How much work do you actually get done at work?

“I’d say it’s three to four hours per day, maximum.”

I was surprised, but not taken aback. In my own head I had always thought, I was somewhere between three and four hours per day too.

“Why do you think that is?” One of my colleagues asked.

“Well, if you count the time I’m actually head down, getting things done, and being most productive, I can’t see how it could possibly be anymore than that in any given day.”

Not a quantitative argument by any stretch, but compelling nonetheless. Over the years, I’ve learned that when our CEO speaks, as a staff member, we should listen, and this Friday afternoon lunch conversation was turning especially compelling.

“Did any of you see the article in the Wall Street Journal about the German firm that implemented a five hour work day? They saw productivity increases.” I chimed in.

When it comes to “work,” which at MarketSmart, Greg Warner, our Founder and CEO, prefers to refer to as “making progress,” (and I agree with him, “making progress” sounds considerably better, and is more indicative of what we do than “work”), it’s compelling to question how much of it actually gets done in any given day.

It doesn’t take too much investigative work to build a case for why organizations should be questioning the traditional work schedule. Over the past two weeks I’ve come across this article on Rheingans Digital Enabler and their five hour work day, a report from Microsoft Japan which found a 40% increase in productivity from implementing a four day work week, and this gem of a piece from the BBC whose title reads, “Pointless work meetings ‘really a form of therapy’.” The case for support to challenge the traditional approach to “work” is right in front of us.

Where did I turn next in my journey to better understand what is happening? Myself.

For years I’ve prided myself on getting more done than others. I think back to this blog post I published in 2016 sharing my morning routine. I’ll spare you all the details, however the beginning of my day used to look like:

  • Wake up at 4:15am
  • Eat a similar high protein breakfast at 4:20am
  • Bathroom break…
  • Leave for the gym at 4:50am
  • Arrive at the gym by 5:05am
  • Do my weight or aerobic training (I even have a routine for this)
  • Leave the gym at 6:15am

The routine goes on and on. Four years later, and I can assure you this routine is no longer in effect (I wake up at 4:45am now instead!), however it is indicative of a culture that many of us subscribe to: always being productive, always getting things done, always “working.”

When I think of this culture I recall a friend of mine who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and went to work for JP Morgan in New York City. Steve joined their investment banking team. One day (a few months into his job), Steve and I were talking about hours spent in the office:

“Yeah, during the busy weeks I’d be pulling 80 or 90 hours at the office,” he said matter of factly. “It comes with the territory though, and plus we get breakfast, lunch, and dinner expensed, so it’s not that bad.”

I was dumbstruck (for those wondering, Steve has since moved on to a smaller boutique firm where he works fewer hours and secured a raise — way to go Steve!). “How could any organization expect you to be productive for 80 or 90 hours in the span of seven days?” I remember thinking to myself.

Steve’s reality at JP Morgan was “productivity culture” to the max. Many of us (especially those in big cities) are surrounded by it, and it may be doing more harm than good.

Recalling Steve’s experience, paired with the articles I had recently read on “work,” I felt inspired to self-assess my own productivity. I’m not embarrassed or ashamed, or concerned that sharing my in-the-office productivity on the internet will yield some sort of repercussion. I’m honest, forthright, and cutting through the BS. To suggest you can consistently work 10+ hour productive days, seven days a week, without lapsing in focus or judgement (even if you do “biohack” yourself) is unrealistic.

I logged what I did for a week and categorized my actions. The outcome? The chart below:

work activities pie chart
  • Writing – 15%
  • Reading – 10%
  • Talking – 15%
  • In a meeting – 15%
  • Thinking – 10%
  • Execution – 25%
  • Taking a break – 5%
  • Preparing – 5%

Which led me to question, “which of these activities is ‘productive,’ versus ‘unproductive’?” This could be the basis of a PHD student’s thesis paper, and rather than stymie my progress, I decided to simply ask myself “were the last 60 minutes productive?” at the end of each hour for one work week. The outcome, 56% of the time, I said, “yes,” meaning 44% of the time, I said, “no.”

personal productivity analysis

Was I surprised? Yes. Based off of my self-assessment I was averaging 6.2 hours of productivity per day. I immediately questioned this (which may just be my inherit nature). Why? Because my assessment technique (asking myself, “were the last 60 minutes productive”) didn’t take into consideration each minute in that hour, rather how the hour as a whole “felt” in terms of productivity. That is to say, if within one 60 minute time block I felt that 31 minutes had been productive, I most likely would have said, “Yes, this has been a productive hour,” misrepresenting the entire hour as being productive. Or, if I ended the hour being highly productive I may have been more likely to label it a “yes,” when in reality it may not have been. The opposite is of course true too.

I think a more realistic value would be one-half, or two-thirds of 6.2 hours, somewhere between 3.1 and 4.1 hours of productivity per work day. Does this mean I’m not “carrying my weight” at my organization? I don’t think so. Untracked went the myriad hours thinking about work outside of work (which could be its own PHD thesis paper), the weekend log-ins to email, Slack, and other apps to stay connected with our internal and external teams, and more.

But what does this mean for the future of “work?” I turned to my father, who spent 40+ years in the retail car business managing dealerships for most of that time. I asked him, “When you were in the car business, how many productive hours do you think you were able to ‘give’ on any given day?

emailing my dad about work

His response was both enlightening and thought provoking:

What I have found in all my years, is that productivity is predominantly dependent on the inner motivation of each individual salesperson and manager. If someone wants to be successful they must put forth the effort (going to work to work) to reach their personal goals. If someone wants to be average (going to work because they have to), their work efforts are somewhat less than the successful people, and those who are below average, tend to have little to no self motivation (going to work to hang out, drink coffee and search the web) and are wasting their time, my time and most importantly the customer’s time. In my opinion, productivity is a personal choice that is made on a daily basis. The choice is often dependent on many outside influences on people’s lives. Health issues (both personal and with loved ones), relationship issues, their commute, the weather, and the like all influence an individual’s productivity. One final influencer on productivity is the employee’s happiness with their work. Are they happy doing what they do? Do they feel like they are being utilized fully and is their input taken seriously? Hell do they even like what it is that they do? If any of those areas are a negative in the employees mind than their productivity will be less than you would want it to be.

The workday as we know it is shifting, and I think my dad makes a great point. Whether it’s a four day work week, a five hour work day, or some other variant to the traditional 9 to 5, what truly drives “work” getting done at an organization isn’t your schedule, but rather your personal interest in what you do. Will the work day evolve and shift? I think so. Does the traditional 9 to 5 provide the most optimal schedule for productivity? Certainly not for everyone. Are there other drivers of productivity and workplace effectiveness that should be addressed first? Absolutely.

So you tell me… How much work do you actually get done at work?