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How many hours do you really need to work each week to be productive?

Productivity strategist Tonya Dalton outlines the pros and cons of working long hours (like Elon Musk) and aiming to work as little as possible (like Tim Ferriss).

How many hours do you really need to work each week to be productive?
[Photo: Malvestida Magazine/Unsplash]

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to maximizing productivity. But two of the most divergent theories come from The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss and Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

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Ferriss, as you might be able to tell from the title of his book, believes you can work as little as possible but still be successful. Musk, on the other hand, touts working 80- to 100-hour weeks to excel, and once said: “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”

Who’s right when it comes to maximizing productivity? Let’s break down each approach to help you make the best decision for your work schedule.

The working long hours approach

Entrepreneurs often claim working long hours as a badge of honor. During an interview, Musk said, “Work like hell. You just have to put in 80- to 100-hour weeks every week,” adding, “If other people are putting in 40-hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100-hour workweeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing . . . you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.”

On the surface, he might sound like he’s right, but when you dig a little bit deeper, you run into some issues. You see, productivity has a limit. Stanford researchers discovered your productivity drops once you hit the 50-hour mark in your workweek. Workers who put in 70 hours produce nothing more with those extra 20 hours. They’re merely spinning their wheels, working longer hours but accomplishing less.

Excessive working can also impact those around you. At a 2013 SXSW panel, when Musk discussed spending time with his children, he claimed, “I don’t see mine enough actually. But what I find is, I’m able to be with them and still be on email. I can be with them and still be working at the same time . . . If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to get my job done.”

Unfortunately, for Musk (and other multitaskers), our brains don’t operate that way. Scientists have discovered that when we multitask, our productivity can decrease up to 40%.

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I’m not here to criticize Elon Musk. I believe everyone’s productivity is personal. But we need to make sure that we aren’t looking at this as a one-size-fits-all mentality. If you must push yourself past the standard threshold of work hours, make sure it’s only for a limited amount of time. And even then, it is essential to take breaks and let your brain recover.

The minimal work lifestyle approach

For people who haven’t read Ferriss’s best-selling book, the title might imply that Ferriss built his business by only working four hours a week. They may think that they, too, can create something substantial without putting in a lot of effort. Let’s just say this idea is not quite the full picture.

Ferriss defines work very specifically. “If your definition of work is something primarily financially driven that you would like to do less of, like with my company, I spend far less than four hours a week on it,” Ferriss once said at a Harvard Business School event. In other words, anything that doesn’t have direct financial gain, but helps grow your business (like lecturing, blogging, podcasting) don’t count—those are “evangelizing.”

Ferriss, however, does bring some useful strategies to the table that can improve your productivity. For example, he recommends batching your tasks and empowering others to make decisions, especially insignificant ones. This is very different than how Musk runs his business and requires you to set clear boundaries with the people you work with to make choices on your behalf.

Another point Ferriss makes is on eliminating distractions. To an extent, I agree. A lot of meetings, emails, and calls are distractions and don’t always get you to your goals, so any efforts to streamline that can only be beneficial. But where Ferriss and I part ways is when he talks about eliminating distractions to the point of what he calls “selective ignorance.” He suggests never reading the news. If it’s important, other people will talk about it, and you’ll find out, reported the New York Times. He also believes you should eliminate all TV except for one hour of pleasure viewing. Also, he only reads one hour of fiction a day and doesn’t surf the internet.

Not only do I think that is a bit excessive, but it can be detrimental to your business. How are you supposed to stay on top of your industry’s trends, learn from others, and improve your business skills? There are also certain professions (and businesses) where a crucial part of your role involves consuming information.

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Given all that, is the four-hour workweek even realistic? Yes and no. It is practical to cut out many of the distractions and eliminate the extra noise and clutter in your life. It’s not realistic to believe you are going to be able to make substantial progress in your business or career by only working four hours a week.

Ultimately, there is no need to live your life in extremes. You don’t need to work 100-hour workweeks to succeed, but you probably need to work more than four hours a week to build something meaningful. Just remember that life isn’t about punching a clock, but about focusing on what’s important. That is, don’t get fixated on the hours you spend, but the way you spend it. Quality always wins over quantity.


Tonya Dalton is a productivity strategist, owner of Inkwell Press, and author of the upcoming The Joy of Missing Out.

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