The More We Work, the Less Productive We Are

Living in the heart of Silicon Valley’s frantic I work 12 hours a day, drink a ton of coffee and have no social life—but my startup is crushing it society, I get exposed to a lot of people who literally do nothing but work all the time.

Up until about 3 months ago, I was one of those people.

I would jump out of bed and do my morning face ritual (one of the small daily indulgences I allowed myself—because somewhere in the back of my mind I thought “I may work myself to death but dammit I want to have lovely skin whilst doing so.”). Then I’d grab something from the closet, usually all black because it minimized the need for matching, and speed walk to the office.

Compared to most SV startup CEO’s I actually worked “normal” hours. I would usually do 9 to 6 and then head home because I became completely useless after 9+ hours at the office. If I left at five, or came in late, I would feel some strange fog of guilt believing the startup gods would punish me for not being shackled to my desk most of my waking hours. I definitely thought about work all the time, and often caught myself doing just one more thing late into the night and on weekends.

Fact 1: the 80/20 Rule

Known originally as Pareto’s Principle, the 80/20 rule states that 80% of output comes from 20% of input. Examples of this split can be found across society and industries. Sometimes it’s more like 70/30, 95/5, etc, but the principle is the same—the most productive and effective outcome comes from a small, but efficient, amount of input.


Taking a 40-hour week, it’s fair to assume that the majority of output that generates revenue for the companies and pay for employees is created in only 8 hours of said work week. Spreading this over 5 days means that a little more than an hour and a half a day really adds to the bottom line.

Most people can recognize this in their own lives. There is often a part of their day, or week, where they are in a “flow” state of being super creative, effective, or inspired. They get more done, make better decisions, and push through plans that will benefit themselves or their company disproportionately compared to the rest of their weekly output.

Flow states feel goooooood too. When I was in flow, I felt like I was crushing it. Whether I worked 2 hours or 6.

So find that 20% and focus a disproportionate amount of your energy there. Let the rest of your work figure itself out by delegating it, automating it, or scrapping it.

Fact 2: The 8-hour Workday is Antiquated

In a great blogpost on why we should rethink the 8-hour workday the author states:

The reason we work 8 hours a day, isn’t scientific or much thought out. It’s purely the a century old norm for running factories most efficiently.

The crazy thing is that before Henry Ford implemented the 8-hour workday in 1914, 10-16 hour workdays were normal and six day work weeks were commonplace. Ford’s 8-hour work day, and Robert Owen’s Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” slogan broke the mold and ratcheted down the hours worked to the 40 hour a week norm we have today.

Most Americans, though, work 8.8 hours a day. Founders and CEO’s often report working 12-16 hour days.

The 8-hour workday was implemented over 100 years ago. Since then, we have become FAR more efficient in almost every part of life and business, so why our working hours are creeping UP, not down?

Fact 3: The Ultradian Rhythm

Human beings can’t focus as intensely as they need to for more than 90 minutes at a time. Afterwards, they need an average of 30 to 60 minutes to rest before trying again.

For a week, try to do no more than 3 90 minute sprints a day with at least 30 minutes rest in between each. Your 5.5 hour workday will look something like this:

ultradian rythm

Yes, in the diagram, they use twenty minute intervals versus thirty, but I like a half hour better because it’s a cleaner number and a longer break.

Test it out on yourself, or your employees. Work no more than 6 hours following the ultradian rhythm and see if one week of focusing on the 20% will you get the most output you’ve ever had. 8 hour workdays are so 1914.