Is There Any Escape from the 40-Hour Workweek?

Are you "over" the 40-hour workweek, but aren't sure how to make it better or escape it without going broke? Modern Mentor offers some new insights grounded in her own experience of burnout.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #674
The Quick And Dirty

If you're struggling with the 40-hour workweek, it might be time to ask yourself what specifically might be plaguing you. From there you can create change for yourself. Begin by asking:

  • Are the specific hours I'm required to work the problem?
  • Is it how I'm required to actually spend that time?
  • Is it the impact—or lack thereof—my work is having?
In a recent edition of the New York Times’s Work Friend column, a reader asked whether the 40-hour workweek is still required if one wants to earn a full-time salary. And writer Roxane Gay offered a response which, in summary, was "yep!"
Personally, I think Roxane Gay is one of the wisest and most thoughtful writers of our time. And I respect every point of view she’s willing to share. And yet in this instance, I think the question warrants a deeper consideration than is offered here. And I’d love to share my own views today.
In 2015, I too felt done with the 40-hour workweek. Or so I thought. I was working full-time as an employee, commuting, raising kids, and I was burned to the core. I had the same question—can I replace my full-time income without the 40-hour workweek?
At first, I believed the answer was no, but I ultimately tapped into a better question—“Is the 40-hour workweek actually the problem, or is the problem something different?”
And what I learned for myself once I started my business in designing leadership experiences was that it wasn’t the 40-hour week that was plaguing me. More specifically it was: 
  • Which 40 hours 
  • How I spent those 40 hours 
  • The lack of impact I felt from those 40 hours
If you too are struggling with the 40, then give some reflection to what, specifically, is plaguing you. Because I learned some lessons along the way that might inform some changes you can make to make the 40 better fit your lifestyle.

Look at which 40 hours

You’re fed up with the 40-hour week. But maybe the issue is which 40-hours you’re compelled to work. Maybe your issue is you need a window in the middle of the day for you or your kids or a yoga class or a hobby... or just a nap. 
As work has gone remote, teams and clients have globalized, and technology has allowed for effective asynchronous communication, there’s no better time than now to reconsider your "when."
Can you ask your boss for a flexible schedule that has you working early morning and later afternoon with a break in the middle… or whatever configuration suits your needs? 
Be creative. Have a plan (i.e., I’ll use my morning to interact with clients in Asia, and my late afternoon to develop pitches, manage projects, project budgets, etc.). Be clear about how this will serve to keep you engaged while also keeping your team and company goals on track.

Look at how you spend those 40 hours

When I worked full time, I’d end my days exhausted—like I’d left my soul on the floor. It wasn’t so much a matter of how hard I’d worked, but rather how I’d exerted my energy.
I spent my days in meetings, enforcing policies I often disagreed with, running stale programs I hadn’t designed, writing reports about the programs, etc. 
When I started my business, I started off slowly, not necessarily full-time at first. I thought I needed to dial back the hours. But I soon realized that not having to fill out someone else’s spreadsheets or go to countless, mindless meetings left me with a level of energy I’d not felt in a while. I was suddenly having fun again!
Can you identify specific tasks or activities that are soul-suckers for you, and find ways to delegate or simplify or just stop them altogether, replacing them with things you actually enjoy doing, like learning, presenting, or networking? Whatever your goals, there are always multiple ways to achieve them. So, try getting a little crafty in how you spend your time.

Look at why you spend those 40 hours

I quickly realized that doing work I cared about and believed in kept me energized throughout the day. And as I dialed up to full-time, I was feeling anything but depleted—instead, I felt like I spent my energy on things that mattered.
If you’re feeling exhausted at work, are there ways you can infuse bits of meaning or purpose into your days that may just recharge you in moments? Can you find opportunities to teach or mentor or experiment or create—whatever it is that leaves you feeling like you’ve touched the world for the better—without dialing back your hours?
And if you ultimately discover that indeed the traditional 40-hour workweek is the problem, there are some creative ways you might start to dial it back. Here are some of my favorites:

Monetize a hobby

You want to dial back your 40-hour week because you want more time to spend on your hobby. Is there a way to monetize that hobby to replace some of your full-time income? Can you…
  • Offer guitar lessons?
  • Photograph babies or weddings?
  • Start a blog about a passion and sell advertisements?
  • Teach a personal finance class?
There are lots of creative ways to slowly earn money doing something you love. My daughter started a YouTube channel teaching how she creates digital characters. She started it purely for pleasure, but her following got so large, she started earning revenue from ads running on it.

Start a portfolio career

Sometimes the issue with the 40-hour week isn’t the 40 hours on the job, but rather the fact that we carry it with us into our “off” hours. You’re still thinking about it even when you’re off the clock.
For some people, having 2 to 3 part-time jobs adding up to 40 hours is a way to combat this. A part-time job is often easier to turn off when we leave. We’re less invested in it because it’s not our everything. 
Amidst the Great Resignation, which continues to pervade, talent has leverage. If you want to explore going part-time at your current job and picking up another part-time job to fill the void, or using those other hours to start monetizing a hobby or start a side business, there’s no better time than now to negotiate at least an experiment. 

Lay a foundation now for a big leap later

Maybe you love the idea of breaking free from the full-time job, but you’re not ready to give up the full-time income.
Can you just start to lay a foundation today for the possibility of stepping out on your own in the future?
Can you start to outline a book you might someday write? Start networking with the sorts of people you may someday want to consult with? Start taking courses in the thing that will ultimately certify you in the practice of your dreams?
You don’t have to make any decisions today, but be the present version of yourself that the future version of yourself will be forever grateful to.
And there you have my thoughts on the necessity of the 40-hour workweek. Did anything resonate with you? Do you have thoughts to add to the conversation? I’d love to hear them. Shoot me a note at modernmentor@quickanddirtytips.com.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.