Why We Should Rethink The Eight-Hour Workday

Ask anyone how long a typical workday is, and they'll probably say eight hours. How did that become the standard? Is eight hours beneficial for productivity, or should we rethink that number? The team at social sharing app Buffer investigated.

Picture: Dusan Zidar and Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock

One of the most unchanged elements of our life today is our "optimal work time" or how long we should work -- generally, every person I’ve spoken to quotes me something close to eight hours a day.

And yet for most of us, it's obvious that how long the average person works every day has little to do with how efficient or productive that person is. At least, that's what I've found for my own productivity. So what’s the the right hourly rate? With success stories from people working four hours a week to 16 hours a day, it’s hard to know if there's an optimal amount. So instead of going with my gut, which often fails me, I looked at research on work time and how to optimise it for happiness and success.

Why Do We Have Eight-Hour Workdays In The First Place?

The typical work day is around eight hours. But how did we come up with that? The answer is hidden in the tidings of the Industrial revolution. In the late 18th century, when companies started to maximise the output of their factories, getting to running them 24/7 was key. Now, of course, to make things more efficient, people had to work more. In fact, 10-16 hour days were the norm. These incredibly long work days weren’t sustainable and soon a brave man named Robert Owen started an eight-hour workday campaign. His slogan was, “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

It wasn’t until much later that Ford actually implemented the eight-hour workday and changed the standards:

“One of the first businesses to implement this was the Ford Motor Company, in 1914, which not only cut the standard work day to eight hours, but also doubled their worker’s pay in the process. To the shock of many industries, this resulted in Ford’s productivity off of these same workers, but with fewer hours, actually increasing significantly and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter, eight hour work day as a standard for their employees.”

So there we have it. The reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought out. It’s purely a century-old norm for running factories most efficiently.

Manage Energy Not Time: The Ultradian Rhythm

Without wanting to fall into the same trap, it’s time to ask a better question. How many hours we work every day is barely important anymore in today’s creative economy. Instead, the right focus is your energy, according to famous author Tony Schwartz:

“Manage your energy, not your time.”

Schwartz explains that as humans, we have four different types of energy to manage every day:

  • Your physical energy–how healthy are you?
  • Your emotional energy–how happy are you?
  • Your mental energy–how well can you focus on something?
  • Your spiritual energy–why are you doing all of this? What is your purpose?

One of the things most of us easily forget is that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. At the core, this means that machines move linearly and humans move cyclically. For an efficient work day that truly respects our human nature, the first thing to focus on is the ultradian cycle.

The basic understanding is that the human minds can focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes. Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is required for us to get the renewal to achieve high performance for our next task again.

So instead of thinking about “What can I get done in an eight-hour day?” I’ve started to change my thinking to “What can I get done in a 90-minute session?" Now it’s time to break down those 90-minute sessions further.

The Core Of A Productive Workday: Focus

In a stunning research project, Justin Gardner found that to actually focus on something our brain uses a two-step process:

1. Sensitivity enhancement: It means you see a scene or setup and take all the information in that's presented. Then you focus in on what needs your attention. Kind of like “a blurry photo that slowly starts to come into focus".

2. Efficient selection: This is the actual zooming in on a task happens. This allows us to enter into what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls “Flow” state. Now our actual work on a task happens.

The following figure probably describes it best:

In figure A, as our brain is presented with only one task, we're able to separate out distractors (blue) from what’s actually important (yellow). In figure B, as we are presented with multiple tasks at once, our brain is increasingly easy to distract and combines the actual tasks with distractors.

The key conclusion that Gardner suggests from his study is that we have to both:

  • Stop multitasking to avoid being distracted in our work environment.
  • Eliminate distractors even when only one task is present.

Sounds fairly obvious right? And yet, getting it actually done every day is much easier said than done. The good news is that we can even actually change our brain structure by learning to focus. Here are some hands-on tips:

Four Tips For Improving Your Workday:

For my daily workflow at Buffer, I’ve made four distinct changes to better implement the above research. Here's what worked the best so far:

  • Manually increase the relevance of a task. Now, a lot of us still might struggle to find the focus, especially if no one set a deadline to it. Overriding your attention system and adding your own deadline, together with a reward, has shown some of the most significant improvements for task completion, according to researcher Keisuke Fukuda.
  • Split your day into 90-minute windows. Instead of looking at n eight-hour or 10-hour workday, split it down and say you’ve got four, five or however many 90-minute windows. That way you'll have just four or five tasks that you can get done every day much more easily.
  • Plan your rest so you actually rest. “The fittest person is not the one who runs the fastest, but the one who has optimised their rest time,” says Tony Schwartz. A lot of the time, we're so busy planning our workday that we forget about rest. Plan beforehand what you will do your rest. Here are some ideas: Nap, read, meditate, get a snack.
  • Zero notifications. One of the best ideas I’ve ever had was to follow my colleague Joel’s advice on Zero Notifications. Having absolutely no counter on my phone or computer changing from 0 to 1 and always breaking my focus has been a huge help. If you haven’t tried this yet, try to turn off every digital element that could become an alert.

Personally, my life has been pretty much turned upside down after implementing these findings over the past few weeks. And I couldn’t be happier. I get both more done and feel happier at the same time.

The origin of the 8 hour workday and why we should rethink it [Buffer]

Leo Widrich is the cofounder of Buffer, a smarter way to share on social media. Follow him on Twitter @leowid, and read his thoughts on life, marketing and startup lessons at his blog.


    You can't just use a set of tools designed to show the best way the brain is utilised! There are a lot of different types of occupation out there from digging holes to building web pages. You need to set the work routine for the individual workplace. You may be able to work ninety minutes and take a half hour break in an office but you won't get much done using that method on a work site.
    The reason we work eight hours a day isn’t scientific or much thought outI would think Ford put a fair bit of thought into this and splitting the day up into work, play, rest, makes sense, even if it is a recent method of doing things. Why? because it works! Also it lends itself to flexibility. It's only when unscrupulous managers want to screw people that the system falls apart. Well, maybe the fact that I've been working since I was fifteen and have been through the whole gambit of works places and methods that I find the work, play, rest methods works best...! :)

    Last edited 21/06/13 1:04 pm

      I have to agree with you. I've worked quite a few different careers in my life, from construction to office work, and they all have different time demands for different reasons. While a reduced work day might be amenable to one particular area, it would be wholly inappropriate for another.
      When I worked in an office, there was a lot of downtime that could have been condensed into a shorter, more efficient workday. These days I work in film and television where days vary from 10-16 hours on set, the reason for which is that every single day a production runs COSTS a colossal amount of money in gear hire. You shoot from dawn to dusk (and sometimes beyond, depending on lighting setups) because every extra day you have the camera, lighting, and grip gear is thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of dollars extra on the budget.
      On the plus side, it's a hyper-competitive industry to break into, so it's rare to run into people who don't love working this way, simply because they never make it that far.

    Splitting into 8hrs made sense at the time when people practically lived right next to the chair factory, a single income was enough to sustain a household, the wife took care of the house and kids, when you didn't have to think (or even have the opportunity to think because information was harder to get) about much outside of your job

    When you're doing 3hrs of commuting each day like me, I'm pretty sure that's not recreation
    I'm pretty sure housework or helping your family/friends isn't recreation, it's just unpaid labour
    I'm lucky to get 2hours of recreation each day, and I'm usually so knackered by the evening after cooking my own food and preparing for the next day, so it's just 2hrs of extra rest

    All work and no play makes me burnt out.

      Basically though, you are suffering because you can't work the the more amenable work, play rest of eight hours each 'WPR'. This doesn't mean WPR is wrong, it just means that the system is changing and for a lot of people, for the worse. It may not even be possible to go back to that system, however given the issues that are prevalent now, any new system needs to be fair and equable as well as flexible.

      Last edited 21/06/13 4:13 pm

        Yep, you're right, the problem is my life has no WPR balance, but while everyone has to rebalance (or rather unbalance) their lives in order to work 8hours, businesses feel no inclination to rebalance itself to employee needs, their problems become your problems.
        I remember the disapproving look I got for asking to work from home.

        And depending on your work, it can be very demanding, requiring long commutes, extra hours of self study and practice (this is actually fun, but not when you're drained from work), extra hours to meet deadlines because of poor upper management decisions.

        That and landlords can charge what they want for a house that essentially remains the same, week after week, so I have no choice in the matter, it's work to death or die anyway.
        Everyone thinks this lifestyle is fine, that we should spend most of our lives working on things of no consequence or importance just so you have a roof over your head, or maybe they'd like to swap their life with mine for a week and wonder how I haven't gone insane yet.

        Perhaps I just need a total career change,
        What's a well paying job with minimum stress and gives me ample free time?
        Or where's a good desert island for me to start a new civilization heh

          Couldn't have said it better myself. My wife and I have the same issue at the moment. Luckily for my wife, her company allows her and the majority of the employees to work from home at least once a week. That is not the case where I work, so add to that 3 hours worth of commuting and free time is practically zero, especially considering that to try and be at my best for the next day, a decent amount of sleep is required.

          My next move is a career change, and I'll be looking for work closer to home. I can't see any way that employers are going to change their ways, besides, less hours means less revenue. As if they're going to give that up!

          If you start that new civilization, give me a yell.

    Not sure about the claim the 10-16 hour work day came from the industrial revolution. I'm pretty sure there's a lot of mention from renaissance and classical period and earlier of work days being at least 12 hours long.

    I get frustrated with this at my work, even though im by no means hard done by - some days, you've just say, finished pretty much all you had to do for the day and it's 4:30 in the afternoon, but you're forced to stay at work.. Time for a pint, more like.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now