There is now proof that working eight hours a day is a terrible idea
Science agrees with all of us at last
Work sucks sometimes. Even if you love your job, there are always going to be days when you keep glancing at the clock, willing the hours and minutes away, or mornings where you wake up and feel that you’d rather do anything - anything in the whole wide world - than drag yourself into your place of work for another day of it, another day you’ll never get back, another day that brings you nothing but one closer to the grave.
Yet we carry on. Eight hours a day, five days a week.
Tell someone you work less than that and they’ll look at you like you farted. Ask a new boss if you can just do noon to four and they’ll tell you to sling your hook. We’re locked into this, a five-on, two-off model, until retirement or the cold hand of winter brings it to an end.
Science is fairly certain that the eight-hour day is a crap idea though, in terms of how it affects both the people working and the work they do. Studies looking at how exactly humans do their best work have varied in their findings, but none have concluded that the eight-hour model is anything approaching good.
No model of human activity and behaviour has us in one state for that long - even when we’re asleep, we’re cycling through different stages of sleep in 90-minute patterns. This is called an ultradian rhythm - as opposed to the more well-known circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour cycle of day and night our bodies get used to, an ultradian rhythm is a pattern that repeats within each day.
The cycles we go through when we’re asleep are basically mirrored when we’re awake - chunks of an hour and a half or so where we go from being at our most alert to our least, from our most insanely productive to our most easily distracted and fidgety. But then, instead of taking a break, we chug another coffee or check Twitter or go to the toilet, stuff towels in our mouths to smother the sound, and scream and scream and scream. Or, we wrestle through it and the stress hormones doing so releases just becomes part and parcel of a normal day at the office.
Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project, performance expert Anders Ericsson and emotional intelligence psychologist Travis Bradberry are among those calling for people to think about work in smaller chunks, rather than day-long unbroken spells.
Taking a proper break every hour and a half, rather than just eating a shitty Pret at your desk for twenty minutes once a day, could genuinely transform how much you get done and stop you grinding yourself into the ground.
It depends on what you’re doing - if you’re a heart surgeon doing a two-hour operation, maybe don’t down tools before finishing and refuse to continue without a smoke break - but it’s something to think about. If you can get more done, in less time, and feel better about it, that could be properly life-changing.