I recently wrote that 40 Hours is Enough. What surprised me was that a lot of people responded with: 40 Hours is Too Much. Some of the comments prompted a question that I had failed to address.

If 40 hours is “enough” and more than 40 hours approaches “too much”, how many hours do we need?

The problem with this question is that it varies too much from person to person. I see it as striking a balance between Work Load and Burnout.

Work Load

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. ~ Parkinson’s Law

Naturally there’s enough work to fill more than 40 hours a week. The question is, should you fill more than 40 hours?

Is there more than 40 hours worth of work that is so urgent that having it done now outweighs the damage caused by getting burnt out?

The answer to that is going to depend on your position. A junior developer should have fewer, lower priority tasks on their plate than an entrepreneur who’s trying juggling every task under the sun to get a company off the ground.

Burnout

How much work can you do before you get burnt out? This again depends on the type of work on your plate. I’d get burned out pretty quickly at 20 hours a week of data entry. Make it 40 hours of design, development, whiteboard discussions, refactoring and testing, though, and sometimes I’m sad to go home on Friday afternoons.

How Many Hours are Productive

Personally, I find 40 hours to be a good amount of time spent at the office per week. It gives me a lot of time to focus on writing new code, think about new features and tend to the existing codebase with bug fixes and refactoring. More than 40 and I’d likely end up stressed and tired, but much less than 40 and I’d feel like there’s too much left undone each week.

The more interesting question is “of the time spent at work, what percentage of that is productive and what’s holding me back from maximising that?”

Focusing on this will reveal the problems that are stopping you from getting the most out of your time, whether it’s 20, 30, 40 or, hopefully not, 80 hours per week. It’ll reveal the problems that are impacting your momentum and it’ll reveal the obstacles that cause frustration and contribute to burnout.

I’ve only recently started trying to answer these questions for myself, but the tools I’ve been using are:

  • The Pomodoro Technique. There’s enough quality writing on this one already, so I’ll spare the internet another.
  • RescueTime. I only have the free version, but it sends me a report in Slack every day and I can view a breakdown of the different things I’ve been doing. It lets me tell how much of my time is spent looking at RubyMine and how much is spent staring into the swirling void of Twitter.
  • I’ve been keeping a log of interruptions. Every time I get an unscheduled Skype call, or someone sticks their head in to ask me to look at something, I make a note of it. Was it urgent? Was it more urgent than what I was doing at the time? Was it a question that was already answered in the documentation? Was it a question that should have been answered in the documentation? Over time, this will hopefully provide insight into how to better handle these situations.

I don’t think there is a good answer to “how many hours a week should a developer work?” because every job is different and so is every developer. I do think we can all focus on getting the most out of whatever time we put in.