The 40 hour work week

Before 1900 the average American worker worked more than 60 hours a week. A standard schedule was ten-hour days, six days a week. The only structural limits to working were lighting and religion. You stopped working when it was too dark to see or to go to church. It was exhausting. It was often fatal. —Collaborative Fund

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The 40 hour work week is foremost a result of the physical limits of the human body—but we often fail to take into account the mental limits, as well. Why was working for more than 40 hours a week on a railroad dangerous? It was not just because people were physically tired, but also because they were mentally tired. The resulting discussion among coders has been rampant and widespread (see, for instance, here).

First, the focus on time and the length of the work week may be a little misdirected. We are still a world focused on physical presence as a proxy for accomplishing work. I know a lot of companies prefer to have people in the office—ironically, this is a big deal with most of the companies in the world that aim to bring networks, and network based services, to the masses. Try to get a job at any of the large cloud providers, and even many of the network equipment vendors. Good luck if you do not live within a 50 mile circle drawn around Silicon Valley, or are not willing to move there.

But is physical presence really “all that?” Having been on both functional and dysfunctional teams that are physically collocated and physically disjoint, my experience is that it is the attitude and culture that counts, rather than the physical presence. If the entire team focuses on communicating (and learning to communicate) in ways that are non-linear, and keeping everyone involved, physically disjoint teams can work.

Second, I don’t find it’s always best to “do nothing” to think better thoughts. Rather, I find it better to switch tasks—to think about something else, whatever that something else might be. It is rare that I have any free time during any day at this point, but moving from writing about networks to reading about philosophy is tremendously helpful in recharging my ability to write about networking topics.

“Being a little bit underemployed” sounds ideal, of course—but I am not convinced it is a realistic alternative—or maybe we just live in a world where 40 hours a week is a “little bit unemployed” for most people.


  1. Steve 8 June 2017 at 3:56 pm

    I also think the 5 day, 8hour/day work week is not sensible. Maybe greater variation in when and how long we work would increase productivity over the long run.

    • Russ 9 June 2017 at 8:02 pm

      We tend to focus on the immediate future, and never to think of the longer term — perhaps this is a cliche, but it is true enough to bear repeating. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!



  2. E. 8 June 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Yes, networks, philosophy and writing is quite a lonely process. Hannah Arendt says somewhere the feeling of being among the equals – in thoughts. I follow you what you say/write and just wanted to say Thank you.


    • Russ 9 June 2017 at 8:02 pm

      Thanks for this! It is somewhat odd to live at the intersection of three worlds — writing, technology, and philosophy. But — I just keep my happy face on, and make the best of it all!



    • Steve 9 June 2017 at 11:53 pm

      I was thinking recently and realized that every single interest I pick up has the same traits, highly technical and able to perform solo. Computers, gaming, stoicism, weight lifting and swimming, all similar introverted characteristics.

      “Solitude is a good place to visit but a poor place to stay.” – Josh Billings

  3. Vlad 9 June 2017 at 2:31 am

    Here in Switzerland it’s normal to reduce your work contract to 80% (or even 60%) – lots of IT professionals (whose salary is still ok after this 20-40% penalty, plus you normally pay less % taxes then since they’re progressive) do that. Then you can either take one more day off (mostly Friday 🙂 ) or just work 6 hours a day instead of 8. I don’t know anyone who went back to 100% after doing this, the quality of life is increased a lot…

    • Russ 9 June 2017 at 7:54 pm

      That’s really interesting — maybe we should all move to Switzerland… 🙂

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