Posted On: Monday, 25 June 2007 by Rajiv Popat

Word has it that developers on the Mac team at one point were spending more than 90 hours a week on Mac development. In fact, Apple had T-shirts to commemorate the Team for their efforts:

Andy Hertzfeld describes the work culture at apple back in the days in First-Person:

Most of the Macintosh software team members were between twenty and thirty years old, and with few family obligations to distract us, we were used to working long hours. We were passionate about the project and willing to more or less subordinate the rest of our lives to it, at least for a while.

In multiple cities of this planet, in every office I’ve worked at, every once in a while, I come across one or two Nine-to-Five-Folks who are awesome individuals; they not bad programmers at all and this post is not about criticizing them. This post is about asking the million dollar question:

“Are 8 Hours a Day Enough?”

In a slightly old survey Dan Malachowski from suggests that employees aren’t even spending 8 hours a day at work. In his article where he publishes the results of a survey, He explains:

Are workers really expected to work 8 hours per day, non-stop? According to a follow-up survey of Human Resource managers, companies assume that employees will waste 0.94 hours per day. They take this into account when they do their compensation planning. However, those managers privately suspect that employees waste 1.6 hours per day. In fact, employees admit to wasting 2.09 hours per day.

As per the survey surfing the Internet for personal reasons is the top time wasting activity. “Don’t have enough work to do” is the top Time-Wasting excuse. It was sheer co-incidence that I always believed that this is the same excuse people use for wasting precious hours of their life when they are on bench. Anyway, I digress. So basically, Dan doesn’t believe that employees work 8 hours a day. They are in-fact doing multiple other things which cannot be classified as work.

On a serious note, the survey just makes me wonder if it makes sense to measure hours wasted in office by employees? Given the fact that engineers working remotely from home, at times even during insane hours, is a part of the culture in almost all software development shops.

John Wesley has a slightly different take on this. In my personal opinion, John is completely correct in claiming that the 9 to 5 office worker will become a thing of the past for the information worker. He explains why 9 to 5 is not such a good working model:

A continuous 8 hour work day is a relic of the past. It makes sense for physical labor and manufacturing work, but with information workers it doesn’t account for the mental energy cycle. The ability of a factory worker to think analytically is irrelevant, he’s either cranking widgets or he isn’t.

If you clicked on the link, John suggests that we do away with the 9 to 5 work culture with Information Workers. Instead, John is all about introducing agility into work schedules:

Everyone goes through alternating periods of high and low mental acuity. There are days when I work on personal projects for well over 8 hours, but the time is always divided into multiple sessions. I might spend a few hours coding a design, a few hours writing, and a few hours reading feeds, moderating comments, and responding to email.

I work this way because it aligns with my mental energy cycle. Any more than 3 hours in front of a computer and my eyes start hurting and I become restless. I lose the ability to do my best work. Instead of forcing myself to continue, I switch to an activity that allows my mind to recharge. These breaks maximize productivity by eliminating down periods. It’s counter productive to force work when the mental energy isn’t there.

The Mac team’s example, the survey on wasted time and John’s post might seem contradicting at first but give them some thought and they fall in line pretty well. In fact, add them up and they answer the million dollar question we set out to find an answer to. Take data and observations from all these three sources and some commonalities evolve:

  1. We as humans, are not very good at working 8 hours at a stretch on PCs. 
  2. We as humans, need a re-charge and motivation from time to time, in order to keep us hooked. 
  3. We as humans, often multi-task between multiple things! (Multi-tasking is bad for human beings, but it has its own Pluses. It has a “feel good factor” which gives us a high. This is why alt-tabbing in windows feels so much better than working in Tubro-C IDE of Ms-Dos! :))

Know these basic limitations and the next time you take a break between work, don’t feel guilty about it. Having said that, wasting time can be a highly productive activity which can benefit you, your organization and even your clients!

Some ways of productively wasting time and getting recharged include reading about a new technology you are passionate about and seeing how that fits in your current project, talking about code with your colleges, conducting a training, discussing your work related problems with fellow developers, having quick meetings to show off what you are doing or what you are excited about, writing a quick article on something new you learned, answering some questions in a forum etc. (the list can be endless!) - Pick your ways to waste time, depending on which “productive time wasting techniques” re-charge you the most! 

Software Development is like walking on a Treadmill. Stop and you are bound to fall – flat on your face. Keep running and you keep getting fitter and stronger. The fitness and the strength you acquire by running continuously helps you in running faster and harder. It’s a cycle! While it’s important to spend 8 hours a day working, find out productive ways to waste time so that you can put in more and keep your talents razor sharp. Keep running and make it interesting so that you don’t burn out! Who knows, it might give you the motivation and excitement to put in more than 8 hours of work a day.

Patricia Fripp gives a tip on how you can fall in love with your job all over again:

Make a list at the end of every day of what you learned, what was the most fun, who was the most fun to interact with, and how you feel you added to your group's success. A list of the 'beyond the paycheck' benefits. If you only work for the paycheck you will be employed, but not 'employable' long term.

Learn how to maintain personal and professional To-Do Lists for life. There is no better sense of achievement than striking off items from these lists!

Coming back to the million dollar question – Are 8 hours a day enough?

Eight hours a day might be good enough for a job but they may not be good enough for a profession. And they are absolutely no good for keeping a passion alive. If you can’t love what you do, maybe you need to stop right now.  Look harder for profession you can love. Seriously, if you are going to be an unknown-programmer who writes depressing programmer poetry - it’s best that you chase your dreams in a profession you love.

But chances are that if you are reading this, you already enjoy building software and you don't really need the advice on the above paragraph. Spend more time with what you enjoy doing and love it just like you love your lover! Go Ahead, hack your life so that you can spend more time with what you love doing without giving up on other personal commitments. 

To wrap things up, the next time you take a quick-break or engage in an activity for a while, which is technically a waste of time, don't feel guilty! And by the way, the next time you end up spending 16 hours a day with a computer, don't feel guilty either! :)

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