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
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.