The Problem With the Traditional 8 Hour Work Day

Today, 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…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: June 5, 2023

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You’d think by now we’d have realized our way of doing work is a little outdated.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


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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. 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.

    1. Well I don’t really count meetings that you aren’t an integral part of, doing the BS non work related tasks like 5S’ing your desk, etc haha.

      I’m not sure why we settled on 8 hours but I know it’s more than I want to do.

  2. 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.

    1. 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?

  3. kammi

    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.

    1. Yea I guess it’s what you make of it. If you find a job you love that also pays well, then who cares how many hours you work? ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. 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.

    1. You’re right, it is outdated with all the efficiencies technology has brought into the workplace. It’s really not necessary to work 8 hours a day yet most employers refuse to change. What gives??

  5. This is part of the reason why I left the corporate world as there was time in the day that was left without things to do even when I was looking for new things. I may be working 8 or more hours today, but at least on things I want to do and making me money at the same time so I’ll take that trade-off.

    1. That’s a great point. 8 hours is nothing if it’s something you actually enjoy doing ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. 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!

    1. Yea it would be interesting to see if people would be willing to cut all that extra stuff out if they could go home after 4-6 hours.

  7. Jamie V

    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. Itโ€™s just really, really difficult.

    1. Yea it honestly sucks to have to go to work for 8 hours a day but only have about 4 hours worth of work. That’s happened to me before – many times, haha. I try to make the most of it though and improve myself by reading blogs, researching, posting on forums, etc

  8. 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!

    1. Nice! Yea days definitely go by faster when you actually have something to do.

  9. 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.

    1. Yea on those types of days, I usually come in late, take a long lunch(work out or go out), and leave early. Shhh though haha.

  10. That sounds pretty tough, I don’t think I could do it. What are you working on to get out of this situation?

  11. That’s true, nobody’s got a pension today. I’m not saying you should immediately go out and work 4 hours a day but there’s nothing wrong with that being an ultimate goal of yours. In my case, I’m putting in my time right now in the corporate world but saving close to 50% of my income and investing in multiple sources of income(RE, blog, writing, etc).

  12. I have always found the 8 hour work day ridiculous. If you are efficient, you can finish up most of your work in a few hours. People need breaks and most jobs don’t have enough work to support an 8 hour day. It won’t change unless people start demanding the change.

    1. 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. 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.

    1. 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. 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.

    1. 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. Anneli @thefrugalweds

    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!

    1. 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. Meghan

    I hate it!

  17. Tell me about it, I can’t do anything from 2-5 haha. I would take a nap if I could.

  18. Yea I’ve heard about those types of start-up environments. I think I would enjoy that since you are still responsible for your work but it rewards people for being efficient with their time and good at their job.

  19. “If youโ€™re supposed to get 8 hours of sleep per night, and youโ€™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!

    1. Yea and I love my sleep so honestly I’d rather get 8-8.5 hours a night, that doesn’t leave much time for free activities ๐Ÿ™

  20. Haha yea I know what you mean. I think it works in certain industries and doesn’t in others.

  21. 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.

    1. 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

  22. 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.

  23. ditendra

    I absolutely hate it! My work starts at 11PM and ends at 8PM & usually I come at home at 8:30PM, exhausted. Me and my wife watch one movie, tv show, then bed and that’s it, that’s whole day. What do I do at work? Listen to call recordings in headphones all the time & write resolutions. I don’t have enough free time. I can’t imagine how people are okay with such working hours and this 1 hour break at work doesn’t change anything for me. In short I spend more than 9 hours outside, in stupid office. I miss nature and quite place ๐Ÿ™ And I can’t even afford to go with half-time work or quit, because salary is already not enough and my wife not working. Ughh, hate my life. Wish I could have psychologist to visit sometimes, but can’t afford it too lol.