how many hours should you work

How Many Hours a Week Should You Work? Here’s What the Research Says

Felicia Sullivan

I used to think that being a successful small business owner meant that I had to hustle 24 hours of the day, literally. I woke to hustle. I fell asleep to hustle. I dreamed about to-do lists and hatched plans in the shower. That is, until the day I woke up and realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Building a profitable business requires you to work smarter, not harder. While you need hustle to start your business, you need a strategy to grow it. Let me explain.

The cult of overwork is real. The average person touches their phone over 2,000 times a day, according to a Dscout study, and the U.S. is one of the most overworked countries in the developed world.

The hashtag #nevernotworking has over 310,000 posts on Instagram, and busy has become its own brand, with perceptions of success tied to being allergic to leisure time. You have to wonder — is all this hustle making the grade? Are we building more profitable businesses by working more?

The short answer is no.

When it comes to our businesses, the science is conclusive: Our brains are not wired to multitask, and decision-making quality drops when we’re tired. To add more insult to injury, research shows that when you clock in more than 50-55 hours a week, cognitive performance (that is, the ability to reason and think critically and creatively) and the quality of your work suffers.

Let’s get practical. Do you notice that you’re “tapped out” or fresh out of ideas after a long day on the job? Do your eyes glaze over important documents that impact your small business? While working at an agency start-up and for my own small marketing business, I noticed that I operated under the law of diminishing returns — the more I slogged away in front of a computer, the more catatonic I became.

And forget about the always-on mentality of technology, where we’re attached to our phones and everyone expects that we’re accessible 24/7. When we’re not working on our business, we’re thinking about it, and it’s become the norm for entrepreneurs and small business owners to clock in 60-80-hour work weeks.

In a 2012 report that’s still relevant, 150 years of research shows that overworking hurts profits, productivity, and employee morale and well-being. We can accomplish more in 40 hours than 80.

So, what happens when we keep burning the midnight oil?

  • We suffer from decision paralysis. When you work more, you work in circles, procrastinate, and nothing really gets done. You’re too tired to make material decisions, so you end up putting them off, which only hurts your business.
  • We focus on what’s safe vs. what’s innovative. Everyone’s afraid of failure, but failure is a key component to success. Failure gives us information that we can use to make smart changes in our businesses. When you spend your time avoiding failure, you can make too-safe decisions that impede growth. Consider these nuggets of wisdom from Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” He also said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
  • We hurt employee morale. Whether we like it or not, employees look to their leaders for model behavior. If they see you constantly stressed, frazzled, tired, and tapped out, they will mimic your behavior until they suffer from burnout, and they could end up leaving your company. As a small business leader, it’s your job to set the standard for how much you work. When you cultivate a company centered on balance, you may see your profits skyrocket.

Here’s the reality: Nothing productive or profitable comes out of a 12-hour workday. Trust me on this one. So maybe if you slept that extra hour (earning an incremental 5%, according to a University of California San Diego study) and designed your days to work smarter, then you would experience real growth in your business.

Here are my tips to design a work week that will keep you balanced, sharp, sane, and profitable:

Create workflows for administrative/repetitive tasks.

When you’re a small business owner, you’re suddenly the accountant, administrative assistant, lawyer, and bookkeeper. All of the departments that you took for granted at your 9 to 5 collapse into a team of one when you’re first starting out. Take a step back and document all the things you do on a daily or per-project/client basis, and see if there are ways you can automate or create templates to reduce the workflow.

For example, if you own a small boutique or coffee shop, you may want to invest in scanning technology to help with inventory management. If you’re a bookkeeper or freelance marketing consultant or graphic designer, you may want to create templates for your onboarding process, so you don’t have to start from scratch every time you have a new client.

Determine where technology can fill the gaps.

Similar to my first recommendation, I would invite you to think about software tools that can make your life easier. Many of them are free for smaller businesses, or come with a minimal monthly cost. For example, I used tools like Timely to automatically track the hours I work, Google Drive to manage file-sharing and uploads, and Dubsado to manage new business leads and create automated onboarding emails for when leads turn into new clients.

If you have a need, there’s probably an app for it, so do some research to determine where automation or technology can remove some of the drudgery from your day-to-day business management.

Define when you’re at your best and shape your days accordingly.

For my small business, I’ve created workflows and processes that save me time on the administrative busy work and allow me to segment my day to focus on being productive at blocks of hours at a time—all based on my circadian rhythms.

For example, I know I’m most productive and focused first thing in the morning. As a result, I’ll block off 7 a.m. to noon to work on the tasks that require a considerable amount of my attention. Contracts, strategy, big decisions, plans, and partnerships — all of this gets taken care of when my cognitive abilities are at their sharpest, because after 2 p.m. my brain becomes mush.

Acknowledge when you need help.

We’re in love with saying that we can do it all, or that it would take too much time to explain menial tasks to someone else, but the more we’re working on the details in our business, the less we’re working on the growth of our business. There will come a point when you’ll need to hire a resource, whether it’s a part-time or full-time employee.

Consider starting with a VA (virtual assistant), who can handle everything from your inbox to administrative tasks, bookkeeping, social media, or graphic design. As a small business owner, I’ve also seen the value in investing in a bookkeeper and a lawyer, both of whom give me peace of mind. I know my contracts will be airtight and protective, and I don’t have to deal with the ever-changing tax code because I have an expert in my court, helping me manage the books and expenses.

Rest and have fun!

You went out on your own because you wanted to be your own boss. Being a boss is not just about getting the job done, but it’s also about knowing when you need to kick back and relax.

Time away from your business not only rejuvenates your well being, but also allows for the flow of new, creative ideas. I take Mondays off to relax without the disruption of email and calls. I also take a work-free vacation — after two decades of working to the bone, I can tell you it’s possible!

Everyone talks about the hustle. Everyone believes being busy is a badge of honor, but busy doesn’t add zeros to your bank account. Working smarter and strategically on your business not only will give you the time to build your company, but also will allow you to spend time with the people who matter most.

31 Responses to "How Many Hours a Week Should You Work? Here’s What the Research Says"
    • Kim | February 24, 2021 at 7:22 am

      You absolutely must be able to multi-task to be successful. Whether you start each particular task and then hand it off to others for completion or whether you complete them yourself… multitasking is in our nature. The key to real success AND some degree of rest and enjoying life is the ability to efficiently delegate to others. But, no one ever got anywhere in life without hard work and multitasking. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise.

      • Small Biz Ahead | February 26, 2021 at 3:09 pm

        Thanks for sharing, Kim!

    • Karl S | February 23, 2021 at 10:58 pm

      I am a bit old school but young. I learned a strong work ethic from my military family. I have learned there are no “hours” in a leader, strong business owner, etc. I know people are rolling their eyes to that comment, but as long as you are in control of your business and your life and have balance then how many hours you work is irrelevant. Work smart, figure it out. If you’re tired, get some rest, eat well, exercise and keep yourself fresh. Those who say you can get more done in 40 hours than 80 hours obviously are either burnt out or completely inefficient. I can definitely get more done in 80 hours in any work week vs. a 40 hour work week.

      Another point, there is a difference working for someone else than working for yourself. Working for someone else is always more tiresome because everyone will say they are over worked and underpaid. That will always be part of life. Now from an owner POV, if you want to get paid more, figure it out. Want to work less, hire people to fill those hours that you put in. Usually those replacements do not feel the same desire or passion as you will, so either make them a part owner or delegate small stuff and pay them well and give them clear expectations.

      We can go on and on…If you are counting the minutes and hours then you are burnt out. Take care of yourself and enjoy your success. BTW…life is not easy.

      • Small Biz Ahead | February 26, 2021 at 4:41 pm

        Thanks for the insight, Karl!

    • Arpy Seferian | July 23, 2020 at 8:34 am

      I absolutely agree with balancing work & personal life. I love my Apple watch and the prompts to get off my desk, take breaks and “close my rings”. Great motivation to stay physically and mentally fit!

    • Lisa | July 22, 2020 at 8:36 pm

      Only in America do people think “only” working 40 hours per week is cutting down!

    • Phil Schwartz | June 24, 2020 at 10:38 am

      We may be able to multi task but you’ll never do each task well. Each task will suffer from the lack of focus on that task. You may have 2 eyes and 2 ears but you cannot hear 2 things at once and you cannot see/focus on 2 things at once. There are people who listen in on a conference call and read their emails at the same time thinking they are being efficient, until they miss something on the conference call and then ask it to be repeated – is that really efficient or fair to the other people on the call?

    • Scott Fischer | June 23, 2020 at 11:36 pm

      Unless self limits are established both for self employed and salaried positions the tendency is to work til you drop. I have had both roles. Now that I’m older and wiser, salaried positions should get no more than 50hrs per week MAX and hourly 40 or less. I’ve see coworkers both salaried and hourly burn themselves out and become disenchanted about there role in corporate and self employed roles. Live is short and you never see a brinks truck in a cemetery. So work smart draw boundaries and live your life you only go around once, live life without regrets.

    • Robert | June 18, 2020 at 3:17 pm

      I 100% disagree with the theme of this article. A business owner may not be required to work 100 hours a week always although if you are not working 100 hours a week your competition is working those hours.

      I am proof, work long hours and grow rich!

    • lin | June 16, 2020 at 10:38 pm

      The article doesn’t address people who work in the building industry or do the work along with the employees as well as own the business.
      We are all multi taskers for years.
      it’s all about people who sit at desks.
      The only one at a desk in our small manufacturing business is the bookkeeper.
      That’s not reality land for most of us.

    • India | April 23, 2020 at 9:51 pm

      I was just recently laid off and I have decided I do not want to be an employee anymore. I am in the process of getting my in home office set up and I have been trying to figure out how to get a set up where I am able to have a work like balance. This article is so on point. Thank you for the tips.

      • Chloe Silverman | April 27, 2020 at 9:45 am

        We are so glad you found this article helpful for you! Best of luck to you and your new home business.

    • eileen swicker | June 5, 2019 at 6:20 pm

      The author is right about working smart which will lessen the number of hours we need to put in. What needs to be done, in what order, with what priority? It usually means keeping lists, and checking off the tasks that have been done. I spent 35 years as an employee, following someone else’s direction, and then set up my own business. Nine years later, I have lunch out with my husband several times a week, go to exercise class, take two months of “vacation” every year (hauling the portable office with me) and have a thriving law practice that I really enjoy.

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 6, 2019 at 11:38 am

        Eileen, we are glad you have a great work-life balance!

    • Angela Pineiro | June 4, 2019 at 11:33 pm

      Two articles in a row of so much value…and I haven’t even gotten to the one about writing a promotional email.

      As I sit here at 11:30pm still hard at work, I realize that as a business owner I’ve become an expert enabler. That’s another thing to add to the list…train customers that there are going to be some times when you are just not going to be available.

      • Hannah Sullivan | June 5, 2019 at 8:02 am

        Thank you Angela!

    • Naren | January 23, 2019 at 8:44 pm

      Everyone can multi-task, it is a myth that some people by default are born to multi-task.

      However, as someone pointed out that multi-tasking does slows down the time taken to complete one task at a time. Thus a multi-tasker may take longer to do all tasks. Mind of such people is telling them that they will not be done on time and thus they tend to work additional hours.

      A Simple test is write A thru Z on one paper first and then write 1 thru 26 on 2nd paper one after the other. Make sure you record your time when you write A thru Z on 1st paper and 1 thru 26 on 2nd paper.

      Now do another test and record your time, write A on 1st paper and number on 2nd paper. No repeat this for alphabets A thru Z and numbers 1 thru 26. So in this case you are multi-tasking.

      So Just compare the time of two tests and you will be amazed that what I wrote earlier and proven by many is true.


      • Hannah Sullivan | January 24, 2019 at 8:21 am

        Thank you Naren for this interesting tip!

    • Pam Kumar | October 12, 2018 at 5:53 pm

      Very enlightening and on the mark. Honestly gave me a wake up call. Being business owner, I am doing just that. I need to make some changes. Thank you!

      • Hannah Sullivan | October 15, 2018 at 8:42 am

        We appreciate your feedback, Pam!

    • Helen | October 12, 2018 at 7:51 am

      Thanks for this article. It is the most profound advice to all business owners. Since my office is in my home, I found myself working 16-20 hours a day. The result was an awakening when I found myself in the hospital for surgery. I realized that I need to take care of my own health as well as the business. Fortunately, this wake up call has changed my entire outlook and I will never again feel guilty about having leisure time.

      • Hannah Sullivan | October 15, 2018 at 8:42 am

        Thanks, Helen!

    • Joel | October 10, 2018 at 5:54 pm

      Hayde is right. At-least some are by nature born to multitask!

    • Jeff Consoer | October 10, 2018 at 10:32 am

      Our brains ARE NOT wired to multitask. That has been proven by psychology many times now. However I have worked with several “successful” multitaskers in my professional career.
      They tend to be aggressive and of minimal intelligence (there are also studies showing inverse relationships between intellect and aggression). Thier true talent was in their ability to start multiple tasks and then push completion of those tasks onto other people. That was really how the multiple tasks were accomplished.

    • Katherine F Ebner | October 10, 2018 at 7:43 am

      Thank you for a thoughtful article with good, practical advice. I appreciate that you went beyond sharing research or pointing out the obvious regarding overwork and provided some real strategies. Well done!

      • Hannah Sullivan | October 10, 2018 at 8:02 am

        Thanks for your feedback, Katherine!

    • Dinette Rivera | October 10, 2018 at 6:54 am

      This post is spot on. We need to bring more attention to the harm this mentality of driving ourselves to burnout is causing in our lives.

      Yes, we have a company to run, or a job to fulfill. How efficient are we?

      There are better ways to do business. The U.S. mentality towards work is exhausting. We can do amazing things, when allow time for rest and relaxation.

      Give yourself a break!

      • Hannah Sullivan | October 10, 2018 at 8:07 am

        Thanks, Dinette!

    • Rosen | October 10, 2018 at 3:11 am

      So true! But it’s so hard to let go of some habits…

    • Hayde | October 10, 2018 at 1:59 am

      Our brains are wired to multi-task and as such, it is a misnomer that multi-tasking is harmful to the brain.

    • Bret Brown | October 9, 2018 at 9:46 pm

      Nice read B

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