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The Mythical Eight Hour Workday

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I haven’t tracked my time in many years. I’ve always felt the practice was a nuisance. Hey, I’m busy. I have a lot to do. I’m working on it. Don’t distract me with a time sheet. You know what I do, boss, right? Do I really have to document my daily doings?

Working for myself means I don’t have to perform such trivial tasks, and of course, I don’t. However, I have been wondering over the last month where my workday goes. Often, it feels like I park my tush in my office chair, begin working on tasks, and then the day is suddenly over.

Except that often, the day isn’t over. My workday ends when I’ve accomplished everything I need to for that day. Eight hours gone by? Whatever. Head down. Keep at it. Get everything done. The list won’t get shorter tomorrow. If I want to get paid, I have to get my work done.

The Final Countdown

With more days than I want falling into a pattern of working more hours than I’d like, I’ve gotten serious about determining what the problem is. Do I need to turn away projects? Should I hire someone to handle some of the load? Am I not embracing the life of a stereotypical small business owner?

Or is this just a matter of being inefficient?

I’ve tried something simple to sort out where the time is going, and it’s not a time sheet, as I don’t like seizures. Instead, I’m using a countdown timer.

When I sit down in the morning, I start the eight hour timer counting down. The goal? Complete everything I need to on a given day in eight hours or less. Why eight hours? Why not? That’s a standard number of daily working hours for many folks, so it feels like the right place to start.

Observations

1. Eight hours feels like less time than it is as soon as the countdown timer rolls over to 7:59:59. Similarly, 5:45:00 left on the timer (mid-morning), feels like a distressingly short amount of time to get things done.

A sense of urgency rises up. Instead of feeling like I have many hours ahead of me to get things done, I feel like time is slipping away from me, so I’d best get a move on.

The countdown timer doesn’t stop, slow, or negotiate. The timer inexorably marches on. A countdown timer is an impactful visual aid that a normal wall clock, even with a second hand sweep, somehow lacks.

2. With the sense of urgency comes focus. Unnecessary busy tasks that usually seem work-related instead feel like they are stealing my day when I see the clock ticking down.

For instance, reading that interesting article I spotted on LinkedIn. Oh…and checking LinkedIn in the first place. Checking a spreadsheet I don’t really need to check to review some stat I really don’t need to review. Getting sidetracked in a Slack conversation. Etc.

3. I have discovered that I waste time by putting off distasteful tasks. A distasteful task I don’t want to do just sits there on my list, and I make myself unproductively busy with other things to avoid it. The entire time I am unproductively busy, I make no progress on my task list.

By putting off the inevitable, I anchor myself to my desk. I’m like a little kid whose Mom insists I eat my veggies, but I push cold peas around the dinner plate instead of pushing them into my mouth to get it over with. I can’t go outside and play. I’m stuck at the dinner table.

Procrastination prolongs the work day.

4. Here’s where it gets weird–or maybe obvious. The more I ponder the following point, the more obvious it seems. With fear of the countdown timer driving my day, I am sometimes finishing daily tasks before eight hours is up.

Instead of not getting done as much as I wanted to and working additional time to complete my tasks, I’ve created more desirable options. I can get some exercise. I can work ahead on tasks due later in the week. I can consider other projects I might want to take on. I can research something new.

Admittedly, not every day is a successful time management experience. But when it is, I feel like I’ve created more time.

Illusions

A wise man once said, “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” My experiment with the countdown timer has made me realize that eight hours is a time span I’ve been trapped in because decades of traditional work environments ingrained the habit. Eight hours is an illusion.

There’s nothing magical about eight hours. If I’m diligent, I can sometimes complete my necessary tasks in less than eight hours and make better use of the remaining time. I work for myself, so I have the luxury of choosing to do more work, or to do something else entirely that I believe will enrich my life.

I’m in my 40’s. Time has become more important to me, since I’ve likely used up about half of what statistics suggest I’m allotted. Morbid? A little, but let’s be practical. Life is too short to be wasting time. A sense of urgency is appropriate. I want to spend my time well.

Sometimes, time well-spent will be eight hours of work. But often, time well-spent can be something else.

About the author

Ethan Banks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

@ecbanks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

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