Working long hours in the creative industry is a widely accepted and often celebrated practice. However, evidence would suggest that designers who are able to maintain roughly 40 hours of work each week reap the creative benefits of work life balance and may be better positioned to produce work superior than that of their counterparts consistently working large amounts of overtime. What experience has taught me personally is that setting reasonable boundaries regarding work-life balance may actually be a key practice in producing great creative products.
A brief history of worker productivity
The 40 hour week has long been regarded as ideal for maximizing both productivity and quality of work. The Ford Motor Company opened the floodgates for the 8 hour day in American society during the 1920’s when they introduced it as standard operation in their own factories. Having conducted independent research regarding hours worked in a day, the 8 hour day was considered the sweet spot for overall quality and level of output of production.
Now, in today’s society the 9-5 workday is often traded for something more fluid in which free time and work time are seamlessly integrated. The concept of work-life balance has begun to change into something more geared toward work-life blend. Workers today are connected and mobile and therefore can take the time to work remotely, or to pick a kid up from daycare without the fear of missing an important email or meeting. For many, this shift is mostly positive. At its best, it allows for more flexibility in choosing how career and life fit together. However, at its worst, it sets the expectation that one make themselves available for work at all times, thus effectively eliminating the ability to disconnect and recharge to a meaningful degree. We lose the ease of clocking out right at 5pm and are now faced with a very real challenge of setting personal boundaries between working time and everything else to reap the benefits of work life balance.
Considering cognitive impairment for knowledge workers
As a designer, when looking at one’s own work-life blend, it is particularly relevant to consider studies showing the impact of hours worked for those whose careers are more mentally challenging than physically challenging. One such study states that knowledge workers reach peak efficiency when engaging in intense mental activity no more than 6 hours each day.
In April of 2014 the government of Gothenburg, Sweden believed so strongly in this idea and the benefits of work life balance that they took the fairly radical approach of making the 6 hour work day law for teachers, doctors and others in knowledge-based careers.
Another study from the US Air Force, which was featured in a 2012 article from SALON, summarizes nicely how how dramatically overworking can impact a knowledge worker’s ability to perform. According to the USAF, long hours that eat into a person’s sleeping time by even one hour have the same impact as that person becoming slightly drunk.
Put a cap on focused design time
These studies ladder up to the idea that designers may benefit tremendously by putting a cap on the number of hours worked each week regardless of how they choose to manage their actual working schedule. Rather than losing sleep or pouring more hours into a problem, a better solution may be to step away, recharge mentally and come back fresh and creatively charged to begin designing again the next day.
Admittedly, I have had many nights where I stay up late working and wake up early to continue working in order to meet deadlines. While this may be effective in eeking out the hours needed to get something in front of a client on a short timeline it almost never produces my most thoughtful work.
Finding time to be inspired
Another hugely important factor in the creation of great design work is the ability to find time to inspire and be inspired outside of the office. It may seem counterintuitive, but designers have a responsibility to their craft to live life outside of work as a means for seeking inspiration to be used in their work. It is true that there is a wealth of great inspirational resources for designers online or among peers. However, looking exclusively at other designers’ work for inspiration leads to a degree of sameness across work and makes it much more difficult to innovate within a practice. Books, art, nature, strangers and life in general are all sources that can lead to new ideas, innovation and great design work.
None of this is to say that long work weeks should never happen. The occasional 60 hour work week is a necessary part of being a designer in a creative industry. An individual can reasonably work a 50-60 hour week here and there and can actually get a lot of great things accomplished. The big push at the end of a high stakes project can even provide a great sense of satisfaction to an entire design team.
The major drop in creativity and productivity occurs when that individual enters their second or third week of overtime. Study after study shows that after working two 60 hour weeks, the measurable difference from those working a standard 40 hour week is negligible. In many instances productivity even drops below that of those working fewer hours.
If a designer or a company is not cognizant of the volume of overtime worked they risk significant negative impact to their overall quality of creative work. The key to managing these long weeks while remaining creatively fresh is to take personal responsibility and to put an end to the overtime when the extra hours are no longer needed.
I love being a designer and like many designers I am passionate about my work. But we owe it to ourselves, our clients and our craft, to step away when you reach that tipping point at the end of the week. And — for most of us — that should total around 40 hours.
Photos courtesy of Panayot Savov.