The Truth About How Much Workaholics Actually Work

Most people grandly exaggerate the number of hours they work--and in doing so, undermine their own productivity. Here's how to track your real work time and make the most of every hour.

I first came to the topic of time not because I was interested in time management but because I was fascinated by the academic study of time use.

Hunting through data from the American Time Use Survey, conducted annually by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other time-diary projects, I came to the inescapable conclusion that how we think we spend our time has little to do with reality. We wildly overestimate time devoted to housework. We underestimate time devoted to sleep. We write whole treatises glorifying a golden age that never was; American women, for instance, spend more time with their children now than their grandmothers did in the 1950s and '60s.

These curious blind spots continue into the realm of work. People who get paid by the hour know how many hours they work. People who inhabit the world of exempt jobs have a much more tenuous grasp on this concept but, as a general rule, the higher the number of work hours reported, the more likely the person is to be overestimating.

A study published in the June 2011 Monthly Labor Review that compared estimated workweeks with time diaries reported that people who claimed their “usual” workweeks were longer than 75 hours were off, on average, by about 25 hours. You can guess in which direction. Those who claimed that a “usual” workweek was 65–74 hours were off by close to 20 hours. Those claiming a workweek of 55–64 hours were still about 10 hours north of the truth. Subtracting these errors, you can see that most people top out at fewer than 60 work hours per week. Many professionals in so-called extreme jobs work about 45–55 hours a week. Those are numbers I can attest to from time logs I’ve seen over the years. I’ve given speeches at companies known for their sweatshop hours and had up-and-comers keep time logs for me. Their recorded weeks tend to hover around 60 hours--and that’s for focused, busy weeks with no half days, vacation days, or dentist appointments, and, most important, for weeks that people are willing to share with colleagues. We live in a competitive world, and boasting about the number of hours we work has become a way to demonstrate how devoted we are to our jobs.

That would be funny, except that numbers have consequences. If you think you’re working 80 hours per week, you’ll make different choices in your attempts to optimize them than if you know you usually work 55.

People who want to use their hours better should figure out how they’re spending their hours now. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you know that nutritionists will tell you to keep a food journal, because evidence shows it works. One study of a year-long weight loss program, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012, found that women who kept a food journal lost about 6 pounds more than those who did not. Writing down what you eat keeps you accountable for what you put in your mouth. Likewise, writing down how you spend your time keeps you accountable for the hours that pass, whether or not you’re conscious of them.

There are lots of apps that can help you keep a time log, or you can download a decidedly low-tech spreadsheet from my website. I use the even lower-tech solution of writing down my hours in a spiral notebook. If you’ve never kept track of your time before, I encourage you to try logging a whole week and think of yourself as a lawyer billing time to different projects. How much time do you spend checking e-mail? Thinking? Planning? Traveling? In meetings? Doing the substance of whatever work you were hired to do?

Tally up the totals and study them. Do those totals seem reasonable? What do you over- or underinvest in? Perhaps the most important insight to come out of this experiment is an understanding of exactly how long activities take. If I’ve got a blog post written, it takes me half an hour to format it with links and photos--a good thing to know before attempting to post between the 11:45 a.m. end of a phone call and lunch with my kids at noon. People who do a lot of something often develop a good sense for this and consequently have a more accurate understanding of how much they can produce in the 2,000–3,000 annual work hours that a 40–60 hour workweek entails. An October 2012 Wall Street Journal profile of Connie Brown, an artist who specializes in personalized maps, reported that a map took her more than 200 hours to complete, and so she did about 12 a year. Even adding administrative time, that puts her in the 2,000–3,000-hour bucket. A less experienced artist might attempt to tackle 50 such projects per year, but since that’s 10,000 hours, and a year has just 8,760 hours (8,784 during leap years), that clearly wouldn’t work.

You don’t have to log your minutes forever, but even doing it for a few days gives you a mindfulness about time--a mindfulness I imagine monastic sorts were pursuing as they meditated through their books of hours. That mindfulness can lead to more productive choices by itself. One busy doctor who kept a time log for me subsequently took her log to her clinic director to make the case for more administrative support so she could see more patients. Having logged many weeks over the years, I no longer propose phone calls before 11 a.m. if I get a say in the matter. That’s because I know that morning hours are when I am best able to turn an idea into words.

You may be frustrated to discover that how you’re spending your time isn’t how you wish to be spending your time, but the stark truth is that time is a nonrenewable resource—when it’s gone, it’s gone. There is no point lamenting how many of your hours have been lost in the past.

There is much to be gained, though, by committing to doing things differently in the 2,000–3,000 work hours you are granted as a blank slate each year.

--Excerpted from WHAT THE MOST SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE DO AT WORK. Published by Portfolio/Penguin. Copyright Laura Vanderkam, 2013.

[Pencil Image: Constantine Pankin via Shutterstock]

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14 Comments

  • jbrunner007

    I love all these slackers trying to make excuses for working a 35 hour work week... I'm proud to state I work a very dense, productive mix of sales prospecting, pre-sales and engineering - with frequent on-site trips to several data centers for at least 65-70 hours a week. The rest of the time in research mode figuring out what technologies are shaking out and we should focus on. Finally, I'm on call 24x6 (with Saturdays off). If you remember Cmdr. Data's quarters - computer terminals into the ship's central computer. The new economy is here - grab a lasso or grab a astronaut's cyanide capsule... if you don't LOVE what you do and have zero stress doing it cause its so much fun - find something else to do.

  • Andrew Tarvin

    I've seen the same benefits from tracking my time--just knowing where it goes will help change behavior. One related idea is "Parkinson's Law" which states that work expands for the amount of time allotted for it. So those "80 hour weeks" won't necessarily be more productive than those 60 hour ones.

  • Gamedev

    Sometimes hours are used as part of a culture. Not demanded by the bosses, but grown into, like a cancer. For instance on one game, our team crunched so hard that we slowly slipped backwards 4 timezones. The designers would get to work at 2pm, after the coders and artists had already had lunch. Around 7pm we'd knock off for dinner and a hazy few hours of sitting in front of the computer surfing and acting like work. By 11pm we'd have our 2nd wind, and maybe work til 4 or 5am. Go home, smoke a cig and take a few shots of tequila. Try to get 4-5 hrs of sleep in. All in all, 9 months I never want to relive. 

  • imppress

    I take Sundays off.  NO work.
    I get a LOT done Saturday with that deadline looming.

    The Jews had caught on to something with that sabbath thing.....

  • Ben Landers

    I agree with your key point, but I don't really think people are exaggerating the hours they work. To get 40 hours of work, most people have to spend a heck of a lot more than 40 hours in the office (or "at work" - wherever that might be). Short breaks between concentrated tasks, in aggregate, add up, but they are a required component of the actual work (and should be counted). While it may not be optimal to track these breaks in your time-tracking software, I think counting them as part of the "how many hours did you work this week" is perfectly acceptable (and reasonable).

  • Joe Flood

    Great post. There's a cult of busyness in a lot of big cities, where people actually brag about hours worked. But working all the time doesn't meant you're getting things done. The people who actually are productive tend to work ordinary hours but are organized and disciplined, like this article points out.

  • Michael

    This is a great reminder and resonates with three beliefs that I find valuable:
    1) How much time people work is usually tracked by the emotional cost rather than actual time, as in, "this project took me 20 hours" but the task really only took 5 hours though at a heavy emotional investment
    2) What people say they do and what they actually do are two different realities, e.g., "I never watch television" but they can provide details of the latest episodes that come up in casual conversation.
    3) Peter Drucker - "1. Know Where Your Time Goes: Effective executives know where their time goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can brought under their control." Write out what you need to be actually working on to succeed at your job. Track your time against those activities. Make huge course corrections :).

  • Adrianne Barba

    I use 88miles (http://88miles.net/) to track my time, billable and non-billable. It's been helpful to see where my time is going and what I can cut back on to take a bit of time back for me.

  • Chris Doig

    I have tried a few time trackers, and Yast is time tracking tool that works well for me. Since I bill clients, the reporting in Yast saves me an average of 4 hours a month. An I also know how hard it is to get past 60 hours of real work!

  • Jonathan Woodall

    Toggl has been a great tool in helping me figure out where my work hours go to.

  • Paul H. Burton

    Laura: Absolutely over the top article! I've read 168 Hours and just put your other two books on my reading list. Ironically, I wrote an article call "Three Reasons Why Executive Time Management is Like Losing Weight" a year ago - http://www.quietspacing.com/or..., which resulted from my own experiences with both of those subjects.

    Getting people to discover what's really going on in their worlds, then helping them make that actual reality better is also at the heart of my work. Whether it's time management seminars or my latest venture - www.repriseapps.com - I strongly believe that getting the basic facts in hand is the only way to build a solid (and successful) foundation for managing change.

    I look forward to learning more about your viewpoints on these subjects and following your work!

  • M Lawrence

    Apps are great for tracking your time, but they don't track your values. Does how you're spending your time match what you value in life? Work hours don't equal a life well lived.

  • John V.

    Good point. I think it needs to go beyond the tools. If you use the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology by David Alan, you are encouraged to do regular reviews. This includes reviewing your long-term goals from a 30K-50K foot level. This allows you to rethink what you are doing at the granular level and assess if it is meeting your overall long term goals which should include those all so important values in life. This is of course an oversimplified explanation, but the point is that tracking time helps you understand what you are really doing so you can make better decisions about what you really want to do with you time and how meaningful it is.

  • P Spofforth

    You should look at an app called RescueTime to keep track of your work time if you are predominantly at your desk. It maintains logs of how long you are engaged with your PC and which applications you're using to help you track wasted time.