The Dirty Secret of Work

Matt McCormick


This is my 4th Toastmasters speech. Please evaluate this Toastmasters speech at Soapbox Guru.

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Good evening Mr. Toastmaster, fellow Toastmasters and welcome guests.

How many people here work full-time - about 40 hours a week or so?

Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you. You’re working too much.

What if I told you it was possible to be happier, to be more satisfied with your job and get more done while working fewer hours? Now I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking whoa, wait a minute Matt, work less and get more done? This doesn’t seem possible. It must define some kind of law of physics or something. But it is true, if you’re working 40 hours, I believe you’re working too much.

Now to understand why, we need to go back and first look at the history of this 40-hour work week. People, I think, are working much longer than they’ve worked for most of history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people mainly worked on farms and work was limited by natural factors such as the seasons and daylight. No one’s going to go out in the middle of December and start planting seeds because that’s just bogus. Then the Industrial Revolution came and people flocked to the factories. Factory workers encouraged people to work as much as they could - work them to the bone, work them to death. So people worked 80, 100 hours a week. Their lives, basically were work. And since then, we’ve backed off from that to now where 40 hours is considered a full-time work week. And the 40-hour work week came about mainly because of one man. And you know him because some of you probably drive his cars. That man is Henry Ford.

Henry Ford did over 12 years of productivity experiments about how he can get his workers to work the most effectively so he can get the most profit. He realised that by working people as much as possible, people get tired, people can’t concentrate, they make mistakes causing bad cars, they get sick easier and then it affects everyone else thereby reducing productivity. So he discovered that 40 hours seems about right for what people should be working. So in 1926, he let all his employees know that from now on we are only going to be working 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. No overtime. No more working Saturdays. Let’s just work this. So that’s where we are today.

Now there’s one problem with this. How many people here work in a factory? Exactly. So the 40 hour work week is great for factory work but does it translate into work that most people do today which is, say, knowledge work or problem-solving work. And no, I don’t believe it does. I think the dirtiest secret of work is that people go to work for 40 hours but it is impossible to actually be productive at work for 40 hours. I would say that people do about 20 hours of productive work a week at work. Why do I say this? It’s because what I about do.

I know there’s a risk in me saying this but I’ll say it anyways.

So why do I know this? Because when I’m working I use a timer to track my productive work - the time I’m doing focused work on programming. I run it and I found that doing 20 hours of work a week seems about right. If I try to push myself and do more, I notice that I become more depressed, I am not looking towards going to work anymore, I get sick easier. But if I back it off a little, then I enjoy my work better, I feel I can concentrate more and I believe that I get more done.

The problem is that for most people they view work as something like this. The more hours you put in, the more productive you are. That every hour extra is another hour you can achieve more things. This is completely wrong.

What it actually looks like is like this. When you start off, you are pretty productive and then you reach a point. And as Henry Ford saw, this is about 40 hours for factory workers, a little less for problem-solving or creative knowledge workers and you actually start to lose your productivity. This has been done in studies in the game development industry for software. There’s been studies done because they’re known for pushing their workers for working long hours to get the games developed to a deadline. And so they find that, sure, you can push yourself for a while, say if you want to work 60 hours or 80 hours for a couple weeks, it works ok. That’s where people start to think they can keep pushing themselves. But as it works out that you will actually start to lose productivity in the long-run.

Work hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years since Henry Ford decided to go to a 40-hour work week but there is hope. Some companies are working towards what’s called a Results Only Work Environment, where they don’t care where you work from, they don’t care how many hours you work as long as you get the work done. And I hope this is what we’ll see going forward as it will help make people happier, more satisfied with their jobs and you will get more done in less time.