Why Your Twelve Hour Day is Broken

Your eyes are bloodshot. Somewhere overhead, a skull-bleaching fluorescent light hums and clicks. Inside your mouth your tongue demands another swill of Red Bull, while your kidneys begin registering vague grumbles of protest. It’s somewhere past 9:00pm, you’re still working, and in twelve hours it all starts again. All hail the modern, totally-connected digital working lifestyle, where hours are fluid and you’re a one-person brushed aluminium office on the go.

Of course, the above scenario is a bit of a nightmare one, and thankfully not many of us do jobs important enough (by important I mean paramedic, surgeon, nurse, etc. and so on) to warrant pulling regular all-nighters. In fact, as long as lives aren’t depending on you, if you regularly find yourself working ungodly hours on and off the clock, you’ve probably fucked up somewhere along the line or you’re a glutton for punishment.

Work/life balance is one of the most important things to get right in your day-to-day. “Work to live, don’t live to work” – it sounds obvious but it’s true. Caring about the quality of your life and time outside the office doesn’t mean you don’t care about your work. If anything it means you care more. Because the longer you slave away without a break, pushing yourself into a corner flecked with caffeine and your own spittle, the more chance there is of you actually doing bad work.

The other day, I was sent this article by Evan Robinson. It’s a little old, talks primarily about the games industry and is only one source for this kind of information, but the world of “digital media” (in which I work) can face the same kind of deadline crunch, resulting in the previously mentioned horrors.

In a nutshell, the key takeaways that Robinson highlights are as follows (emphasis mine):

  • “Productivity varies over the course of the workday, with the greatest productivity occurring in the first four to six hours. After enough hours, productivity approaches zero; eventually it becomes negative.”
  • “Productivity is hard to quantify for knowledge workers.”
  • Five-day weeks of eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century.”
  • “At 60 hours per week, the loss of productivity caused by working longer hours overwhelms the extra hours worked within a couple of months.”
  • Continuous work reduces cognitive function 25% for every 24 hours. Multiple consecutive overnighters have a severe cumulative effect.”
  • Error rates climb with hours worked and especially with loss of sleep. Eventually the odds catch up with you, and catastrophe occurs. When schedules are tight and budgets are big, is this a risk you can really afford to take?”

Ultimately, says Robinson, “there’s a bottom-line reason most industries gave up crunch mode over 75 years ago: It’s the single most expensive way there is to get the work done.”

It all seems rather obvious when you read it all laid out like that, doesn’t it? But it’s far harder to see it so clearly when you’re stuck in the middle of it, trying desperately not to throw your laptop out of the window or put a chair through the polystyrene ceiling tiles above your head. It’s time to think about how we as individuals, collectively as organisations and wider as the “digital media” industry as a whole approach our work and lifestyles. Everyone is different, of course, and people will work in ways that best suit them mentally/physically. It could be that working on the ragged edge gets you off or actually helps you to produce your best work, though I’d take some convincing of this, having never seen a case where it’s actually been true in the long term.

Either way, with it becoming increasingly difficult to stay completely off the grid these days, it behooves us all to take a step back and reappraise how we approach our work from the perspective of the rest of our lives.

Further Reading