Average Work-week is Over, a few Thoughts on Productivity

I’ve lately seen some discussions of productivity and they often seem to refer to the widget-cranking model of productivity even whilst claiming not to do so!

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This is the productivity model I typically see discussed (or assumed):

Output per time

On the x-axis, I plot time spent working; on the y-axis I plot output (total output, not productivity, which would be the derivative).

In this model, when you work 20 hours a week, you are super productive and can output more than half what you can output when you work 40 hours a week. As working time goes up, fatigue sets in and less is produced per hour until it actually becomes counter-productive including a steep-decline as the worker burns out or just commit egregious mistakes [1].

This is the widget cranking model and it applies to factory workers assembling iPhones, or baristas at a coffee store, with small modifications (see below) it apply to office workers. It does not apply to certain types of highly-intellectual workers working in a modern organization [2].

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My personal impression is that my personal productivity is much more like this:

Output per Time

The first few hours of the week are zero-output. This is Maintenance. These including attending seminars, reading papers, reading department announcement emails, filling out paperwork, attending training sessions on how to fill out paperwork, some of the meetings I attend, &c. I could do this for years and nothing would come out. Sure, I’d be informed of the literature from reading papers, I’d know what all of the week’s speakers are and I’d have no unread emails on my inbox; but this would not get a single paper published, a single talk given, a single student taught.

Next, there are the Shallow Tasks, the stuff that produces some output, but is not really very challenging or produces very high impact output: answering work emails, (re-)giving talks on work already done, merging text edits from co-authors. These basic tasks can take a few hours every week. Sometimes they take away a whole month.

If all your tasks are of this form then the widget model may apply to you after the Maintenance phase, which in a well-run organization can be 5 hours per week or less [3]. I think this actually describes many office jobs, which are done with the brain, but do not require that much creativity, insight or deep knowledge of a field. It may even describe a lot of the work done by doctors seeing patients (although less now than it did in the past). I can certainly teach a class in shallow mode (probably won’t be my best work, but I can do it). However, if you have a really intellectually intensive job, which requires creativity, shallowing it will not do.

In my line of work, research, shallowing is not enough. At some point, you need more and faster progress. You need deep thinking and breakthroughs.

However, and this is the important point of this model, I cannot do deep thinking on a cold cache. I can only really get there when I have wrapped my head around the details of a project/problem. This is best achieved as a side-effect from working on shallow tasks or from failed attempts at breakthroughs. It takes some time and it does not lend itself to being partitioned into discrete tasks spread through a long period of time (a few hours every week).

When I switch projects to something I have not worked at for a while [4], it sometimes takes me a full week or more just to get the details back in my head. Even coming back from the week-end, it takes a few hours to get back to where I was on Friday [5]. I sometimes think I’ve got it and then make silly mistake because I forgot that in this particular project, some aspect was done slightly differently from usual so I waste a full day on something stupid; I spend more time looking up basic information, I make changes to code which need to be reverted because I forgot why the code was doing what it was doing or I write some text which I delete without even sharing because it had forgotten an important aspect of the problem. (For the programmers in the audience, think about switching to a programming language you know well but have not used for a few months. You are now calling the size method instead of length to get the number of elements of a vector, looking up library functions you used to know by heart, your fingers will no longer automatically type build system commands, &c)

Only when I finally have the project in my head, does the typical widget model fully apply to me: breakthroughs are now easy and I am very productive for the first few hours of investment. I can manipulate the concepts in my head and translate them to actual analyses, I remember pitfalls automatically, do not fall through them, and things are good. I can try new things easily without breaking up everything else (of course, they are not all successful attempts, but I am iterating fast).

However, I cannot get to this phase without a preparatory phase. I often have my best ideas on the bus. I have been struggling with something for the whole afternoon, and on the bus on my way home, I finally see the solution. However, if I just rode the bus around town all day, I would not be very productive. Loading the project into memory is a vital phase of the process. Only then can I make the insightful leaps.

Later comes fatigue and breakdown when mistakes accumulate and I can’t spell anymore [6].

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In this model, although we still have diminishing returns at the right end of the curve; we have increasing returns at the left end. Working half the time produces less than half of the output, working a quarter of the time produces almost nothing.

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In this model, Average is Over. The 40 hour week is over, there will be those who work 20 to 30 hours (those who are on the top curve) and those who work 50 to 60 (those who are on the bottom curve).

In this model, it makes sense for widget makers to work fewer hours as society gets rich (they are cashing in on society’s wealth in the form of leisure), while the elites work more hours for much more money. You cannot be a part-time C-level executive, part-time quant trader, part time cutting-edge-scientist at a big institution. You can, however, be a part time barista or HR officer.

In this model, for certain careers, it is hard to cash on society’s wealth by working fewer hours, except if you take advantage of a loophole: you take long breaks or vacations. Not some puny two- or three-weeks in the Summer every year or something 20th-century like that (which require another week or so of catching up time when you get back). Sure you might do a week in in Florida (Lanzarote, for Europeans) when the fancy strikes and visit the in-laws for the holidays, but I meant that you take some real time off, like a few months to go live in Asia (or volunteer in Africa). You take a year off to walk from Alaska to Peru. Then you go back and work 60-hour weeks at a hedge fund again, until you take your next six months off. Very often, you take these breaks in between jobs.

I think that this back-n-forth between apparent-workaholism and long breaks is both more rational in this model and better describes the life-styles of the modern elites.

The poor may work in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize in the evening [7]; the rich will work one year, fish the next one, and criticize (go into politics) a decade later.

Updated: I added the sentence about breaks being in between jobs, which is what I observe to emphasize the point that these are not traditional vacations.

[1] It may apply to certain types of gentleman scholar work such as a writer who writes his best work before lunch and takes the afternoons off.
[2] I purposefully left out values out of these plots. Some have claimed that 40 hours is the peak output (on average). Perhaps that is true, but it feels a bit Panglossian to me (it would also mean that the historical fights for the 40 hour work-week were based on a mistake on the part of the employers fighting to get their employees to work longer hours: they’d get more output while paying them less by switching to 40 hours, but the unions had to fight them for it). On the other hand, I know my peak is way beyond 40 hours, so I might just be generalizing from N=1.
[3] In a badly run organization, this can take much longer.
[4] The common English idiom is working on, but many times research feels more like working at problems than working on them.
[5] Which is why context switches can be so painful. Not interruptions per se, but context switches.
[6] Actually, I can’t spell at all in any language at any time of day; but you get the point.
[7] I mean material-poor relative to the very rich. This can apply to people with very rich lives who are part of the global 1% of income (you need 34k/year to be in the global 1%).
[7] I mean material-poor relative to the very rich. This can apply to people with very rich lives who are part of the global 1% of income (you need 34k/year to be in the global 1%).
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2 thoughts on “Average Work-week is Over, a few Thoughts on Productivity

  1. I think the increasing returns at low hours (S-curve) model fits a lot of our observations and is not very controversial among people who consider the timing of work.

    As for expanding leisure: For social reasons I think what happens is that the number fully productive working years contracts. Educational years expand and consumption becomes a bigger part of education. As new economy firms mature I think the opposite end I will see a tendency towards “put out to pasture” positions where nominally the individual is still working but mainly goes to conferences, meetings, etc but does not contribute much to the profitability.

    This is simply because of the social role that school-work play and the signal sent by retiring or even taking long vacations.

  2. Longer education periods are a fact, yes. Another one is that people take more leisure “at work” (facebook, doing personal tasks at work). The “putting out to pasture” idea is interesting, but it depends on a high reluctance to fire, which probably means that it breaks apart when recessions force hard decisions or companies actually go broke.

    I edited the post to clarify that I often see not so much long vacations as actual career breaks. People quitting their jobs and not immediately taking (or even looking for) a new one. This is the cultural loophole. It’s also quite acceptable in the US to retire from a high-intensity job into a low-intensity one (perhaps in the non-profit sector).

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