Art By Daniel McCool: New York

Why Working 9 to 5 Isn’t Working

By Sybil Ottenstein

Our 8 hour work days are based on a century old norm for running efficient factories.

In our parents and grandparents world, the work day starts at 9 and ends at 5. No ifs, ands or buts.

Today we live in a new world. Freelancing, remote working arrangements, part-time, working from home, and online entrepreneurship have changed the name of the schedule game. The nature of work is fundamentally different, yet our society’s work hours and styles remain the same.


Everything about the 9 to 5 schedule is entirely arbitrary – the start and end time, the amount of time, and what we are expected to produce within that set amount of time. This traditional formula is an antiquated ritual, a thing of the past.


Let’s take a look into why we have 8 hour work days in the first place.


During the Industrial Revolution, companies ran their factories 24/7 in order to maximize output. Putting people to work 10-16 hours a day was the norm. One day, Henry Ford implemented the 8 hour work day as a means to increase efficiency amongst his over-exhausted employees. Ford’s profit margins doubled in two years, and suddenly, a new standard was adopted.


This is where workplace innovation ended. Our 8 hour work days are not designed to meet maximum efficiency, adapt to our prime energy levels or enhance employee productivity. Rather, they are based on a century old norm for running efficient factories.


Every person’s productivity clock is different. On a given day, we all only have about 5 hours of ‘superbly productive’ work time. They typically occur in spurts of 90-120 minutes, with 20-30 minute breaks in between to renew energy and prepare for the next task. The rest of our work day is typically filled with lower-level thinking tasks and procrastination techniques. In essence, how long a person works everyday has NOTHING to do with how productive they actually are.


In Tim Ferris’s “The 4-hour Work Week,” we begin to understand just how arbitrary the founding principles of the 8 hour work week really are. The premise of the book is that working efficiently, even for a few brief hours, can exponentially expand your productivity. Ferris discusses Parkinsons Law, which asserts that the amount of time that one has to perform a task = the amount of time it will take to complete the task.


In other words, if we have 5 days to write a report, then we will use all 5 days to complete it. If we have 3 hours, we will finish it in 3 hours. And more often than not, the 3-hour report will be better than the 5-day report. So why do we see such an absurd incongruity between workplace practices and the way we actually operate?


Until recently (from an evolutionary perspective) we as humans have been motivated by one simple and all-consuming task: survival. Motivation 1.0, as coined by Daniel Pink in “Drive”, refers to our ancestral drive to do whatever it takes to make it through the day and pass on our genes to our offspring. Food, security, sex… repeat.


Next came the Industrial Revolution, and with that, Motivation 2.0. This form of drive  operates under the assumption that all work consists of simple, uninteresting tasks, and the only way to get people to undertake these tasks is to properly incentivize and carefully monitor all the little worker-bees.


In essence, to ensure ultimate productivity amongst your employees, you must reward the behavior you seek and punish the behavior you discourage – also known as the carrot-and-stick approach. This theory assumes, as Pink notes, that ‘human beings aren’t much different from horses – that the way to get us moving in the right direction is by dangling a crunchier carrot or wielding a sharper stick.’


But jobs of the 21st century have changed dramatically. They are more complex and more interesting. For most of us, they require more lateral thinking, self-direction and creativity. The traditional stick and carrot principle of Motivation 2.0 simply isn’t doing the job. In fact, they do more harm than good. Motivation 2.0 in the world of work force 3.0 has proven to lower performance, banish creativity and encourage short term thinking.


In short: we need an upgrade.


Enter Motivaton 3.0. Encapsulating the power of intrinsic motivation (read: motivation from within), Motivation 3.0 presumes that humans are most driven by their desire to learn, to create and to better the world.


Many companies are implementing methods the harness people’s innate drive to practice self-determination (autonomy) and be connected to one another, to learn and create new things (mastery) and most importantly, to do better by ourselves and our world, according to our own terms (purpose.) When this third drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.


It’s time we all enter the 21st century. The nature of work has changed. The only thing left is an antiquated system which we keep in place because we are too scared to operate otherwise.

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