Go to Menu Taking Back The 40 Hour Week
By Nick Corcodilos

In an article I once wrote, I offered some suggestions on how people might try to cut back the often ridiculous work hours that have become so common. Several readers wrote to share their stories about how they have successfully pared their work week from 60 hours to -- in one case -- 30 hours. I thought you'd enjoy reading about how one of these folks pulled it off. His name has been changed in this article, however, because he doesn't want to call attention to himself. I tell his story largely in his own words.

I broke the overtime habit early.
Rick Adams is a software developer. While working on his master's degree at a top graduate school, he got accustomed to putting in 80-100 hours a week studying. He seemed to recognize early that engineering could easily consume his life. After three semesters of this Rick says he "resolved to carefully guard my leisure time".

Rick was determined to watch his kids grow up and to spend time with his wife, and he has succeeded. After 15 years in engineering, he regularly works 40 hours a week. Overtime is a rare event, even though there have been some groups in his company that routinely endure mandatory 60 hour weeks for months on end. Of course, Rick made a choice, and you'll see that along with the benefits of his choice there came a price he had to pay.

I trained my boss.
How does he do it? Why does his employer tolerate it? In a nutshell, Rick Adams has a great boss, and his work schedule actually benefits his company.

"I am fortunate to have an understanding manager who knows that the 'work harder, not smarter' philosophy doesn't really add anything to productivity."

It's easy to suggest that Rick got lucky in drawing a good boss. But it's not as simple as that. Rick has invested the effort necessary to "train his manager". He didn't do this overtly or in a manipulative way; he saw it as part of his job. Over time, Rick patiently applied his own project management knowledge to teach his boss how to manage more efficiently, with the result that Rick hasn't had to work as long or hard to get his work done. The "busy work" in Rick's schedule has all but disappeared, allowing him to focus on being more productive in less time.

I help management monitor the deadlines.
A lot of engineers work overtime because they (and their bosses) don't continuously monitor the amount of work left to do on a project before the next deadline looms. Rick believes long work hours often result from mismanagement of schedules and from poor prioritizing because there's inadequate feedback from the engineering team.

"When my plate gets full, I diplomatically make it clear that adding more work means something won't get done or at least it won't get done well." This gives "the powers that be" a little room to maneuver. (Of course, having a good manager who will carry the message up the ladder helps.)

How does this directly benefit Rick's company? By speaking up as early in the process as possible, Rick helps management make choices that reduce costs and eliminate crunches. "As a result, it is very rare for me to miss a deadline and I am often able to complete more work than expected."

By helping his boss manage expectations and avoid schedule problems, Rick helps himself avoid more work than he can handle in 40 hours a week. In essence, Rick has taught his boss to let him work smarter rather than harder.

I help my company reduce risk of failure.
Is Rick a genius, or is he a manipulative slacker? If Rick were willing to put in overtime, he'd be able to handle more projects at once and allow the company to get more work done every week. But, he'd also be putting his company at risk. Overworked employees make mistakes, and companies that juggle too many projects risk destroying their credibility with their customers.

"60-hour-week" engineering teams routinely say "yes" to any amount of work to be done by any deadline. (What's one more concurrent deadline, when you've already got too many?) Such teams tend to work furiously until they realize, "Ooops! We're not going to make it!" At that point, rather than adapt expectations to match reality, the company imposes even more mandatory overtime so they can make the unrealistic deadline. Such deadlines are often not met, quality suffers and morale declines -- but everyone's a hero because they tried so hard. The net result? Everyone's confidence in their own work and in the system that produced it goes to pot.

Confidence improves customer satisfaction (and family life).
In training his boss to be realistic, Rick has helped his company develop its confidence -- in him and in its work processes. When Rick says, "It will be done", it gets done. His boss is sure, the manufacturing department is sure, the quality assurance team is sure, the sales force is sure, and the customer is delighted to get what he asked for on time. "The payoff to me is that I am able to spend time with my family instead of being married to my work."

I buy family time.
Rick readily admits that this approach to work can have its disadvantages. "One disadvantage to me is that my lack of overtime is viewed as a lack of commitment to the company and makes me less likely to receive a bonus." But, that's a tradeoff he's willing to accept for his family. After all, money is time, right?

Where did Rick come up with this approach to managing his work schedule? Like lots of dedicated professionals, Rick has some strong opinions about the characteristics of the productivity curve over time. With experience, he has come to trust his judgments on this issue.

The long view of the productivity curve.
"I'd like to make a comment about the common assumption that extra hours worked equals extra productivity. It's true only up to a point, then it's totally false. In a short burst of overtime (days to a week or two), it is likely that most workers will get more done than if they had worked only 40 hours. In a long bout of overtime (months), as fatigue mounts, carelessness increases while concentration and creativity decrease. Taken to extremes this can lead to an increase in illness and increased likelihood of family problems such as divorce. None of this is good for productivity over the long run."

Rick doesn't think he's a genius because he has developed a way to take back the 40 hour work week. To him, it's all just common sense. "Every worker needs to be a good project manager. That's what makes it possible to pack up at a reasonable time and go home to your family."

Note from The Headhunter: I'd like to thank "Rick Adams" for taking the time to share his experiences and methods of managing his time, and for letting me re-shape his words into this article. I'd like to thank his boss for contributing to mental health in the workplace.

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