9 to 5 Culture

Forty-Hour Workweek?

So, you think the standard work-week in the US is 40 hours, and everything else is our time, right? Think again.

When you factor in smashing you alarm in the morning, showering, getting ready, driving to your place of employment, your mandatory lunch “break,” and driving back at the end of the day, your job has taken a lot more than 8 hours from your day.

Let’s break this forty-hour workweek down a bit. We’ll use our imaginary friend Bill Stressed and follow him through his typical day.

Bill works a standard 8-to-5 job, Monday through Friday. Every morning he wakes at 6:30 in order to shower, shave, make an unhealthy lunch, drink coffee, and dress. By the time he is done with this, it is 7:15, and time to drive his Chevy Blazer into the arteries of Philadelphia. He arrives at work at 8. Since this routine is done preparing for work, it is no longer “his” time. For our purposes, Bill is already on the clock. The only similar thing he would do on an ordinary non-work day is shower and dress (we would hope.) This takes a half hour. So we’ll subtract that amount of time and call Bill’s morning rush 1 hour of work to be fair.

Bill’s workday consists of more coffee, sitting, talking on the phone to clients, e-mailing clients, getting fatter, and occasionally attending meetings. This period between 8:00am and 1:00pm is 5 hours. At 1:00pm he takes his lunch break, although he can never really stray too far from the office because time is so short. If he were to get too much fresh air or enjoy his food for too long a time, he’d be LATE. A lunch break at work is hardly a person’s “own” time because they are required to eat, (often standing in long lines if they don’t bring their own lunch) stay close to the office, sometimes be “on-call”, then get back to work. Seen in this manner this isn’t really a break at all, and Bill is hardly on his own time. He’s on the company’s time, which dictates what he does and when he eats.

At 5:00pm, Bill finally enjoys a Zen-like, stress-free (yeah, right) jaunt through rush hour traffic, arriving home at 5:45pm. This 45 minute commute is a totally average amount of time in rush hour in a major east-coast city. The period between the beginning of Bill’s lunch break to his march through the front door lasted between 1:00pm and 5:45pm and is 4 hours and 45 minutes in length.

I think we can all agree that it takes us 15 minutes or so to unwind at the end of the day. Bill Stressed probably hasn’t gotten work out of his system until six. But I’ll be fair again and stick with my original time.

Let’s do the math.

Bill’s “8-hour workday” has turned into a grueling 10 hour and 45 minute marathon! And this is very, very typical. His “40-hour workweek” is actually 53 hours and 45 minutes long, and he isn’t getting any overtime.

The problem here isn’t just limited to people working far too many hours. After all, some people actually like their jobs (though I bet if you took a poll at your place of employment, almost anyone would rather have slept in that morning.) The bigger problem is the lack of time we have away from work. Where are our “hours” for family, friends, hobbies, paying bills, cleaning, and spending time just BEING? It seems like the spirit of workaholism in this country is getting worse, not better.

Are you sick of working yourself to death? Tired of the grind? Tired of never having enough quality time with people you care about? Here are some ways out:

  1. Work a part time job instead of a full-time job. If this isn’t possible given your budget, perhaps work towards having fewer expenses!
  2. Start your own business, making sure that you are not just “giving yourself another job” by doing so. Try to make enough income to support yourself without having to put in too many hours. Still, even if you do have to work a lot, this kind of work is your own. No longer can some faceless company steal your hours away so it can make money instead of you. Only you are in charge of how long you work now. This is awfully difficult to do, given that you don’t have much spare time to start a side-business if you work a 53 hour per week job.
  3. Learn how to get by on less sleep. For example, I have found that I do fine on only six hours per night. This may not be the case for everyone, but you never know until you really give it a go. It takes some time for your body to adjust, so give it two weeks. If you are a zombie by the end of this period, maybe it isn’t for you. But you have to give it time. And if you are successful, you’ve just added 14 hours of your time to your week! Eat that, rush-hour!
  4. Clone yourself and send your clone to work.

Unfortunately, there are not that many options for taking your time back, short of escaping the rat race. And poor Bill is going to be stuck on the fast lane to nowhere for a long time to come.

For the next part in the series: Forty-Hour Workweek? (Part 2)



  • Scott Jackson August 8, 2007 at 6:17 am

    I get up as last as possible and live close to work, so I don’t have to deal with traffic. Also part-time jobs usually don’t have benefits.


  • Mike August 8, 2007 at 7:47 am

    Unfortunately, health benefits are mostly only obtainable through work with a full-time job. You could always get benefits independently, but this is extremely expensive, and makes the part-time job option even more of a challenge. You’d probably have to be making some good money (like be a freelance programmer or software designer) to afford this.

    You can see just how challenging it is to navigate in the current system.

    Seems like you are lucky with the short commute. Only a 48 hour workweek for you 🙂


  • Ross August 8, 2007 at 9:26 am

    I really like the “cloning” idea—that would make life so much easier!

    The website looks great, btw.

    One question – it seems like since there is obviously a need for these sorts of jobs in the world, that people have to fill them…if everyone were to quit these seemingly monotonous jobs, what would happen??


  • Victoria August 8, 2007 at 11:19 am

    I’ve worked my fair share of part time jobs and in no way would I say they are more low key and fun. If anything there is a greater likihood that I will:

    a) not be guaranteed consistent hours
    b) I must be way more flexible
    c) There is no stability – new people, rules, procedures all the time
    d) the pay is terrible
    e) NO BENEFITS (I agree with Scott)

    Hence, this route could not work for a person like me. It would just put me in an even more precarious position than I already am. If anything there needs to be a systematic change!


  • Mike August 9, 2007 at 12:01 am

    In response to Ross’ question:

    You have touched on the most important part of this site’s message. The rat race is not for everyone. Chances are, if you have stumbled upon this site, you are looking for a way out as well.

    However, if you read my post on the Myers-Briggs personality testing, I talk about how some people (of the SJ temperament) are actually cut out for this kind of life. It energizes them (believe it or not.) So, in answer to your question, not everyone would or should escape. Some people are perfectly happy to be where they are.

    Victoria, I agree with what you are saying to a point. The benefit you would get from working part time isn’t from the job itself, but from your increased personal time. Maybe you could start up a side-business to make up for your loss of income with your extra time.


  • Christie Wyman August 27, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Looks Great Mike!


  • Chris November 28, 2011 at 4:51 am

    I know I’m a bit late to the game here, but I would go much further than this. Yes, it takes 53 hours and 45 minutes of our actual measurable time, but it takes so much more than that. I believe that you may as well subtract 24 hours of time for every workday – when you’re not eating, sleeping or getting ready/in transit, you’re usually too drained from doing all that crap to spend your little slice of “free” time as you normally would, say, on a weekend or holiday. Either that or the slice of time is legitimately too small to do whatever it is you want.


  • Chris November 28, 2011 at 4:54 am

    So I would also subtract all the time you spend on a couch staring blankly at the tv, reading fantasy novels, playing online games, drinking cheap wine or wasting time on facebook just so you can forget that it all starts again in just a few short hours.


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