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.

Americans are proud of being busy, but that pride comes at a price. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and five other universities tracked 8,000 employees over the age of 45. Employees who chained themselves to their desks for 13+ hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely than those who spent a mere 11.5 hours sedentary. Bottom line: Sitting at your desk for long stretches of time should come with a health warning.

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.

13 Responses to "How Many Hours a Week Should You Work? Here’s What the Research Says."

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

      Nice read B

    • 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.

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

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

    • 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!

    • 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!

    • 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.

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

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

    • 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!

    • 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!
      Pam

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

        We appreciate your feedback, Pam!

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