How to Chip Away at the 40-Hour Workweek

We’re weirdly attached to a schedule that became the norm when current technology did not exist

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

We’re in the midst of a huge conversation around the future of work. One of the biggest conventions up for negotiation: the 40-hour workweek.

This is a moment to figure out new ways to make work support our lives, flipping the current dynamic in which many of us live to work. We can start with our schedules. I’m not saying that nobody should work 40 hours a week, and certainly many of us work far more than that. The 40-hour workweek is just shorthand for embracing big, systemic change that puts our humanity first and our productive capacity as workers second. It’s about finding what serves both you and your company/clients — maybe that’s a four-day workweek, or a five-hour workday, or something else.

Of course, there might be people here saying, “Yeah, but my boss will never go for that.” Statistically speaking, lower wage and hourly workers, people of color, and women may feel less empowered to ask for different circumstances at work. That means it’s up to the rest of us to push for change. If you have a say in how your work schedule goes, it’s your responsibility to help dissolve the expectation that employers get to call all the shots when it comes to our schedules. Even if you’re happy with your work life, supporting your co-workers (and other working humans in general) in their search for a better work-life balance could translate into co-workers who are happier, less stressed, and more fun to be around. Work flexibility is a privilege — use it for the greater good.

Here are a few ways to chip away at our rigid thinking around what the workweek is supposed to look like.

Release your own attachment to the 40-hour week

I’ve been a remote worker for a decade, and a full-time freelancer for a year now. I only recently realized how deeply the idea that the workday must be 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, was imprinted in my brain. I have to consciously override the uneasy feeling that I’m not working enough when I take a walk with a friend in the middle of the day, spend an hour prepping dinner and cleaning the kitchen, or get up and leave my desk when my to-do list is complete.

To free myself, I’ve learned to ask the following questions:

  • How long does this actually take? I was creating unrealistic to-do lists that made me feel like I was constantly falling behind. Now I first figure out how long it will actually take to do a project, and schedule with that in mind, so I’m not logging long hours because of overcommitment.
  • Why am I sitting here? Sometimes in the afternoon, I sit at my desk in search of something to do, and what usually ends up happening is that I waste an hour doing mostly nothing. Now I keep a running list of tasks — like filling out camp paperwork for my kids, writing a letter, or paying bills — to do in this kind of downtime. Or, I just get up and end the day a little early, especially if it’s nice outside.
  • What kind of break would I enjoy the most? Some weeks, I build a few small breaks to run errands or spend time with a friend into the workday. Other weeks I load up the days so I can take an afternoon, or even a full day off and do something fun. Or just read on the couch.

Negotiate flexibility and share your successes

If you negotiated a more flexible schedule, less travel, or additional family leave for any reason, tell people about it, especially if you know that they are going through or anticipating a similar experience. Identify and share what made your ask successful. Document your own success and push for the policy to become standard.

Normalize commitments to family and friends. Don’t sneak out of work for school events, announce them. Take the hour before dinner off your calendar for meetings. People without kids, you’re included here — name the ways you’re taking care of your mental health, if you’re comfortable with that, whether it’s your afternoon walk or weekly therapy appointment. If you’re an important support for a friend, partner, or relative, let people know. Normalize care and the time needed to do it.

I know this all sounds challenging and maybe a little performative, but think of all the times you or someone in your office has normalized staying late, working weekends, and glorifying grind culture. This is the antidote to that and so it makes sense for it to feel uncomfortable for a while.

Support systemic change

If we as a society are going to recognize that time is valuable and that we are humans first, employees second, we need to adequately pay people for their time, and protect their time outside of work.

Not every job can offer flexibility during the workday — especially those in education, health care, and the service industry. But we can make sure that workers who have to follow set schedules are fairly compensated for their time and treated well. Raising the minimum wage, creating rules around scheduling, making health insurance more affordable for independent workers, all of these big policy changes, on both the local and the federal level, could provide more options and a better quality of life for a wide variety of working people.

Annaliese Griffin is a writer and editor who most recently led the Quartz Daily Obsession, an award-winning newsletter. She lives in Vermont with her family.

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