Original question from Quora:

Programmers in our startup usually put 8 hours and go home. I keep reading stories about 80+ hour weeks. How do you make them work longer hours? Do we have to pay overtime? We gave few of them some equity, but it doesn’t seem to work.

My Answer:

I’m going to tell you a secret, so please listen closely.

No programmers really work 60-80 hours a week, especially in a 5 day span. That is a 12-16 hour day, 5 days a week.

I promise you that any company that has programmers “working” that many hours is really only getting 2-4 hours of real work out of them each day. The rest of the time will be filled with pointless meetings, a fair amount of web browsing, and then a whole lot of looking busy.

Now, if you look at a programmer working a 30 or 40 hour week, they will still get the same 2-4 hours of work done a day, but they will manage to be in fewer meetings, browse less, and will still look busy to keep the boss happy.

The truth is, programming is a creative work. When you look at other creative professions, there are small bursts of creative output that provide the bulk of the total output. The rest of the time is either busy work, clean up, or goofing off.

The modern workplace assumes a 40 hour week because “that’s just what it is”. With the efficiency gains of technology, almost nobody is really working a full 40 hours. And frankly they shouldn’t.

If you try and push productivity too high in creative work, people get burned out. Those people hate their job, hate their life, hate their boss, and eventually quit or get fired.

Yet, if you understand the creative process, you’d realize there is a better way.

Let me tell you about the best and most productive work I’ve ever done…

As a software developer I get up, go to work, do what I’m told, and so far my employers are very happy with my work. I’m usually a top performer on my team. Yet, my most productive code time is often not at work at all.

The best and most interesting work I’ve ever done is on side projects I do during nights and weekends.

A few years ago, I came across this interesting software architecture talk by Robert Martin. At the end of the video someone asked “where is the code?” and he told the crowd “it’s between your ears.” At that point nobody had really made a good example yet.

So, I set out to build it. It had nothing to do with my day job work at all. I was just compelled to make it, so I did.

I didn’t have a lot of time outside of work, so I would get an hour here or two hours there, usually late at night before bed. I maybe worked 5-10 hours a week on that project for a couple months maybe.

Yet, that project turned into something that I can point to today as some of my best work. It’s still relatively revolutionary in the industry. My total time in code was maybe 100 hours, yet those hours could never happen at work.

Work isn’t setup for that kind of creative experience. It’s designed to have software developers build a product based on someone else’s specification.

That’s fine, but it’s also like asking Picasso to paint your house. You’ll never get his best work that way.

Also, I’m not alone in this experience. The best coders do their best code outside of work on side projects.

The point is, 80 hours a week is a false idol. So is 40 hours a week. I bet you most programmers could work 20 hour weeks and get the same amount of work done. Maybe even more work.

But, that won’t happen because founders, investors, business owners, etc. equate more hours to more work. As long as they do that, they’ll have a bunch of software developers who aren’t doing their best work, they’re just filling time.

Oh, and it’s not just software developers who are looking busy because that’s the expectation. It’s sales people, marketing people, accountants, engineers, etc.

The 40 hour work week is a warm fuzzy blanket to make bosses feel better. It doesn’t make the company any more money.

The 80 hour workweek is a sweatshop. It only exists to make unhappy owners feel like they are getting their money’s worth, while simultaneously rotting the business from the inside.

The truth is, the biggest job people have at their job is to make their bosses feel good by looking busy. Actual productivity beyond a certain expectation is not expected, is not rewarded, and is not what people are being paid for.

If everybody was fully “productive” for 40 or 80 hours a week, it would cause more problems than you can imagine.

So instead, it’s as if the entire world has made a pact with each other to look busy while making sure to always get “just enough” done. Appearances matter more than output to pretty much everyone.

Anyone who thinks this isn’t true is either being dishonest with themselves or isn’t paying attention.

-Brian

P.S. I unpack more ideas in Creative Genius.