The Modern Knowledge Worker is a Sprinter

In June of this year, Naval Ravikant (the founder of AngelList) tweeted an interesting insight: “Forty hour workweeks are a relic of the Industrial Age. Knowledge workers function like athletes — train and sprint, then rest and reassess.”

That caught my attention because I regularly work anywhere from 45 to 80 hours a week, and many of my friends work far more than that. Sometimes I wonder whether this reality of “long hours” needs to be true. And the more I think about how our economy is structured, at least among knowledge workers, the more I realize that we can be extremely productive on far fewer than 40 hours a week.

But before we get into that discussion, we should talk about the past (i.e. how and why we got to the current state of things). During the Industrial Age “assembly line” era, businesses didn’t value employees for results, but for hours worked. This stems from the fact that most workers in the Industrial Age had to perform simple repetitive tasks; as long as they clocked 8 hours a day, they’d produce 100 widgets or whatever the target was. (Of course I’m neglecting the much larger discussion on the history of labor laws that could fit in here).

In any case, in the 100 widgets a day economy, people had to physically show up and work in their place on the assembly line in order for anything to get done. The managerial class internalized this sort of thinking and has applied it ever since. However, knowledge work is different. Because of the internet, we don’t need to co-locate with each other. We can break tasks down to reduce dependencies. And we certainly don’t need to clock 8 hours a day to be productive.

And so we return to Naval Ravikant, albeit through a blog post from 2005. In his “The 80-hour Myth,” Ravikant states:

Nobody works eighty hours a week. Not eighty real, productive hours. Look closely at workaholics and a lot of the time is spent idling, re-charging, cycling, switching gears, etc. It’s gaming, email, IM, lunches, and idle meetings. In economic terms, there is lower diminishing marginal productivity beyond some point…

I think this is certainly true for me, if not for most people. This reflects Parkinson’s Law: the idea that work expands to fill the time available. If I work an 80 hour week, chances are that I just mismanaged my time or priorities in the period leading up to that week. During that week, work seems to inflate to fill the 80 hours, whether or not it should take that much time to do it. Indeed, some of those long weeks contributed to my least inspired work ever. As Ravikant puts it:

Your best work was probably done in tremendous, focused bursts, surrounded by long periods of dullness and inactivity.

This is, in no uncertain terms, the definition of a sprint. And if the modern worker is a sprinter, what must be true in order to sustain him or her? Ravikant puts it thusly:

  1. First, measure outputs, not inputs, in yourself and your organization.
  2. Second, measure productivity over a longer time-scale, say weeks and months rather than days. Some of the most creative and productive people that I have ever met work in multi-week bursts and then have weeks where they just idle with little done.
  3. Third, introduce peer pressure into the mix. Get two productive people in the same room on the same problem, and as soon as one hits the upward oscillation and is ready to work, odds are that he / she will inspire the other one and move them along.
  4. Fourth, create a physical environment conducive to oscillatory productivity — eschew offices for non-traditional settings, let people have space, and let them keep their own hours.
  5. Lastly, be ruthless on accountability and output over the long term.

This is great organizational advice for cultivating the sprinter mindset and working style. However, most firms do not yet espouse this way of working. I’m curious to see how that will evolve over the next decade or so. My prediction is that the majority of firms will become sprinter-focused or risk losing the majority of talent to a handful of firms that are sprinter-focused.

Originally published at Thought Distiller.