How To Craft A Perfect, Productive 40-Hour Workweek

You don’t need to work around the clock if you follow this guide to working smarter, not harder.

How To Craft A Perfect, Productive 40-Hour Workweek
[Photo: Flickr user Alexey Druzhinin]

When I ask people what they’d like to spend more of their work hours doing, I hear the same things over and over again. Mentoring. Nurturing relationships with colleagues. Reading industry literature. Sharing the great work you’re doing. Dabbling in ideas that may lead to major breakthroughs.


We want to do all these things, but we assume that we just don’t have the time.

Or do we? I’d argue that a well-structured 40-hour workweek has space both for the “stuff” of a job and the soft side, too.

Before you assume differently, consider this: working 40 solid hours doesn’t mean being in the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. From tracking my own time, and doing my own time diary studies, I know that it is very difficult to log eight productive hours in less than 10 hours allocated to “work.” You can and should take breaks. So we’re talking 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. many days, and if you cut out early on Friday, that means some other night you’re working until 8 p.m. People who work until 8 p.m. at least once a week don’t think of themselves as working 40 hours. But they probably are.

With that in mind, here’s how to allocate a 40-hour workweek in order to create maximum sustainable progress. This formula creates a career that’s on fire without you getting burned out.


Planning/Strategizing (2.5 hours)

How do you figure out what to do with your time? This takes time, and the irony is that people get so busy with work that they often don’t pause to consider whether they’re doing the right work or not. An ideal workweek would have space for this.

Stephen Tang, president and CEO of Philadelphia’s University City Science Center, says he advises people to “take 30 minutes at the end of the workday to close up your desk, close your screen, decompress, reflect, journal, become really self-aware about what went right and what went wrong, and then tee up the next day before you go home.” Alternately, you could do a longer planning and strategizing session on Friday afternoon to set the next week, and then take a few minutes at the end of each day to update the next day’s agenda. Either way, if you want to use your 40 hours well, you need a good plan for how to spend them.


Core Production (20 hours)

Core production is the “stuff” of your job–the essence of what you are getting paid to do. Allocating just 20 hours to this may seem low, and yet, as I’ve talked to the free agents I most admire, I keep hearing that they set their rates to bill far fewer than 40 hours per week. When you are just starting out, you’ll have to devote more hours to core production as you improve at your craft.

Over time, though, skill leads to efficiency. Another reason to limit this category? Devoting 30 or 40 hours to the “stuff” of your job means you’ll have to work very long hours to do other important activities, or else (more likely) you’ll skip them. You can do that for a while, but over time, it pays to tend your garden.

Speculative/Skill Building (5 hours)

If you want to be in it for the long haul, you don’t want to get bored. The truly prolific make time for speculative activities. This can be pitching new business, or playing around with new concepts. You study new tactics in classes or with coaches, and practice the ones you already know. Even if you’re very good at your job, you can always get better. Also, the core production work that keeps you busy now may dry up at some point. A productive workweek contains time for figuring out what’s next.

Collegiality (2.5 hours)

This category is about investing time in your closest work relationships, and doing what you can to build these connections. “We’re always looking to make sure we’re hiring the best employees on the market, and we want to make sure they’re really happy here,” says Jeremy Miller, founder and CEO of Label, which makes custom men’s clothing. It’s easy not to have these conversations, and it’s easy not to do little things to lighten your colleagues’ loads, but “in an ideal workweek, we have more time for stuff like that.” If you’re working solo, this can mean building relationships with an accountability group or people you refer work to frequently, or your own vendors.

Visibility (5 hours)

You may be doing great work, but if no one outside your organization knows about it, it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. People who are wise about career management make investments in their external networks, too. They ask, daily, what have I done to increase my exposure and broaden my scope? You can do media interviews. You can check in with old colleagues, write industry articles, or attend networking events. Any one event may not be high yield, but things build over time. “It’s not always necessarily what you see on the surface,” says Miller. When he’s out meeting people, sometimes these new connections put him in touch with other people he builds partnerships with. “Things like that can really pay dividends for any company.”

Mentoring works, too. Maia Heyck-Merlin, a productivity expert and author of The Together Teacher, says she devotes one of her influence-building hours to “giving back”: scheduling career conversations or fielding advice requests from others. “So many people have done this for me that I try to pay it forward.”


Open Space (5 hours)

Productive people need slack in their lives. First, it’s just practical. Everything takes longer than expected, and slack means you won’t be late and rushing. But beyond that, white space allows for serendipity. “The biggest thing is don’t overschedule, because then you can’t adjust to the nuances of the day,” says Tang. He recommends “creating white spaces in the daily calendar–at least an hour to make sure you can think and reflect and adjust your plans accordingly.” Depending on how the week is going, this open space can be reallocated to any of the other categories if there’s a good reason.

Fill The Tank During The Remaining Hours

A well-planned, 40-hour workweek will demand a lot of energy. So what you do in addition to working matters, too. Schedule real breaks through your workday to stay in peak form: coffee with a colleague mid-morning, lunch with friends, a brisk walk during what would be the mid-afternoon slump. At home, resist the urge to do “nothing.” It’s impossible to do nothing. You’ll do something, but it won’t be as energizing as if you’d given it some thought. So think about what makes you feel refreshed. Reading a good book? A bike ride? A volunteer gig? If you work 40 hours a week and sleep eight hours a night, that leaves 72 hours each week for other things. You’ll have plenty of time to fill the tank so you can hit work ready to go.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at