Trending Towards Shorter Workdays – Trajan King

Trending Towards Shorter Workdays


A few years ago I was in a French class in Paris with students from all over the world, learning about the work habits of countries around the world.  The teacher went around the room asking each of us to tell the class about the vacation habits in our countries.

I soon became quite embarrassed of the work-life imbalance of American culture.  Everyone in the room shared their country’s standard 10 weeks of paid vacation, long paid maternity (and paternity) leave and some of the adventures they have during their time off to refresh and recharge.

Workweeks around the world

In France, for example, Paris shuts down in August when all the Parisians go on vacation for a month and the workweek is 35 hours every week of the year.  It makes me ponder that question we all ask in a startup:  What are we really working for? Do we really need to work those long hours? Are they effective?

The United States and Japan, on the other hand, have a completely different culture.  Americans brag about how long it’s been since they took time off.  It’s the opposite of the “humble brag.”  It’s what I call the “martyr brag.”  As in, “I’m such a hard worker and so important,  I have to work 60 hours a week.  I can’t take vacations or my company will die.”  The data backs this up – the U.S. has some of the shortest paid vacation days in the world and most employees don’t even take them!

Ragusa, Italy
I don’t always work. Downtime in Ragusa, Italy.

The standard workweek, Then some

The standard 40 hours was set in 1926 by the Ford Motor Company.  Then in 1937 the Fair Labor Standards Act passed which standardized the hours by stating that any time over 40 hours was considered overtime.

Tim Ferris popularized the phrase “Four Hour Workweek,” but has admitted he works more than full-time on his many projects.  Social media and advertising icon, Gary Vaynerchuk,  frequently talks about how important it is to “hustle,” but still finds time to take 7 weeks of vacation yearly.  He admitted that productivity decreased when working more than 50 hours a week, but he’ll do it anyway because he loves it.

Entrepreneurs read articles like this one that tell us the tech icons like Zuckerberg, Musk and Gates credit their success to their insane work hours.  Musk has often said that working twice as many hours means you can do twice as much as your competition.

The American startup culture is to work yourself ragged. That may be great for the owners, but it doesn’t lead to high worker satisfaction or productivity.  I learned that the hard way working around-the-clock as an analyst on Wall Street.

However, science has proven that working long hours is not only less productive but bad for your health, leading to possible heart disease and stroke.

A better, more productive way

Then we see the European countries enjoying their lives.  Sweden recently began a 6 hour workday pilot program and is already having success and the idea is spreading.  A study from New Zealand was recently released that confirmed the benefits of a shorter workweek.

Even companies in the U.S. are starting to take notice. A company in California has a 5 hour workday and has reported very happy employees (duh), but also increases in productivity.  To keep employees focused during those 5 hours, everyone is banned from social media and meetings are kept to a minimum (finally!).

There are many benefits to a shorter workweek: better health, more focus, increased job satisfaction and it sure makes it easier to recruit high-end talent.

The key for any company or freelancer to make sure those shorter hours count is to measure results, not time spent.  Most companies focus on punching the clock and not the actual output.  As management guru, Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets managed,” so measure what’s important.

It’s not likely governments like Sweden or the U.S. will be able to mandate shorter workdays, which is good, but it’s something for startups to seriously consider if they want to build a strong, productive and happy workforce.

As you build your company, it’s important to always be asking “why am I doing this?” I talk about this in Startup Q&A: 4 and share some time management tips in Startup Q&A: 14.


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  • This makes me really sad. I love my work too. Is there anything better than working on something that we are passionate about? yes, being with the people we are passionate about. It is part of the American culture though!

  • This makes me really sad. I love my work too. Is there anything better than working on something that we are passionate about? yes, being with the people we are passionate about. It is part of the American culture though!

  • Completely agree with you on this Trajan! Living in Europe for nearly three years, I saw many of the examples that you point out in the blog post. I love the 80/20 rule. 20% of our actions produce 80% of our results. It’s all about focused execution of your priority tasks. I love the book The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan as an example of how to focus. Love the article!

  • Great article, with sound thoughts. I often work with people who are busy working long hours and complaining about not enough hours in the day. Yet sharing the same 24 hour limit. I nearly always work 8 hours a day max and by focussing on result driven chunks of work I can keep my interest, enthusiasm and energy up and deliver.

    Its important to watch out for time bandits! Those who spend their time talking about what should, could or might be done instead of just making a start!

  • The working hours in the US are ridiculous. It really sucks when you are an employee, giving so much of your life to make other’s dream businesses thrive. Of course I’m always down for my next vacation. There is definitely a need for balance. Balance is the operative word. Great article and thanks for sharing.

  • I love your point about looking out for time bandits! Sometimes we can even be bandits of our own time by not focusing our efforts. My mom always told me to not let people waste my time because they will if we let them.

  • What about it makes you sad Renee? I agree that it’s so fun to work with people who are passionate about what they do.

  • Ha! My hubby & I were just having this conversation last night. The company expectations versus what they’re willing to give back to their employees. I live in Australia, we have the same kind of culture here. Overtime has become a given. It is expected, assumed. No longer requested. Employers get away with not paying employees for the ridiculous hours of overtime they put in because it falls under their “annual salary”. Time-in-lieu is mentioned, but it never eventuates. And then they wonder why employees are unhappy & unproductive. It is about balance. There has to be give & take. We are human beings with lives & responsibilities outside of the workplace. I’m extremely passionate about this issue (if you can’t already tell-ha!) as my family are living it right now. And millions of others around the world are too. It’s a joke.

  • That’s such a good point. I didn’t really talk much about the over-time hours that many employers expect as part of the salary. Many really take advantage of that. Early in my career on Wall Street in New York City we were expected to work very long hours for no extra compensation. People need to feel valued and compensation is a huge part of that.

  • I had the opportunity to see how people work in SFO and compare it with the european (spanish in my own case) work journey. Americans works a lot of hours but with more flexibility and less barriers to propose new ideas or ways to work. Here in Spain, the most common answer when you bring a new idea is “Interesting but NO, we just always do this things and in this way”…A new generation with a new culture are trying to change the things, creating new startups, companies or intra-startups in big companies but it will be a very long path to achieve some real change.
    It’s true that we enjoy our free time, vacations, etc. but it’s something cultural. When springs arrives, everybody wants to spend more time on the streets…no matter if we are going to earn less money, we prefer to enjoy the sun, friends and family.

Trajan King

Hey hey. I'm Trajan. I'm a minimalist entrepreneur who loves exploring the world (42 countries), learning new things (7 languages) and trying to get better every day (working on my backsquat).

I write about entrepreneurship and building an optimized and happy life through systems, good habits and scientific research.

Join me and we'll discover how we can build businesses we can be proud of.

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