Are You Buying the 80-Hour Myth?

The 80-hour Myth. Here’s an interesting quote:

"Let’s get serious. Nobody works eighty hours a week.  Not eighty real, productive hours. Look closely at workaholics (and I’ve been one, and worked with others), and a lot of the time is spent idling,  re-charging, cycling, switching gears, etc. In the old days this was water-cooler talk. In Silicon Valley, it’s gaming, email, IM, lunches, and idle meetings. Let’s drop the farce, ok?"   Naval   Ravikant at Startupboy.

I’m late to the party with this one, which was first posted some time ago, but was cited again on Venture Hacks (same author) a few weeks ago and has been in my Google apps waiting for posting.

It’s a subject I’ve cared about for a long time. I spent a lot of time living and working with the 80-hour myth, starting about the time we had our third child and running through my business school years and my Silicon Valley years in the 1980s. During the years I was consulting with Apple Computer, from 1982 until 1994, I saw a gradual process of declining hours at work as both people and the company simultaneously grew up and got lives.

During the early years of that stretch, the Apple Latin America group offices in Cupertino were active until 8 or 9 pm on most every weekday. The demographics of that were interesting, and related: I was in my middle thirties, the general manager was in his middle thirties, and the rest of the management team were in their late twenties, not married, living on their own in various apartments and rental houses in the general environs of Cupertino. Some of them were as far away as San Francisco, which was marginally cheaper to live in than Silicon Valley. I was the only one in a team of about a dozen people who was married. The tendency to schedule meetings to start at 5 or 6 or 7 pm was a problem for me; I had a home to go back to.

We did a major distribution deal with Xerox in the middle 1980s.  Several of us traveled to the Xerox Connecticut headquarters. We noted how strange it was that meetings had to end at 5 pm. By 5:15 pm, the halls of Xerox were empty. It was remarkable. How different from Apple Latin America.

As time passed my consulting relationships shifted to Apple Pacific and then Apple Japan. By the early 1990s  when I had business with Apple Latin America again, I immediately noticed the change: halls were empty at 5:30 pm or so. Meetings didn’t run past 5:30 pm. The leadership of the group had changed, though some of the same team members were still there in the early 1990s; but they were now in their thirties, married, and with children.

Is one better than the other? Was the Apple Latin America work environment getting more done?

Naval Ravikant, author of the quote I noted above, was one of the co-founders of epinions.com, which collected tens of millions of dollars of prestigious VC investment in 1999 and was eventually sold to a company that was sold to shopping.com, which was sold to eBay. In its heyday in 1999 and 2000 the epinions headquarters in Mountain View was full of 60-80 hour work weeks that were really vast blocks of time wasted on video games, breaks, meals delivered … dinner was delivered almost daily. I knew some people who arrived there early every day to minimize commute time and felt resentment when they left around 6 pm, from people who had arrived 2-3 hours later in the morning but would stay several more hours into the evening, but playing video games and "hanging out" more than working.

Did they get more done with all the extra hours? I don’t think so. They — the ones I know — don’t think so either. But what about the crunch times?

It was at about that time, the end of the dot-com boom years, that I overheard a conversation between two epinions people, who were uncomfortable with the pressure from spending so many hours at work, and three Palo Alto Software people, who were happy with a company in which people tended to leave between 5 and 5:30 pm every day. The whole group seemed to agree that there is only so much work done per day, in a normal day, and that the company is better off with people who work hard for about eight hours a day, and then go home. People who have lives away from work are more productive at work.

However, that same group agreed that there are some special occasions, what they called crunch times, in which every company, or at least every young or small company, had to dig in and work harder. Product development people are particularly susceptible, or so it has seemed to me, during the years that I’ve been involved with software.

Which brings me to another paradox of real-world business. The 60-hour work week, let alone the 80-hour work week, doesn’t work. People need lives to be able to produce over the long term. However, you also have to recognize the "crunch times," which have to be the exception. In general, in my experience, people are more productive when they have lives outside the office, arrive in the morning, and work until they’ve done a normal day, and then go home. That is, at least, until there is that special time when it’s imperative to do more in a short period. When the product deadline approaches, when the packaging has to be redone, when there is a big presentation, a large consulting project to deliver … those are the crunch times. I like working in a company that expects people to have lives, but I also like the excitement of the crunch times. 

-Tim

One thought on “Are You Buying the 80-Hour Myth?

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