October 11, 2009

It's not about how many hours you work

My favorite discussion amongst web professionals is when people start talking about work/life balance and how many hours they’re working. There’s been no end of interesting ideas to pop out from this – everything from 4 hour work weeks to 100 hour work weeks. And everyone thinks that they’ve got the answer. But I think everyone’s just arguing about an irrelevant metric: the hour.

Let’s talk about that work/life balance thing

Most of this discussion always seem to revolve around the idea of a work/life balance. The basic idea is to keep yourself sane. Don’t abandon your real life for your work. That makes sense, until people start attaching hours to it. I’ve had discussions with people where they try and argue to me that 40 hour work weeks keep them balanced. But I have to wonder, where does that magical number 40 come from?

The fallacy here is that people are thinking in black and white terms of “work” and “life.” I never really understood that, and I think I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I can see why: it’s a bunch of bullshit that employers made up to promote 40 hour work weeks. If you really think that there is a certain number of hours you can work a week to balance your life, you’re doing it wrong. So let’s ditch this idea of a work/life balance, because it just doesn’t make sense.

It’s about creating a creative environment in your life

It’s just that simple. If you’re in the creative field, you need to make sure your life promotes a creative environment. There isn’t one catch-all formula to do this. There isn’t a number of hours you need to work. You just need to experiment and find out what works for you. What I will do is try and offer some advice.

Find your passion in life and try to make money from it

If you hate your job, it’s unlikely that you’ll be successful in fostering a creative environment. Try your best to fix this. Find out what you’re good at, and try to make money from it. You’ll be producing better (more valuable) work and enjoying life more.

Explore projects that are explicitly not for profit

Money taints things, there is no denying this. So I suggest to find an outlet that you purposefully can’t/don’t make money from to help exercise your brain. That might mean creating websites, making music, or hacking on an epic perl script that no one but yourself will use. It doesn’t have to be something different from your work – it just has to be separated from your work. Something you can change or destroy without worrying about what others think.

Stop working if you’re producing crap

The only thing worse than being unproductive at work is forcing false productivity. If you find yourself at your desk and you can’t come up with anything useful, just stop trying. Leave your desk and go do something else. Maybe for a few hours, maybe for a week, maybe for a year.

Accept that there is no way you can be productive for 40 hours a week

The 40 hour work week is completely unsustainable. Human beings are not meant to sit down and really focus for 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. Our brains can’t handle it. I’m sure startup founders will come in here exclaiming how they’ve been working 100 hour work weeks for 6 months now and every hour was well spent. They’re lying.

Your brain needs to purposefully not think in order to come up with creative ideas. That might mean relaxing to your favorite book or movie while your subconscious attacks your latest project. You’re not working in the strict sense–but you’re getting work done.

That’s not to say you can’t have weeks where you get hundreds of hours of work done. But in my experience, after a week like that, I need another week or two to decompress.

Focus on what matters

My goal with this post is to hopefully get people to stop thinking in hours. Start focusing on making great things. It’s about the things you produce, not the hours required to make them.

Once you realize you’ve been focused on the wrong metric I think you’ll realize arguing about a work/life balance is just ridiculous. Spend time on your life. Spend time on your work. But always strive to do better. That’s all you need.

If you'd like to keep in touch, I tweet @kneath on Twitter. You're also welcome to send a polite email to kyle@warpspire.com. I don't always get the chance to respond, but email is always the best way to get in touch.