How a 24-hour work week might not solve the problem

Published September 12, 2016   Posted in How to Think

My wife came home the other day and told me about a conversation she had at work, and let’s just say it piqued my interest. They talked about the traditional 40-hour work week and what they might do with their time if they only had to work, say, 24 hours a week – or three days.

Pinterest: Make life happy by making it simpleIt has long been observed that regularly working over 40 hours a week reduces productivity. Work suffers. Creativity drops. Family life takes a back seat to office work.

Burning out is bad for business. Businesses generally know this, but most continue to ignore it. Some, like mine, keenly understand the psychology of man and design clever vacation policies to keep people working even longer, settled nicely within perpetual billable working slots as sources of revenue for the company. Pegs in a hole.

As most of corporate America continues to squeeze the working life out of their staff, it is only natural that employees boast of reduced work weeks – for the same pay, of course.

But, a shorter work week might not truly solve the problem. Once again, the problem lies deep in our psychology, shaped by living within a society of consumption.

A 24-hour work week might not solve the problem

The problem: We feel drained and overworked at the office. Our company demands that we work at least 4o hours a week in salaried positions. Overtime pay is rare, and working anything less than 40 hours requires Paid Time Off, or PTO. Punch the clock.

My wife’s coworkers praised the idea of a shorter work week. “I’d take my kids to school at the same time, but then I’d have time to do [THIS] and [THAT] during the day,” one of them said.

I would have so much more time to do all the things that I’d like to do!” exclaimed another.

But, “I don’t think the company could expect the same level of productivity in 24 hours, compared with 40,” admitted another.

My wife thinks this is bunk.

It is true that it would seem working less during the week leaves more time for us to do other things. But, what are those other things that we’d do?

Spending money during our free time

What happens when we have free time at work? We might browse the web. Add a couple things to our online shopping cart. Research the new flat screen TV we want before the Superbowl.

For too many of us, our free time involves acquiring stuff. Driving. Spending money. Take those things we usually push off to the weekend, then compound them. More time to go to the movies. More time to veg on the couch.

What if spending less time at the office means we spend more money? After all, we have more time to shop. More time to browse through’s endless catalog of items. More things to do. More gas to use.

Let’s face it – most of us won’t be taking long bike rides around town, reading a book, sitting outside in the peace and quiet enjoying the sound of nature. Most of society will spend money. That’s what keeps us from “getting bored”, I guess.

Over time, we slowly get used to the 24-hour work week. Our new spending habits become the norm. The two extra days now become part of our weekend. We add responsibilities to our plate because we have more time to accept them.

Soccer practice for the kids. Errands to run. Friends to visit. Places to go, people to see.

Sure, I can pick up the dry cleaning and go grocery shopping today. Maybe I’ll hit Best Buy too, cause I have the time. Oh, and Target is right across the street!

Soon, we begin wanting more time off

Eventually, the 24-hour work week becomes part of our routine – like the 40-hour work week is today.

Once again, we robotically navigate around our work week and cram as much as we can into our 4-day weekend. We aren’t slowing down after all. If anything, we’ve turned the peg to the right – bumping the speed of life up a notch.

There’s just so much to do, but so little time. We really need another day off to accomplish it all.

The cycle continues, and the snowball builds.

The REAL problem: The “problem” is deceiving. We think we want more time off because our companies drain us of time and energy. We think we want more time off so we can pursue our passions. We believe that happiness is built upon a crumbling foundation of Chinese-manufactured plastic possessions.

In truth, it’s not.

The problem is the majority of us simply don’t know how to enjoy life. Our psychology tells us to want more. More vacation time. Longer weekends. Bigger paychecks. Larger homes. Faster cars.

As we push towards “more”, life also becomes more complicated. Things demand maintenance. They need to be stored and secured. We think about them. We spend hours researching them, and we drop stupid money to acquire them. Eventually, like everything we buy, they get discarded to make room for something else.

And the spiral continues.

What if the solution to happiness is about wanting LESS, not more?

Want less

Enjoying a carefree simple life requires less stuff and fewer things to think about. Imagine only having 10 possessions, total. That’s it, just 10. How simple would life be then?

Okay, there’s a balance. I understand that. 10 possessions might be a little too scarce.

But the larger point remains: the less we have, the simpler life becomes. Always. You can count on it. Our brains like simple.

Remember those times where you couldn’t sleep because you had too much going through your head? Now, imagine that state of complexity all the time. That phenomenon is what stuff does to us.

When we slow down, relax and take time for ourselves, our brains chill out. Our level of happiness rises. We become more content with the little things in life and resist the temptation to perpetually want more.

Imagine this for a second

The forest

Instead of spending hours researching that new TV, imagine walking into the middle of a forest with a chair and sitting. What do you see? Perhaps the glimmer of the sun angling its way through the trees? Do you hear leaves rustling in the breeze? Are you rocking? Do you have a cup of coffee or tea in your hand?

How did you get there? Did you take your time picking your spot? Are you nestled up close to a tree? You’re smiling, aren’t you? You breath deep and heavy. The air is fresh and crisp. Your feet slowly move back and forth, digging gently into a soft bed of pine needles.

You look around. No one there, only trees. You expect people to walk by, but nobody does. It is only you. The silence envelops you, and you now have time to think.

And then you realize a profound truth: Less is more.

When we believe that fewer hours at the office means more time doing something else, we forget about human nature. We spend money and accept more responsibility. In the end, that 4-day weekend becomes cluttered and stressful, and we continue to feel the need for more.

Instead, try wanting less. Do fewer things during your free time, not more. Just live. You may be surprised at how fulfilling life becomes when you escape the mountains of clutter.


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36 responses to “How a 24-hour work week might not solve the problem”

  1. You nailed this Steve. More time for most would be more time to spend and gather stuff – or even expensive experiences. My life is totally cluttered right now with the job I added. I couldn’t find time to go spend money or do more expensive things if I wanted to – but I also am struggling to exercise, etc. too. This makes me appreciate the few months of FI where I stopped working and I look forward to being back there again in a few months! I’m forwarding this to a client I am working with through my blog. It may be a game changer for them.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Vicki. It’s interesting how human psychology works. We think about things with envy, but once we get them, they quickly just become a part of our routine. We tend to lose appreciation for them.

      As always, appreciate the forward!

  2. Nicely said, I’m sure for some folks it can be hard to escape the mountains of clutter. I know that my weekends feel busy as that is when we have time to run errands, do laundry, mow the yard, etc etc and I wish I had more time to play with my son and talk with friends and family on the phone. If I had a 4-day weekend, I’d try filling it with more friends and family…and avoid retail outlets and Amazon!

    • Steve says:

      Avoiding retail outlets like Amazon – yes! It’s an awesome place to shop because they have everything, but it’s also money grabbing because, well…they have everything! 🙂

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. Adam says:

    You just may be on to something 😉

  4. I’m going to play the devils advocate a bit here. I do believe some people prefer things as simpler, but I wonder if that’s a factor of nurture over time. A relative example, I despise crowds. I’m annoyed by the noises and the distractions. I don’t like everywhere I turn feeling like I run into someone. I was born in a more rural or close to suburban area. My brother in law however was born in the city. When he comes to visit you can almost see him go crazy from the silence. I wonder if simplicity versus complexity is similarly wired from day one. For example I focus better and accomplish more when I make my life more busy. I actually spend less the more occupied I am. However it’s what I’m doing that denotes my happiness and stress levels. If I challenge myself to hike a mountain it’s infinitely more satisfying then either working,spending money, or sitting and contemplating. Anyway something to consider.

    • Steve says:

      I definitely believe that our natural tendencies are ingrained at birth, but of course, others can definitely be learned or enforced through experience. I’m like you in that I really don’t enjoy being around crowds.

  5. Mrs. PIE says:

    I think it’s tied up with the need to feel ‘productive’ whatever that may mean. It’s hard to get away from even when not being paid for your time.
    I work 4 days a week, and on Fridays I get a lot of household chores done to free up our weekends a bit. Just this last Friday it got to the end of the day and I felt very dissatisfied at my productivity for the day. I hadn’t done and achieved enough. I stopped to think what I had done to figure out why I may be feeling that way. The list went something like this: Breakfast for boys, laundry, plan meals and write shopping list, put boys on school bus, make soup in slow cooker, doctors appointment, grocery shopping, make bread in bread machine, laundry, change beds, call parents, eat lunch, design spreadsheet to track travel hacking miles, blend soup and portion for freezer, meet boys from bus, cook boys dinner, cook Mr and Mrs PIE’s dinner, TV, bed
    Nope, not productive. I obviously need more time to get more done. Early retirement will fix that, right? 😉

    • Steve says:

      I think that has a lot to do with it, Mrs. PIE. For some of us, just sitting and relaxing means that we aren’t “doing anything” and are wasting time. In some cases that might be true, but we also need more rest and relaxation time than a lot of us allow ourselves to take.

      And wow, that’s quite a schedule for your “off” Fridays! Yup, early retirement will fix everything. 😉

    • First, great post Steve – thought-provoking.

      Mrs PIE – I hear ya and feel the same. I’ve been very blessed financially and am early-retired (mid-40s) but after about the first year, I started going stir crazy. I needed to add things to my schedule (and some work – hence the financial coaching) to keep moving and to feel productive. I know that I need to be more intentional though about being “in the now” and being okay with hours that aren’t spent “doing” but rather just “being”. Easier to say than integrate into life though. Definitely a work in progress for me.

  6. Great point Steve. I’ve started accepting less and loving it. So much less stress. So much more “me” time. It’s been great and so happy I’ve realized I don’t need a lot of STUFF to enjoy life.

  7. Maarten says:

    many truths in here. I still see friends/colleagues boost about 70 hour work weeks and sigh. I learned a long time ago that the next 40 hours are spent fixing mistakes from the last 70.

    As for spending more when you have more time off, that too is a problem. Not just because we want more but because almost everything costs. During the summer it’s easy to go out and enjoy what nature offers. When winters hit (here in Wisconsin) you’re tied to your home a bit more.

    Ever since I retired, I find that my discretionary spending is the hardest control. Yet, I know what it means to live on less. Hobbies, tend to cost money. I like building 3D printers and CNC machines. Extremely gratifying, time consuming but costly. Parts cost money. Someone else might enjoy golfing. I hear that’s not cheap either.

    I like the idea of limiting work hours but there has to be a balance. Like you mention above, not everyone (and maybe even the majority of us) will be able to find it.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, Maarten. It’s true, there’s a balance. Fewer hours spent at work can definitely be a good thing, so long as we don’t proceed to pack those extra hours away from work with stuff that costs us money. Balance is key!

  8. Good point. It’s the right solution for the wrong problem. The problem with the 5d workweek is that sometimes one is so burned out from work that two day weekends are not enough to decompress. I always notice that the four-day weeks after a holiday (like last week) are so much more relaxed.
    But a shorter workweek still means I have to live in an expensive location. Some people will still need one car per working adult (we don’t – I walk to work). So, financially this might be the worst of all combinations: Lower income + same fixed costs = less money available to save for FIRE.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment! It’s interesting how it might work for some of us out there. Without discipline, more time available to spend money can easily result in, well, us spending more money.

  9. Beautifully well said Steve. Like poetry…and dead true too!

    Who you are before retirement is the same person after retirement — the weekends are just longer. 🙂

    The “weekend trap” is something I very much try to avoid in my “retirement”. Any hobbies that I have, I try to ‘do’ with zero dollars. Good books can be had from the library for free. Scrap wood can always be found to build things out of. There are always nice days to go for a walk. Old things often work better than new things.

    It’s a philosophy that just needs embracing, and one that I think is sorely missing from our society.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Mr. Tako, and I love your quote about weekends being longer. Perhaps even “perpetual”! Like you, we definitely take advantage of the library for our reading material. I can’t remember the last time that I actually bought a book. 🙂

  10. Kate says:

    I really like this, especially the idea of doing fewer things in our free time. Minimalism in terms of possessions is something that has gained traction but it should also apply to our time as well.

    People are overbooked like crazy and you can feel it while in their presence. Even without a spouse or kids, I only make plans for one day during the weekend. The other day is purely me time — light chores (completed within 1-2 hours) but mainly relaxing by reading or being entertained by my cats. I’m so much calmer and less frazzled because of it.

    It’s not about how much time you have off. It’s all about what you do with it.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Kate, you hit the nail on the head. Minimalism applies to more than just our stuff. Our time is another critical element of our life that we can and should apply minimalism features to. Your time is a precious commodity. Make the most of it! 🙂

  11. Justin says:

    My wife landed what was basically a 24 hour week (with full time pay!) for the last six months of employment before retiring. It was great. It worked something like Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at about 6-7 hours per day (log in around 8 in the morning from home, work till 2:30 or so, walk to school to get the kids, maybe log 15-30 mins later in the day to check email and handle any emergencies). Then Thursday was slack – mostly being available and checking email, so we could run some errands, go for a walk, go swimming etc in the middle of the workday. Friday she didn’t check email at all and did zero unless she officially swapped a Friday for the following Monday or something.

    That newfound time was used profitably to relax and enjoy life. Basically semi-retirement of sorts. So in her case, part time work really was a big quality of life improvement.

    • Steve says:

      That’s awesome, Justin – your wife definitely made the most of her time. I would like to think that her mastery over her time is typical, but I’m afraid that it’s probably not. Either way, well done to your wife. That’s how it’s done! 🙂

  12. Lady Locust says:

    Love this post! Couldn’t agree more. We have been de-cluttering over the past couple years & have discussed down-sizing which we will probably do at some point. Less is definitely more as you say. It seems worrisome when parting with ‘things’ but once gone, it feels extraordinary.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Lady Locust! Sounds like you’ve taken full control over your time. Good on you for figuring out what works best for you! It’s true, the process of parting with stuff can be tough, but once those things are gone, we tend not to miss them.

  13. TJ says:

    This actually was my reality. Not 24 hours, but 32.

    There was a point in my career where I was working Mon-Thurs for 80% of my salary. It helped that the employer was struggling and I didn’t have a whole 40 hours of work. It sounded great. 3 day weekend every week. On Fridays, I was going to focus on building a self-employment business idea that I had.

    What did I actually do? Go to the store when there were admittedly less people to do my shopping with less lines. Go kayaking when there are less people in the harbor. Schedule doctor’s/dental appointments so that I wouldn’t have to miss actual work for that. Watched a ton more TV. Not going to lie, I definitely threw in some extra weekedn getaways just because I could. I definitely spent a ton more money, despite making less.

    My self employment idea? I spent more time on it before I had my Fridays off.

    Eventually, I accepted that I would be a lot more productive and build my portfolio faster by working the 40 hours instead of the 32.

    I think this is why I feel like it’s very necessary for me to walk away from the cushy job and “find myself” rather than grind out another 10 years for possible permanent FIRE. That’s a whole 10 years of my life that I don’t get back. I’m hoping it will be different this time when I severe the job once and for all, because if I turn off my main source of income though, I have forced myself to be even more cost conscious. If I don’t, then I’m going to be in trouble and will find myself right back inside of another air conditioned office.

    Great topic.

    • Steve says:

      Wow, interesting story TJ! I can totally see how easy it is to let that happen. A three day weekend just screams “Do something fun!”, doesn’t it? I think you’re making the right decision by working the full 40 and retiring early, because once that day comes, your 7-day weekend will more than make up for adding back in the Friday that you had taken off before. But yeah, resist letting that 7-day weekend turn into what you suffered from before! 🙂

      Thanks for your epic comment!

  14. Oh man, if we suddenly adopted a 24 hour work week, I would pour so much more time onto my blog. Saving has become so ingrained in my brain thanks to my parents so I don’t think I would get into a place where I would spend more. I’m getting surprised that some countries in the EU are testing out a 4 day, 32 hour work week. I don’t think working 40 hours is a lot at all, gives me a lot of time to do other stuff like a blog!

    I’m also single without a whole lot of responsibilities though so maybe I’m not speaking from the average person’s perspective..

  15. Jef Miles says:

    Cool article here Steve!
    Agree with the counter-intuitive thinking there that we’d simply add more responsibilities to our lives..

    It’s definitely about being conscious on what you’re agreeing to, what priorities are etc..
    Having said this I’m passionate and interested in learning about investing so for me making more $$ is a by product of that, which I don’t see as a “bad” thing, merely an opportunity to give back!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Jef. Definitely, making more money is not a bad thing…by any stretch of the imagination. So long as we keep life and our priorities in perspective, more money is almost always a good thing! 🙂

      • Jef Miles says:

        Agreed Steve! That’s probably going to be the biggest challenge for me moving forward (keeping priorities in perspective).. It’s why it’s great to have people like you around 😉

  16. Michael says:

    You are right on the money. I am sharing this with my connections on linkedin. I was writing a post and came across this while I was doing some research. Not surprised, but always amazed at how deceived most people are about their own nature. Not much discernment at work anymore.
    Great job!

  17. Jenny says:

    Thought provoking indeed. My heckles were up but only because more time away from work to me means more time to spend with my soulmate and pursuing ‘hygge’ way of life and even doing contemplative work at home.

    However I agree that each new possessions and even relationship needs to be tended and maintained draining us further from a state of peacefulness and contentment. In a disconnected 1st world consumer driven society the normal state of play may mean more more more. The deep black hole needs to be filled.

    Think about the look envy you get when your workmates ask what you did on the weekend and you unapologetically reply ‘nothing’.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jenny. “In a disconnected 1st world consumer driven society the normal state of play may mean more more more. The deep black hole needs to be filled.” Very well said, and I agree. That’s the tendency in this type of society. Unfortunate indeed!

  18. Well written post and I never thought about a shorter work week in quite this way. It all boils down to contentment, really. If you can find contentment in your current situation, chances are you’ll be in the right mindset for if you’re given a little extra free time. But if you’re like most of us (largely dissatisfied), all you have is a larger hole to fill with more stuff.

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