The Problem With the Traditional 8 Hour Work Day

The Problem With the Traditional 8 Hour Work DayToday, we have a post from my friend and personal finance blogger Harry Campbell.  

Harry started blogging about personal finance on his main site Your PF Pro a few years ago and enjoyed it so much that he started a second site dedicated to finding the perfect work-life balance at The Four Hour Work Day.  When Harry is not blogging, he works full-time as an aerospace engineer and enjoys surfing and playing beach volleyball.

Traditionally, in the United States our work days have been 8 hours long and we trudge into the office 5 days per week (and 2 weeks of vacation time is standard).

This pattern dates back to the Industrial Revolution – yeah, the cultural and societal revolution that happened over 200 years ago.  We’re usually a little bit slow to catch up to the rest of the world I guess.

You’d think by now we’d have realized our way of doing work is a little outdated.

You’d also think we might have come up with something that works a little better. But so far we haven’t.

As you’ve probably noticed, the model we’re stuck in now doesn’t make much sense. It seems like we’re only continuing to carry on with it because it’s one of those things we’ve “always” done.

But as companies strive to be more innovative and coax more productivity out of workers, we’re starting to question how great the set 8 hour workday really is. We’re realizing that this system comes with a lot of problems and challenges for modern employees and employers. Today’s millennials are demanding more of a work-life balance than ever and it’s up to employers to adapt.


Many Positions Don’t Actually Require 8 Hours Worth of Work Every Day

One of the most obvious problems, both for employees and employers, is that the 8 hour workday causes a whole lot of wasted time.

Many positions within companies don’t actually require an employee’s dedicated attention for 8 full hours, Monday through Friday for a total of 40 hours per week. When was the last time you worked a full 8 hours?  And no, watching cat videos on Facebook does not count as work.

Employees are left bored and many are resentful of all the time they have to pass twiddling their thumbs at their desks. Employers are (perhaps not always knowingly) paying for many empty hours where nothing is getting done because there isn’t anything to do.

The way our current system is set up, we exchange time for money.

We show up 8 hours and our employers pay us for those 8 hours. The better way? Exchanging value for money. Not everyone takes 40 hours per week to do amazing work within their job, so why force talented people to adhere to a schedule that might not make sense?


The 8 Hour Workday Doesn’t Allow for Maximum Creativity and Productivity

As much as some companies may wish it were true, humans aren’t machines.

We don’t have on switches that can be flipped at 9am and then turn it all off at 5pm. While having a consistent schedule does help with efficiency and productivity, the normal 8 hour schedule most of us work now doesn’t take advantage of human beings’ natural rhythms and flows.

Personally, I know that I do my best work in the mornings from about 8 am – 11 am and at night from 8 pm – midnight.

People are more often creative and work best in blocks of time throughout the entire day with periods of rest and downtime in between. The set 8 hour workday doesn’t allow for this.

The brain isn’t designed to do hard work and constantly focus for that set amount of time without multiple breaks.

Additionally, some people are naturally better workers in the early morning hours, while others do their best work in the afternoons and still others are true night owls.


People Just Don’t Like the Restriction

If you’re supposed to get 8 hours of sleep per night, and you’re forced to work another 8 hours, that only leaves a third 8 hours for all the rest of your life.

Often, 2 of those hours are eaten up by a stressful commute to and from work and schedule you’re forced into, which realistically leaves only 6 hours for family, relaxation, exercise, hobbies, and chores or errands.

Unsurprisingly, this way of living can be extremely unsatisfying.

Companies that refuse to deviate from the traditional 8 hour work day may soon find that they lose their best workers and talent to either A. companies that are embracing more forward-thinking models and allow for remote work, flexible hours, or other alternatives to the old-school 9 to 5, or B. entrepreneurship.

Employees with a heavy skill set and a drive to succeed are realizing that there’s a better way than an enforced 8 hour workday. With the rise of side hustles and side businesses, more and more people are making the transition from working for someone else to working for themselves.

We’ve seen a lot of stories in recent years of the greed in Corporate America: board members flying private jets while their employees are getting laid off and large bonuses being awarded only to upper management.

Why would you toil away working your tail off when someone else gets to reap all the benefits?

The traditional 8 hour work day is, simply put, old and not useful to us anymore.

It’s an inefficient way to work, because it creates many hours of empty, wasted time. But times are changing. Employers are very slowly realizing that a new way of doing business is taking over, and employees are realizing that if they no longer find the 8 hour workday in someone else’s business is acceptable, they can run their own business, set their own schedule, and be in charge of their own freedom.

Readers, what do you think about working a traditional 8 hour work day?  It might be a good starting point for most of us but doesn’t it make sense to find a more flexible job or go out on your own and start your own business?


  1. says

    Not enough work to fill an 8 hour day? Ha, that must be nice!

    I’m hoping my new job will have a slightly lighter workload. I definitely don’t want to be counting down the hours and watching the clock, but neither do I want to almost always feel like I’m behind.

  2. says

    This is a tough one. Take doctors as an example. While there is definitely joint-ownership or even sole proprietors in the provider space, many are going to be employees instead of starting their own gig, which is totally okay and probably much preferable. I think in some cases the 8-hour work day is necessary and isn’t a bad precedent to have in place. For example, dentist offices are typically open about 40-50 hours a week. Having those set hours gives structure and predictability for their business.

    With that being said, if we are talking about office workers who have skills in IT, data analysis, marketing, finance, etc. you definitely can see how an 8 hour work day is something that really doesn’t motivate employees. Tim Ferriss said in the 4 Hour Work week that no matter how productive you are in your 8 hours, companies will always want more. If you can do 8x the work of a co-worker, they will come to expect 8x the work. Sure you might not lose your job, but you are getting paid a lot less per output. Anyway great article and I really enjoy reading/discussing this topic.

    • says

      That’s true but being a doctor is one of the prime examples of a profession where you can only work 4 hours as an employee. My fiancee is in med school and I’m already trying to convince her to work 4 hours a day. She’ll earn less but still, half of 200-300k ain’t bad.

      I guess that’s my main problem with working for someone else. You’re not rewarded for being more efficient than your co-workers since if you work faster/better, you’ll just get more work. So what incentive is there to work hard/efficiently?
      Harry @ PF Pro recently posted..Prioritizing Your Cash Allocations When You’re Paying Off DebtMy Profile

  3. says

    How to retire a millionaire with your 8 hour workday employee status. Yes you are right that that was the industrial age strategy. At that point in time it works because the employees get amazing benefits like they are provided with a house and car near their workplace. Production line workers. Also, that’s how our education system is designed for an 8hour workday. Now that we are in the information age, things are different.

  4. kammi says

    I work an ‘eight hour day’ job, but I actually put in twelve hours a day (I live 15 minutes from where I work, which is awesome). It’s actually quite enjoyable, I make the company a profit (I need to be there when clients call the company so it’s actually to their benefit that I”m there longer hours) and in return they allow me to take classes and do homework while I’m at work and offer supplies for my coursework. Seems like a fair trade to me, because I cannot do just one thing (another ‘tradition’ I don’t agree with).
    However, that being said, I also have other sources of income. I think it is what you make it. My mom was so good at her job that even after she ‘retired’, she still works on Saturdays just because she loves what she does, and there is a need for persons in her field. While she was doing that, she studied accounting, and does accounting on the side for several organizations just because she is so good at what she does. My dad, also. What I think is wrong is the ‘eight hour mindset’. It’s stagnating. Passing the time is not productive and I really enjoy companies who make efforts to engage their workers and workers who are engaged with what they do.

  5. says

    I think the 8-hour work week is out-dated. There are too many wasted hours within the day. If employers shortened the work day to 5 hours (I think 4 might be too few for some jobs) with a short 30-minute break for a snack, they’d probably see their employees’ productivity increase. I think the daily grind, including commute time, is something our society has fallen into without questioning the consequences of what it does to each individual and their families (especially children.) I’m a teacher and I can tell you that some of my students only see their parents for a couple of hours a night – if at all if the parent is a single parent working two jobs! That’s no way to raise a child and it’s very apparent in some children’s behavior.
    Little House recently posted..5 Reasons Why You Need Income Protection InsuranceMy Profile

  6. says

    Since transitioning to self-employment I’ve been able to set my own hours. I keep a regular 8 to 5 type schedule because that’s when my clients are working. That being said I can easily take breaks during the day. I can also answer emails after 6 p.m. and schedule them to arrive the next morning. It’s funny because, yes, in the office world everyone says they work 8 hours but think about it… all those coworker chat sessions, water cooler breaks, going out for a lunch, etc. I would agree most people are not working 8 solid hours. If I edit for 2 hours straight my brain starts to spin. Breaks are good. We need them!

  7. Jamie V says

    I work an 8 hour day. I have actual work to do maybe 4 days out of the 20 or so business days per month. When people hear about this, I get sneers, a lot of “that must be nice!” and “wish I could surf the ‘net’ all day! Why are you complaining about it?” It really hurts and has sometimes driven me to tears. I’m complaining because I have skills and time that are being wasted not doing anything useful to anyone. I am not happy with it because I hate resorting to crappy internet stories trying to manipulate my buying habits or political opinions (I now bring in books to read in my cubicle). I don’t enjoy it, at all, because by business day 5 of the month, I start going insane with boredom, and please don’t think I’m joking with that one (my boyfriend reaps the horrors of that one when I come home). So it’s not all roses, that I get sit at work doing nothing. I’d rather be busy working. Contrary to what many might think (my parents included), it’s not all that great having a day of nothingness, day in and day out, for a month. To combat this, a couple months ago I started a blog, and when I’m not going crazy or dealing with complete restlessness, I try to write down my ideas and put together blog posts. I can do research for our future LLC, too. So I do try to stay productive, in my own way. It’s just really, really difficult.

  8. says

    I agree that we have these energy cycles that don’t always fit into the traditional mode of 9-5. For me I get very sleepy and unproductive around 2-4pm. And then my energy picks up right after that, but in the traditional mode I’m about ready to go home. I do freelance, so it’s not a problem right now, but I’m actually looking for full time work, and I’m sure that’ going to be a huge change if I get a full time job. But right now the perks of full time outweigh my life as a freelancer right now.
    Tonya@Budget and the Beach recently posted..A Budget Traveler In Iceland: Part TwoMy Profile

  9. says

    I agree wholeheartedly! While I love the structure of my workday, up until a few months ago, I did very little actual work to fill my days. A few month ago, when a coworker left, I offered to do his job as well as my own (for pay raise, of course). Now my work days are full, and the days fly by. I can only imagine what I would earn if I were paid per task, rather than per hour!

  10. says

    I’ve worked several office jobs where there is A LOT of downtime, so I completely agree that an 8 hour work day isn’t always ideal. I get bored, A LOT and it makes the day drag on forever. Usually if I go home for lunch, I don’t want to go back to work – nor do I usually have the need to. If only the system paid people by their efforts and not the hours.

  11. says

    A friend of mine works in a super cool and hip advertisement company. The office policy is “the work has to get done” – and they have to log a certain amount of hours per week, but that’s about it. The office has a pool table, a reading nook and a nice outdoor space. Their philosophy is that people perform much better when given a certain freedom.
    I think Google’s offices here in NYC operate in quite the same way. I once got the opportunity to visit them and Oh. My. God… I know nothing about IT, but I never wished more than I did than that day.

    • says

      Yea I think it’s going to be a while before employers change. It’s up to the employee to demand change. My strategy is to eliminate my dependence on my day job income :)

  12. says

    I think this is true for some professions but not all. As a business owner I don’t police my employees (they work remotely anyway.) I just expect work to get done and that’s that. I don’t pay hourly. That’s annoying.

  13. says

    At my last job, I often didn’t get to take a break, worked overtime, and came home exhausted. There were no meetings, just straight work from the time I got in until I left. I took another job because it was more low key, but I wish there was a better balance. We aren’t doing anything half the time, but we provide a service for the public so we have to be accessible.
    E.M. recently posted..Would You Buy A New or Old House?My Profile

    • says

      That sounds pretty brutal. At least you have a better job now. It’s tough bc when you don’t have enough work you want more, but you don’t want so much that you’re over-worked.

  14. says

    Haha! This post sounds like the opening chapters of my latest book. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Can the unproductive 6 hrs be spent doing something that will lead to eventual job transition (i.e. Researching real estate deals, value stocks, online opportunities)? The choice is often ours.

    • says

      That’s awesome Rome! I think that’s the key: if you do have free time at your job, how do you spend it? Watching cat videos or educating yourself about things like finance, taxes, etc.

  15. says

    I totally agree. I’m a Headhunter by profession and I love the fact that I can work the schedule that I need to work instead of having to sit in the office for 9 hours a day. Don’t get me wrong, there are days where I’m swamped on a project and I don’t leave until 8pm at night. I think what I’m taking away from this is that the traditional 9-5 work model doesn’t work. If I’m most productive between 10am-2pm, that’s when I’m working my hardest. I also have the flexibility to work from home and that works well for me too. I agree that most companies can actually increase productivity if they were less stringent. Great post, Harry!

    • says

      Yea I love working in the mornings and at nights and I would get way more done during those times but my employer wants me there 9-5. So I just spend my more efficient hours working on my own business stuff istead.

  16. says

    “If you’re supposed to get 8 hours of sleep per night, and you’re forced to work another 8 hours, that only leaves a third 8 hours for all the rest of your life.” Ugh!!! This is just depressing!
    CeCe @Pink Sunshine recently posted..What to EatMy Profile

    • says

      I complain a lot and my work is still pretty flexible when it comes to getting in/leaving and lunch breaks. I probably would have moved on a long time ago if my industry was strict 9 to 5.

  17. says

    Lately I’ve thought about the fact that the standard work week is a little less than ideal. Thoguh, since this practice has been in effect for decades, I don’t see it changing, though the workforce has changed in many ways because working IS easier for some jobs, but harder for others. The fact we don’t have much extra time after work (or we have a work schedule that restricts getting things like going to the Post Office, working out, other errands getting done) is stressful and has existed for years.

    I work best during the same hours as you, early mornings. I’m a teacher, so I never work just a 40 hour work week, but I feel I’d be more effective if I spent less time in the school and was able to come home and do the 1-2 hours I work afterschool. I love my job and everything about it, but it’s annoying to always feel so exhausted at the end of the day, I can’t really get my own things done.

    • says

      You’re right, the standard work day won’t be changing any time soon but that doesn’t mean you have to keep on doing it. Obviously if you want the safety of a corporate type job you’ll have to make sacrifice. But there are lots of unique ways to make money these days that give you more schedule flexibility and happiness :)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge