The 8-hour Workday Is a Counterproductive Lie
It's time to unmake the modern myth of productivity
The eight-hour workday started its life as a socialist dream. Robert Owen, the Welsh textile mill owner and social reformer, is credited as the first person to articulate it, by calling for “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest” for workers in the early 19th century. This was much better than the 12- or 14-hour days factory workers, including children, were expected to put in at the time. Over the next 100 years or so, labor unions in the U.S. pushed for and won adoption of the eight-hour standard in various industries. Henry Ford brought the idea further into the mainstream in 1926 by mandating a five-day, 40-hour workweek in his company’s factories. In 1940, Congress officially set the American workweek at 40 hours.
There’s just one problem in 2019: It’s all but impossible to actually work for eight hours a day in the jobs so many of us now have. Like most people writing hot takes and think pieces about productivity, I’m focusing on knowledge workers here—those of us who work at desks, mostly in front of computers, in offices or from home. Especially those of us who spend those hours making things, like writers, coders and graphic designers. (Honestly, I think eight hours a day is too long to work in a factory, a restaurant, a call center or a store, too, and we should rethink and re-legislate this standard in all industries.)
I’m a full-time freelance writer who works from home, so I’m responsible for setting my own schedule. This is great and, also, terrible. Like many knowledge workers, I reach the end of many workdays thinking, Where did all those hours go? What did I actually do today? And unlike people who go to an office, I can’t say Oh, I went to the office! I don’t have an external measure of productivity to judge myself against, aside from the culturally ingrained idea that if I’m a “full-time” writer, I should be working for eight hours a day, five days a week.
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