while, but I much prefer to live a more manageable life year round. For the last 18 months I have averaged just under 30 hours a week – I feel more productive, happier and healthier!

  • Tomas

    Something that I find confusing is why people work 60 hours a week all year, then take 3 weeks off or so at Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to have a reset once in a while, but I much prefer to live a more manageable life year round. For the last 18 months I have averaged just under 30 hours a week – I feel more productive, happier and healthier!

  • I thank you for this article. I set expectations for myself to work 50 – 60 hours a week and get discouraged when I don’t work that hard. Now I can aim for 35 and if I work more feel proud of myself. Or just finish around 35 hours and go enjoy my life.

  • I thank you for this article. I set expectations for myself to work 50 – 60 hours a week and get discouraged when I don’t work that hard. Now I can aim for 35 and if I work more feel proud of myself. Or just finish around 35 hours and go enjoy my life.

  • althak

    Notstausseeking you are simply out of world or you are fake master or you are workaholic or you run a company and crush your self and ur staff …….
    but whatever you are from above there is old saying i.e. “Everywhere Exception is there” and you are Exception

  • althak

    Just think what time you gave to your daughter
    what time you gave to your wife

  • Frank Taeger

    Truth ist, 99% of people I have worked with would just completely break down doing what you do. Try not to extrapolate your own experience to general experience, because it will not work. We have gotten managers more effective by cutting 30-40% of their time.

    Few people are hypervigilant. 99% aren’t. That is why most people are incapable of being air traffick controllers, only very few people are vigilant for so long.

    Error rate absolutely comes up in every single study done on this topic. In video games, too. This is how we do these things in a lab if we do not have work data. We let people play video games for longer times and measure their ability and skills in statistics. And most people get worse. They DO get better excessively after you let them rest.

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