How Many Hours a Day Should You Work?

Jan 26, 2018 | Jessica Ogilvie

As freelancers and small-business owners, we are, ostensibly, doing what we love to do for a living. We’re also wearing many different hats at any given time, in order to do our work and also get our business off the ground (or keep it going): creative director, accountant, marketing manager, salesperson, social media strategist, and so forth. That means putting in a lot of long hours, particularly at the outset. Most of us are familiar with sitting down at our computers at 9 a.m. and staying there until 9 p.m.

So, how does that compare to the rest of the workforce? Are our friends who work in offices pulling the same kinds of days?

Well, according to a recent article in The Guardian, it depends on the work they’re doing. If they’re low-level peons at a banking institution, they are likely working round the clock and “sleeping under [their] desk.” But if they’re just your standard modern employee, they are, on average, probably “productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry.”

What does this mean for the average freelancer or small-business owner? We’re glad you asked. Here are some ways to incorporate that knowledge into your workday:

Enjoy the Lifestyle You’ve Built For Yourself

Unless you launched your business in the past six months to a year and, as such, are still in the “getting things off the ground” stage, take a moment to enjoy the lifestyle you’ve set up for yourself. Many of us went into this knowing that distractions would be our undoing; if we work at home, chores are to be ignored until such time as our work is finished. If we work outside the house, we are not to take personal calls or conduct personal business until we are at home, exhausted, with about five percent left on our personal battery charge.

But once you’re a little more established, you might take a moment to look around and enjoy what you’ve accomplished. It’s likely that this lifestyle was appealing to you because of the freedom it would one day afford; well, my good sir, that day has come. I’m not suggesting that you up and abandon your post completely, but maybe get crazy and throw a load of laundry in at 1 p.m. so you can enjoy The Daily Show later tonight. It’s your world!

Consider Shortening Your Work Day

If employees in offices are only productive for four hours a day, does that make them lazy, or human? According to HuffPost, depending on the type of work they’re doing, it might make them not only human, but smart about their limitations. In a recent article, the site reported on the work of K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., co-author of “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.” Ericsson found that both music composers and professional athletes work in a concentrated fashion for about four to five hours a day because after that, they simply burn out. “The same could be said for a person who works in a position where highly skilled tasks are needed, such as coding, designing, or writing,” Ericsson told the website.

Of course, there are no doubt parts of your job that don’t require your highest-level skills, like responding to emails or updating your website. It might make sense for you to break your day into two parts; concentrated work, like writing or design, and then housekeeping, like accounting or correspondence.

When You’re Not Working, Quit Yer Worrying

If, as The Guardian reports, the parts of the day that we’re not working are instead spent with “padding and huge amounts of worry,” be more deliberate about your time when you notice your concentration slowing down. Instead of mindlessly Googling dinner recipes, force yourself to get up from your chair and do something — anything — else.

This habit might take a little while to establish; if you’re anything like us, just getting up from your desk seems like a lot of work. A 2014 article in The Atlantic touches on just this phenomenon. Researchers have found that the prime work-to-break ratio is 52 minutes to 17 minutes; work for 52 minutes, break for 17 minutes. But that specific breakdown of numbers might be less important, The Atlantic author notes, then to remember “to get up, at all.” Like any muscle, the brain can get tired. You wouldn’t keep trying to bench-press your personal best if you thought that you risked dropping the barbell on yourself out of sheer exhaustion; why put your brain through the equivalent?

Most freelancers and small-business owners who have any measure of success are highly ambitious and highly motivated; otherwise, that first day of freedom would have resulted in our downfall. But in all of our careers, balance and rest becomes just as important — if not more so — as working our fingers to the bone.