Working in — or rather doing anything but working — is a fixture of modern American life. Every Monday through Friday, we arrive at the office at nine, coffee in hand, and leave at five, beer and potentially coworker soon to be at hand, feeling like we accomplished nothing. Why? Because, according to science, we’re only capable of making three of those eight-ish hours productive.
That we goof off at work is no great secret. Pretty much the entire internet thrives on the idea of us checking the news when, in theory at least, we’re supposed to be working. But a survey of nearly 2,000 UK officeworkers finds that most of us are eating, chatting with coworkers, or angling for either a promotion or a new job. The study points out that only three of those hours are actively “productive” in the traditional sense. So why are we there for eight?
In part because we’ve never updated our work standards to reflect reality. The idea of the eight-hour workday dates to 1817 and was invented by labor organizer Robert Owen. At the time, Owen seemed to be a bizarre radical, since the standard was to work twelve hours a day six or even seven days a week. Then again, in 1817, they also thought it was an awesome idea to make children work the most dangerous jobs in coal mines, so our labor standards have, um, shifted a little.
The reality of the work day is more complicated, lately. In theory, we only work forty hours or so a week, but in reality, a mix of smartphones and pushy bosses means the borders between work time and personal time have become blurry. And, more and more, it’s becoming clear nobody can actually work eight hours straight. The longer we concentrate on a task and only that task, the more our ability to do so declines and eventually just collapses. Experiments have shown that shorter shifts means happier, more productive workers.
In many offices, it’s worth asking why time spent at a desk should be the measure of employment when not even your boss’ boss gets maximum productivity out of his eight hours. The further up the chain you get at your job, the more of your time is going to be consumed by meetings that are objectively worthless, which really isn’t any better than goofing off on Facebook, if we’re going by the metric of money spent by the company versus value extracted for that money.
Often this is presented as laziness, but underlying that idea is the concept that there’s always more work to be done. But, well, maybe there isn’t. Keep in mind, we are more productive, now, than we have been at any other time in humanity’s history, and that’s with most of us spending the majority of our work day doing anything but working. Part of that is that we have more, and more powerful, productivity tools than at any other point in human history, which are only going to become more refined and powerful over time. But another part of it is, just maybe, there’s only so much work to get done, and perhaps it’s time to measure our work day by our tasks, not our clocks.