How to Work a 40-Hour Week

It would be patronizing to tell you if you only want to work 40 hours a week, then just work 40 hours.

It’s not that easy, of course. There are all sorts of reasons why you might feel unable to limit your workweek to 40 hours. For me, it’s that I love what I do, and there’s always more work to be done. I could spend 24/7 on my job and not lose interest.

However, my work is not my life, so I’ve had to put boundaries in place that help me actively avoid workaholism.

The culture at Help Scout allows us to work a 40-hour week, and we don’t micromanage how anyone accomplishes that — as a remote company, we aren’t all working at the same time anyway. Our productivity and what we get done each week is more important than clocking exactly 40 hours. One of our core values is ownership, so we each shape our days from start to finish, and it’s our individual responsibility to develop a system that works for us and hold ourselves accountable.

I’ve developed a system that works for me — every person and every work situation is different, but if working a 40-hour week is something you’re striving for, these are the steps I’ve taken to help me regulate and stay balanced.

1. Start with your why

The question you have to ask yourself is: Is there anything in your life that you want more of? Turns out it’s usually one or two things, and it’s different for everybody. For the longest time I thought making money was my thing, and I focused on that. But it wasn’t bringing me joy.

Finally, I realized more money’s not going to make me more happy — my family makes me happy.

Workday spreadsheet

My crew.

The thing I want more of is time with my family. That’s my why.

2. Find out where the time goes

If you want to change how you spend your time, figure out where it’s going. I would encourage everyone to track their time for a while and determine where your time is spent during the day.

There are a lot of tools that can help with this. RescueTime helps break down in minutes how much time you spend in each application on your computer. I recommend it if you’re trying to figure out where your time on the computer goes and where you can make cuts.

If you work at a company where there are more Slack channels than there are employees, you know what I’m getting at. Trying to stay on top of everything that’s going on, and feeling like you have to be in the loop, can be a full-time job in itself. I had to put rules around it, like, In the morning I check Slack and email for an hour, then after that I work.

3. Start each day with a plan

If you know you could work 14 hours and be OK with it, but you really want to stick to an 8-hour workday, start off each day saying, “OK, today I’m going to work 8 hours.” I’ve made a commitment that when 5 p.m. rolls around, I’m going to go make dinner with my wife. That’s important to me. So that I respect that cut-off time, I kick off each day with a plan.

Decide on one or two things you need to accomplish today. If you only pick two things it’s very easy. In the morning hours, before lunch, you’ve got to get the first thing done. In the hours after lunch you’ve got to get the second thing done. It’s amazing how things add up when you do one thing at at a time. Even if you accomplish two tasks in a day, in a week that’s ten tasks.

Workday spreadsheet

I start off each morning by filling out a spreadsheet with what’s on deck, what’s up next, and what’s done.

  • On Deck: The queue of everything on my plate.

  • Up Next: Tasks I’m currently focusing on. I try to just keep one or two things in this column.

  • Done: This is where I keep track of all the stuff I’ve completed this week.

I’ve tried a bunch of to-do list applications, but Google Sheets works best for me. You can copy and paste entire rows and columns, and it’s simple. You can prioritize your action plan however you like, but if this makes sense to you, you can find my template here.

Sure enough, when 5 p.m. hits, there are often still things I could continue doing. But that stuff is going to be there in the morning. So come back to it after you’ve slept on it — maybe you’ll have a fresh perspective, or you won’t even need to do one thing that was on the list.

4. Do one thing at a time

Multitasking is a myth. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you stop trying to do multiple things at once.

Prioritize your list of tasks, select one, start working on it, and when you’re done with that one, move to the next one. If something comes up while you’re working on a task, punt it to your list and re-prioritize. If the new task needs to take precedent over whatever it is you’re working on, stop what you’re working on, move it back to the list, and start working on the thing that came in.

5. Focus on your strengths

We all have different strengths. You can gauge how much time you’re putting into something versus how much time you know someone else can put into it.

I love to dabble in PHP and JavaScript, for example. Sometimes I’ll jump in and pretend like I can code. But I know after a certain amount of time that if I’m struggling to achieve something that should be simple, I should probably just assign it to a developer and move on to something else.

6. Track everything

For the past 10 years, I’ve kept track of every single thing I’ve done at work. This serves a couple of purposes.

One, I can look at the list and reflect, “I only worked 40 hours, and even though other people worked more, I’m proud of all this stuff I got done.” And two, every six months I talk to our CEO, Nick Francis, about the things I’ve accomplished and the things he wants me to accomplish next. In that meeting, I present a high-level overview of all of the stuff I personally accomplished over the past six months. This is a great way to set expectations and stay aligned with your manager on what’s expected and what’s getting done.

Find values-aligned work

Of course, there are jobs in which 40-hour work weeks are simply not possible, no matter how efficient you are at managing your time. That said, there seems to be a lionization around working long hours, especially in startups. Our culture seems to value the appearance of staying at your desk and burning the midnight oil, even if you’re not actually accomplishing anything. That’s just silly.

If you find yourself continually looking at the clock at 4 p.m. thinking, “Welp, I guess I’ll try and look busy for another hour,” or if it’s regularly 8 p.m. and you’re still pounding away at work when you’re family’s waiting for you to join them, I’d encourage you to take some time to reflect.

Start with your why. If the thing you value most in life no longer aligns with the time commitment required of you at work, perhaps it’s time to find a company where your values are aligned. Once there, just be up front about your intention to put in a solid 40 hours — no more, no less.

In the end, it’s your output, not the hours you’re in a seat, that really matters.

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