Optimal working hours for productivity?

I’m currently researching what should be the optimal weekly working time to optimize overall productivity. It’s hard to find useful resources on that. Many argue for shorter than 40-hour work weeks for various different reasons other than productivity itself. There are articles who argue for:

  • 25 hour work weeks (mostly because work could be distributed more evenly between different people then)
  • 30 hour work weeks (because that would reduce needless and harmful consumption)
  • 35 hour work weeks (because that supposedly is now actually optimal for productivity, but there’s no real evidence for that presented. Other articles think it’s the number of hours that people want to work.)

Also, any serious research should distinguish between different types of work. Some work drains resources faster than others, so people need more rest. Additionally, optimal working time may depend on personal constitution. And it may depend of how the work itself is structured. Air controllers need to take a half an hour break after each one and a half hour of work. Would generalizing that pattern to other types of work really optimize productivity?

Anyway, I would find it interesting to see some studies and numbers about how much businesses or the economy lose, because workers work too long hours causing productivity losses.

Finally, there’s also the question about what counts as “work”. If you only count “work you are paid for”, then these considerations are simpler than if you consider all different types of work.

And perhaps the key is to rotate between different tasks quickly and frequently in order to prevent localized brain burnout (there is actually some research that shows brain areas switching basically off when they are used too much). Leonardo Da Vinci always worked for 2 hours per day on a single project before moving to something else. Could that be an ideal model?


The answer would vary by individual and would need to account for each individual’s biology and environment.

Yes, that’s most probably true. In that case, studies would have to be specific to single individuals, their specific work, their current state of health, and other circumstances. Very hard to pull that off in a statistically significant manner.

I think we need another approach…

anyway, here’s what I’ve written in Facebook lastly:

The intention behind my question was the following: I have the suspicion
that companies would be better off if they actually reduced working
hours. In the sense that their long-term profits would rise due to
increases in productivity. Even in the idealistic
hypothetical case that their employees would be willing and eager to
work for free! If that suspicion was supported by hard data, it would
show that it would be in the interest of everyone to reduce working
hours. In that case, it should be politically easy to effect a
reduction in working hours!

One must account the type of task it is. Meaning, the real calculation of “work” as in the physics definition.

Being intellectual or physical, there are means to calculate the work. We know many mental task spend a lot of biological energy, as we know many biophysical processes that occur in physical tasks.

If one wants to calculate these, the research must be done on the fields of biophysics and neuroscience as well, because much of the exhaustion even on physical tasks comes from neurologically complex routines.

I would google “biophysics” and “medical physics” in the quest for papers on the subject.

You are right. Productivity decreases come from physical and mental exhaustion which are connected to biological phenomena which could be observed. The problem is that such research is expensive.

But I hope that in the future it will be less expensive and difficult by using bio-chips and nano probes that can give us real-time data about our precise biological condition. Maybe we should revisit this thread in 10 years :wink:

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We can approximate with current technology. I’ve seen much done with mathematical biology and biological modeling. What we need are scientists.

Ultimately all that matters is what gets done. It doesn’t matter how many hours but what was accomplished.

How many working hours will it take to find a cure for cancer? A cure for aids?
If we haven’t found the cure does it mean it’s not productive? It’s not easy to measure this because people could be thinking about a cure for cancer or aids and by accident discover something they weren’t intending to discover which is a big breakthrough.

Knowledge work is not easy to measure. Do we measure the productivity of scientists by how many people cite their papers? Do we measure it by how many prizes they win? Or do we measure it by how much money they earn from patents and inventions?

What about scientists who don’t earn any money because they give their work to the public domain or who don’t own patents?

The more I read about the difficulties of measuring performance, the more I get the impression that it would be the best idea simply to pay everyone the same amount of money, regardless whether they work, how much they work, or how much they apparently contribute to progress. Money would then disappear as motivation for work, so people could focus on problems that they want to solve. That’s certainly a very radical notion, but everything else just feels so arbitrary considering all the measurement problems that we are faced with otherwise.

It might still be a good idea to set up prizes for certain achievements like finding a cure for cancer, or programming a Facebook killer, or developing a functioning fusion reactor. At least, then people would have a meaningful aim towards they can work.

And there’s still the possibility to implement reputation and attention economies. Oh, and people would still trade. Well, that would be an interesting economy to live in. In the end, everyone would have to experiment freely on how to work for getting optimal results.


Not in the same way (or for the same reasons), but I agree with your aim Radivis.