In my quest to optimize the remainder of my working life, one of the biggest questions I keep coming back to is the question of how many hours I want to be working in the future. Next to pure salary, I think that the number of hours worked is the most empirical measure you really have when comparing jobs and work cultures, so it feels like a good place to focus on.
Hours worked (like money) of course is a weirdly sensitive topic that varies radically between specific jobs and industries. It confers lifestyle as well as commitment to work. Some of my medical homies proudly champion the fact that they’re working 80 hours per week in residency. Some of my software engineering buddies proudly champion the fact they’re working fewer than 40 hours per week.
In finance, I’ve held two jobs… in investment banking, I was probably working 65-85 hours a week. In private equity, it feels more like 55-75 hours. I think those are probably the extreme end of what people in North America work (and what is humanly possible). But the extreme nature of those jobs has distorted my worldview when I try to imagine what an optimal life really looks like. I’ve oscillated from thinking that you are happiest when you’re fully engaged and working on something you’re passionate about to experiencing periods of burnout and thinking it’s the best to not work at all and completely rely on passive income.
The 40-Hour Work Week
This concept of the 40-hour work week was birthed in the late 1800s and started gaining wider spread adoption in the early 1900s. The 40-hour standard entered the US Congress’ Fair Labor Standards Act in 1940, which hasn’t been altered since. The aim of the Act was to “eliminate labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and the general well-being of workers.” This is an admirable goal, but I’m personally not trying to live at the minimum standard of general well-being.
The standard work week has stagnated at around 40 hours for several decades.
More recently, the 2017 annual summary from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that US employees aged 20+ work 39.2 hours per week, which reinforces that this data point is pretty stagnant.
It’s a little puzzling to me that this standard has remained the undisputed societal norm despite the rapid productivity and technological advancement occurring. It’s possible 40 hours represents some true innate minimum that humans need to work in order to derive a sense of accomplishment, but I sincerely doubt that because it’s very difficult to write this sentence unsarcastically.
Certain inventions have also done the lazy modern worker a great disservice – e-mail and mobile phones have made the boundaries of work merely a philosophical concept. This random HR software blog says that on average, people work ~7 hours per week outside of the office.
Globally, I think there is also a disturbing discrepancy when it comes to vacation taken. I think one thing that the Europeans definitely get right is the concept of taking breaks and giving yourself time for a proper reset. You get over 4 weeks of paid vacation in France and the UK!
Why do Americans hate vacation so much? Do we need to stop teaching The Great Gatsby in the public school system and try to get kids to stop internalizing the ethos of the American Dream?
The 4-Hour Work Week
Despite obnoxiously championing this book since I finished reading it, working 4 hours a week is probably too little. This sacred tome discusses many things, but centers around discussing the e-commerce business model, in which you can eventually scale and outsource most functions / operations. The tenet is that if you run a low-maintenance Internet enabled business, you can work as little as you want.
When I describe this snake-oil approach to life, most people generally don’t even rebuke the notion that it’s an impossible goal, they instead focus on how no one would want to work that little. The book itself discusses how working very little can make you feel unproductive and leave you with a big Void, which can be hard to consistently fill.
There is of course a balance between being over-worked and being under-stimulated. As I personally recall from incredibly boring summer vacations in middle school, not feeling productive can be pretty depressing. Sisyphus needs a boulder, even if it’s a small one he only has to push for a few hours a day.
As a guide for what modern society’s current practical minimum is, the average working week in the Netherlands is 29 hours, which I think is the lowest globally. Also, because this is an average, this must include the Dutch hardos who work way more and must also be many people who work less.
Case Study: 25 Hours of Work & Duty
The time in my life when I was the happiest was probably my senior year at college. There was an incredible sense of balance connecting the major categories of life: work / duty, relationships, social life, interests, philosophy (religion for me at the time). I like thinking about that time as a good reference when trying to do lifestyle design. In reality, it was probably a little “too easy”, because my work didn’t have direct economic consequences and there wasn’t a lot of stress, but I still think it represents a good life case study.
That year, I had about 25 hours of “work / duty”, which was composed of 15 hours of required class and 10 hours of homework and preparation. I filled another 10 or so hours with various academic extra-curriculars and projects, so collectively I was probably intellectually engaged for 40 hours per week. I also slept 8 hours a day and had Fridays off, which I now hold as my life’s purpose to attain.
My senior year schedule left a decent amount of time for the aimless discovery and unplanned variability that can make life super interesting and fun. I felt that my schedule was very sustainable.
As a result, when I think about my late 20’s and early 30’s (i.e. pre-kids) life, I’d ideally like to structure it as the below:
Target Late 20s / Early 30s Schedule
- It should be noted that this reflects an “end game” and an ideal state. There is likely a great deal of runway and hard work to set this up sustainably.
- The most obvious change is that I want to work ~25 hours per week and shift the remaining time into more fluid “project / interest” type work (e.g. developing a separate income stream, managing my personal trading account, this blog, producing music, researching interesting topics).
- Collectively, I still want to be intellectually engaged for ~40 hours, I just want to have a schedule that reflects a more “portfolio” approach to work. This means competing in unrelated arenas and functions, which is harder to accomplish within a typical workweek.
- This graph excludes commuting, so any weekday commuting would likely come directly out of Project / Interest or Leisure / Games
- I also want to have ~1 hour of gym time daily and attend 1-2 broadly accessible social happenings (i.e. “BASH”es) per week.
More tactically speaking, what does this mean in terms of my potential paths forward? In terms of categories, the types of employees that typically have greater control over their work/life balance tend to be: software engineers, other anointed tech employees, and rainmaking senior managers. I suppose technology is growing and I could perhaps start kneeling at the altar of Big Tech, but I have no current plans to do so.
Outside of those roles, I think the only paths are to invent a more creative relationship with how you get paid: entrepreneurship, freelance work, consulting, real estate, gambling your life savings in crypto, marrying rich… that might be it.
Of these options, I fantasize the most about running a profitable personal business. The typical business models that enable solo entrepreneurship are: e-commerce, content creation, and services (e.g. legal, advisory, fitness coaching). This book is sort of like an updated 4-Hour Work Week and summarizes the common strategies behind those paths.
There is also the notion of starting a search fund, in which you raise money from a pool of investors to own and operate a small business (common setup is to purchase a business sized $4-$12M and you own a 20-30% stake in the company). This is a pretty interesting idea, because it would theoretically capitalize on my finance knowledge in addition to giving me some operational exposure. However, I think taking outside capital raises the stakes quite a bit and makes you more susceptible to a grind-y lifestyle, so I’m less eager to take this on in the short-term. I actually view this as a great option, but I think having to raise money just inherently gives you less freedom.
Striving for this schedule and lifestyle might seem unrealistic, but I think without an honest, thoughtful goal, I run the risk of just resigning myself to a “minimum level of well-being”.
And when I compare myself to some of my peers, I see that many of them have hugely ambitious goals (e.g. become a billionaire, found and take a company public, be in finance and retain your sense of dignity).
Is it really so wild to want to work 25 hours a week while not having to worry about money?