I came accross an article the other day (Play Makes Us Human V: Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work is Play) that explored Hunter-Gatherer societies and their approach to work. The author, Peter Gray, suggests that ‘play’ has always been a part of work for these societies. As he breaks down his research and places bits and pieces into different categories, a paragraph jumped up and bit me (there’s a shark documentary on Discovery in the background as I write this). The paragraph is headed by a sub-title, “Hunter-Gather’s work is playful because there isn’t too much of it”.

Anthropologists have often pointed out that hunter-gatherers’ work is skill-intensive but not labor-intensive. Research studies suggest that hunter-gatherers’ work somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, on average, depending on just what you count as work. Moreover, they do not work according to the clock; they work when the time is ripe for the work to be done and when they feel like it. There is ample time in hunter-gatherers’ lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, traveling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying around and relaxing. The life of the typical hunter-gatherer looks a lot like your life and mine when we are on vacation at a camp with friends.

It’s amazing when you think about it. During the 10,000 years since the onset of agriculture and then industry, we have developed countless laborsaving devices, but we haven’t reduced our labor. Today, most people spend more time working than did hunter-gatherers, and our work, on average, is less playful.

While Peter Gray’s thrust of thought is around ‘play’, when one take s a Google Journey to explore thoughts on optimal working hour weeks, you don’t have to go very far to discover that since the early 1900’s science has continued to show that anything over a 40 hour week is not only less productive, it’s plain stupid. Stupid for employers and employees. Once you move past that magic 40 hour mark no-one is gaining anything.

From Inc Magazine,

Anyone who’s spent time in a corporate environment knows that what was true of factory workers a hundred years ago is true of office workers today.  People who put in a solid 40 hours a week get more done than those who regularly work 60 or more hours.

And from Salon,

Increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output (as Henry Ford could have told them). Most modern-day managers assume there will be a direct one-to-one correlation between extra hours and extra output, but they’re almost always wrong about this. In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time.

Here’s why. By the eighth hour of the day, people’s best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). In Hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they’re only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. And with every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop, until at around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.

I love the idea that my best work may be turned in by hour 2. I’d like to think of myself as one of those kinds of people. Anything past hour 2 and you’re not getting the best from me. I wonder where I can take a test to assess and confirm this?

My personal discovery aspirations aside, the question of why we’re not working less in our modern technologically advanced world is worth exploring. In a business environment that is demanding ever-more output, have managers lost site of 100 years of research and experience, and in their panic to hit targets, have opted to work harder and not smarter? If one gets stuck in the erroneous paradigm that more work will result in more productivity, it’s a downward death-spiral that will never deliver the goods.