The 8-hour construct reimagined

by Leslie Bourke

“Oh, you work for yourself? How’s business? Are you keeping busy?”

Faced with this line of questioning, many of us freelancers, contractors, and sole proprietors launch into the details of how busy we are with work. We know the protocol because we often encounter such inquiries. An affirmative answer is the only socially acceptable response. In fact, the more slammed we are with work, the more we are to be congratulated.

In American culture, stress and exhaustion are worn with pride as status symbols. Being busy means you have a tireless work ethic. People assume you must be accomplishing your life goals.

As independent workers, we may feel even more societal pressure to work long hours, especially when just starting out. After all, more hours hopefully equals more profit and a greater chance our businesses will survive the coming years. The typical operating schedule of 9-to-5 can quickly deteriorate into 9-to- dinner or 9-to-bedtime. Even all-nighters can become a regular, acceptable occurrence.

Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve subscribed to the above mindset for a long time. As I’ve become more established and confident as a web design professional, however, I’ve questioned the idea that the hours I clock determine my self-worth.

My father serves as one of my main role models, and I often think about his career. He has always worked tremendously hard as a country music songwriter in Nashville, but he schedules his days with room for activities that make life fulfilling. As one of his three daughters, I can attest that while we were growing up, he never missed a school play, basketball game, or concert. Other writers similarly have found ways to be productive with sometimes limited hours. As a teenager and intern at two Music Row companies, I used to laugh that Nashville songwriters would show up for work at 10am, start thinking about lunch at 11:30, come back at 1, and then head out around 4pm. Despite my amusement, the day’s efforts usually produced a song. The writers were persistent and focused while on the job, and they continued to throw ideas back and forth over a long lunch. Spend enough days like this, and soon you’ll have a set of songs to demo.

Along with considering my self-employed role models, I regularly read articles and books about small business strategies. Recently I read the immensely popular book, The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. Echoing other lifestyle designers, Ferriss suggests how we spend our time reflects our values. Those of us who feel handcuffed to a 40-60 work week should reconsider our assumptions about the time required to produce a sustainable income.

In his book, Ferriss describes the 80/20 Rule, or the Pareto Principle. The theory says 20% of your efforts produces 80% of your results. By carefully analyzing your workload over time, you can determine which tasks result in the most profit. Ferriss recommends applying the 80/20 Rule more broadly as well. What top tier of your clients/products contribute to the largest portion of your bottom line?

Conversely, 80% of your work/clients/products are only producing 20% of your results. By eliminating these poor performers, you can free up valuable resources. Maybe even spare time for your personal life.

Admittedly, I do not agree with all the concepts included in The 4-Hour Workweek. One chapter, for example, encourages readers to hire a virtual assistant in India for delegating day-to-day tasks. I also question the feasibility of limiting work hours so severely. Ferriss and other lifestyle designers, however, construct a persuasive argument for paying attention to how you spend your time. My takeaway from the book is to optimize my work habits and create space for a more fulfilling life.

Since reading about the Pareto Principle, I am more cognizant of how I spend my days. One way I potentially waste time is by being a perfectionist. I become absorbed in the details of work. For example, sometimes I’ll try too many layout options after coming up with an excellent design, or I’ll find myself checking email every 15 minutes. Instead of continuing on auto-pilot, I need to step back and assess the big picture. Every week I ask myself, what have I specifically accomplished in the last seven days? Did I progress toward my professional and personal goals?

If, like many of us, you clock in most of the day on a computer, you can begin analyzing your daily activities with a time tracker app, such as Rescue Time. This application monitors how much time you spend on applications and websites. The resulting data can help you determine where you are wasting time and where you should refocus your energies. This shift will help you achieve more for your business in less time.

Many entrepreneurs are overextended and need to reassess constant motion as a lifestyle. Ferriss states, “Busy yourself with the routine of the money wheel, pretend it’s the fix-all, and you artfully create a constant distraction that prevents you from seeing just how pointless it is.”

As independent professionals, we have a unique opportunity to implement the above tactics or find another productivity-increasing strategy. We should question our culture’s 9-to-5 construct. I believe every person has an ideal working schedule, which can change according to different life phases.

At my co-working space, Collective Agency in Portland, Oregon, people arrive and depart at all different hours. The office is open 24/7 and accommodates them all. Some members work early morning hours from home and work at Collective in the afternoon. Some coordinate with out-of-the-office commitments. And others find they are most efficient overnight, while most of Portland sleeps. Each has found, or is in the process of finding, the schedule that works best for them. Whatever the case, I admire my Collective neighbors for seeking an alternative to the 9-to-5 construct.

I am inspired to similarly find my own rhythm and produce meaningful work. Regardless of the time frame.

Image credit: Header photo in the Creative Commons (Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic), courtesy of incognito2020.


  1. Leila 05/29/2014 at 5:19 am #

    Nice article! I can definitely relate. I used to work in advertising for many years … focusing on the money wheel and putting in 50-60hr work weeks. Now as a freelancer & yoga teacher, I find myself embarrassed around others about having free time and a flexible schedule.
    Time to change that collective mindset for sure – thanks for your eye-opening article and story.


  2. Christine 12/03/2014 at 9:23 pm #

    Very nicely put. Streamlined productivity is what runs all successful small business, balancing work and life is what maintains personal productivity. Thank you for helping us all find another hour or two in the day.


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