• Advice

The myth of the 40-hour workweek

Recently, a friend who’s interested in freelancing asked me to coffee (I’m never one to turn down a free Danish in return for a little brain-picking). Just when I had bitten into flaky-crusted cheesy goodness, he asked:

“So, what’s your typical workweek like?”

Um. I had to chew extra slowly while I came up with an almost-intelligent answer.

The truth is that I, like many freelancers, rarely have a “typical” workweek.

My weeks vary pretty wildly; sometimes I’m frantically hopping between projects; sometimes, I’m twiddling my thumbs and blissfully staring blankly into space for hours on end.

It’s true that if I’m not actively working on something, I’ll probably soon be hustling to find work on something else – but my schedule varies in what some might call an “exciting” fashion -- others might call it “ridiculous” or, uh, “crazy-making.”

While I try to build in some daily routines (they ground you, and add a nice bit of stability), I don’t really have a standardized workweek on a long-term basis.

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After I had mumbled out some approximation of this answer through a mouthful of pastry, he persisted:

“Okay, but, like – how many hours do you normally work?”

And once again, the answer was something like “as many as it takes.”

I sometimes binge-work just before tight deadlines, and sometimes work about as much as your average overfed housecat.

I do as much work as I need to do in order to pay my bills, and on top of that, as much as I want to in order to earn extra money, fulfill ambitions, pursue passions… or get future gigs.

Now we had run into a real quandary; my friend was staring at me in something like pure exasperation:

“But… there must be some minimum number of hours you work per week, every week. Like, the 40-hour thing. Don’t you always work 40 hours?”

Not really, I said. Not often.

“That just seems… wrong.”

My friend’s bemusement is not uncommon; people unused to freelancers often express this kind of sentiment. I think it’s symptomatic of a larger issue – one with deep roots.

The 40-hour workweek, as most know, was a hard-won victory of the labor movement. Men and women fought (and indeed died) for the right to limit work days – which used to typically range up to 16 hours, 6 days a week.

We are indeed unspeakably fortunate to reap the benefits of our ancestors’ efforts – something that we should try to remember while enjoying our hot dogs over the long weekend.

But what we forget is that many of those early activists DID NOT INTEND TO STOP THERE. Many pushed for 4-hour workdays; for weekends; for sick days.

The 8-hour workday was created as a preliminary effort to check out-of-control workdays from abusive employers; it was never intended to be a mandatory requirement.

If you can and want to work fewer hours a week – there is no shame in that. Indeed, you are fortunate to be able to do so; many people around the world do not have the option.

There is nothing wrong with choosing to devote more of your life to passions; to building your work flexibly; to rolling seamlessly along with variances in your schedule.

Too many buy into the myth of the full-time workweek – which says that if you don’t have routine, if you don’t devote a set number of hours every week, you are somehow defunct: wrong, as my friend said.

I eventually managed to articulate to my friend (no thanks to the Danish) that freelancing often doesn’t really correspond to a corporate model, which suggests that you MUST work a minimum number of hours in order to be productive, useful, or successful.

It’s okay to work “as much as it takes”, and be your own boss in all things.

Freelancers who can let go of the concept of conventionally-structured workweeks can allow themselves to build schedules that work for their needs... and that may never mean a ‘normal’ workweek.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.