How many hours of your workday do you actually spend working?
May 6, 2010 3:01 PM   Subscribe

How many hours of your workday do you actually spend working?

What's the truth about how many hours a day we spend doing work, at work - especially those of us who work in offices? I'm looking to figure out what the normal range might be so that I can gain some perspective on where I am in the spectrum. Lately, I only have enough work to last 2-4 hours in a 7.5 hour work day and it's driving me nuts with feelings of guilt and sloth. Could it be that this is normal?
posted by kitcat to Work & Money (44 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
That could be very normal depending on what your job duties entail. People that work at network operation centers, for example, sometimes spend most of their days playing games until calls come in.

If your output is satisfying your boss, then there's no need to feel guilty. If, rather than guilt that you're cheating your employer, you feel like you should be doing something better with your life, then it's worth looking at other jobs.

I did have a job once where I worked 1-2 hours a day in the final months there. I didn't feel guilty because I had previously been overworked there, but the idleness eventually drove me to quit.
posted by ignignokt at 3:09 PM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]

Due to the nature of my job it's either feast or famine around here. I'd say on feast days I work 10 hours solid with no lunch, and on famine days it's more like 3 or 4 hours. Because of this I don't feel guilty about only working a half day (and browsing MeFi the remainder) since it sort of evens out. However I usually save up large ongoing projects to work on the less busy days to even out the workload. Also, remind yourself that your employment is an agreement between you and your employer that you will accomplish a determined set of tasks. If you're salaried this means that if you work more or less than the typical 40 hours on accomplishing said tasks, then you are fulfilling your end of the deal. If you're paid hourly then it's a bit less defined but the general idea still remains.
posted by msbutah at 3:11 PM on May 6, 2010

Eight. Maybe a bit less if you subtract going to the bathroom, getting coffee, etc. I get all twitchy if I'm not being productive, so I'm lucky to work in a position where I can always invent or propose useful work when it's slow.
posted by Fifi Firefox at 3:11 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lately, I only have enough work to last 2-4 hours in a 7.5 hour work day and it's driving me nuts with feelings of guilt and sloth.

This is nearly every job I've ever had. As long as you are a) actively thinking of other things you could do to add value (and still not filling your days) and b) meeting your deadlines, then you don't need to feel guilty. However, if you're feeling underutilized, it's totally appropriate to bring that up to your boss. (Which may or may not work, but will nevertheless still be appreciated.)
posted by Kurichina at 3:21 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I work in tech. 2-4 hours in a regular day is not unusual. We work around other teams that seem to do production all day long and I feel kind of guilty sometimes for not pitching in. However, we in tech have very different goals than they do - we need to be available, on the job, whenever we are needed. We have to keep up-to-date on server issues and the latest network problems. When the printer gives an error message, we are responsible for knowing both what it means and how to fix it.

In essence, we are almost like firefighters - they can't be fighting fires if there aren't any around, but as soon as one springs up you are glad they were on duty.

For your case, it may be the same thing. You have a set amount of work to finish in the day, but are always 'on-call' while in the office in case of necessity. If you are feeling too guilty, start reading up on how things work in the office and boom! Not only are you much more handy in your current job, you also have a nice new skill set when applying to the next one.
posted by amicamentis at 3:24 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I worked in an office, I probably spent an average of 3 hours doing actual work in a day. I felt guilty about it, but there just wasn't enough work (most of the time) to do. Now I'm a teacher, and I work all day every day and then some.
posted by carryon at 3:26 PM on May 6, 2010

I've been bored in every office job I've ever had, for this very reason. I've always gone to my boss and asked for more work. Sometimes I'd get it, sometimes not. One time a boss said, "Then you must not be doing enough with what you have." and gave me a poor performance rating at the next review. (WTF?! I quit soon after.)

In this culture (assuming you're in the U.S.), everything is work, work, work! It can make you feel like a failure if you're not constantly busy. But I think most bosses want you to perform well on your assigned tasks, volunteer for extra work when you have free time, and keep out of other people's way when you have idle time. (And try to look vaguely busy even when idle. Reading blogs would be ok. Playing games wouldn't.) Unfortunately, they want you there for 40 hours whether you have anything to do or not.
posted by wwartorff at 3:33 PM on May 6, 2010

Normal for me. Programmer. Usually a couple of hours in the morning, and a second wind in the afternoon. Hard to fill those 7.5 hours every day for years on end. In my case it's mentally exhausting work. I get more done, and it's better quality, when I work less. If I try to do long hours, I just end-up having to re-do most of it the next day, waste of time.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:37 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

And I'll echo wwartorff for one or two jobs. Trying to look busy when there's nothing to do...stressful
posted by hungrysquirrels at 3:39 PM on May 6, 2010

Grad student here. I consider it a very good day if I work 4 solid hours, after waiting for people to do things, going between places I have to be, dealing with stupid paperwork, and procrastinating a healthy amount.
posted by miyabo at 3:42 PM on May 6, 2010

When I was doing billable work (25 or so years ago in private law, up to 5 years ago in a government department--yes, a government department sending out real bills and expecting them to be paid!), the standard ratio expected was about 5 and a half billable hours out of eight. I gather things have got a lot hungrier in the legal profession since then, but I wouldn't like to bet that any more real work gets actually done. I reckon five to six hours is about the maximum possible in a realistic eight-hour day by the time you facto in going to the toilet (bathroom), chatting, looking for the photocopier that's actually working etc.
posted by Logophiliac at 3:42 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, also I recently saw a presentation on software engineering which mentioned that a highly productive company was getting 4.5 hours a day of actual development out of their engineers.
posted by miyabo at 3:43 PM on May 6, 2010

I work in an office. I show up at about 8:40 and leave around 5:00. I generally take a half hour for lunch but sometimes I just eat at my desk, with no other formal breaks. I will spend 5-10 minutes here or there looking at Internet distractions but typically stay busy throughout the day.

I think that there is flexibility in what is considered "work". If I'm at my desk reading RSS feeds that are relevant to my projects, that's not exactly work, but I do consider it a part of my job, and I don't feel guilty about things that are professional development, even if they're not directly resulting in producing results or meeting deadlines.

I don't know what you do for a living, but if your time can be spent on something that's educational or helping you as a professional then I think it's totally legitimate, especially if your tasks aren't keeping you occupied.
posted by camcgee at 3:53 PM on May 6, 2010

From Ms. Vegetable:
Probably 4 hours in an average day, but up to 10+ on firedrill days. Those happen maybe 1-2 times a month. For a week or so I had a perfect amount of work - 7ish hours. That was great - and not too stressful. I don't feel guilty about the amount of work I do, because that's what they give me. I get it done, usually well, and that's that. If they give me more, I do that. I also have to study for exams for work, so that always looks good.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:55 PM on May 6, 2010

I'm a software developer, and it kind of goes in waves for me. We have really busy times, and then we have times, like now, where I don't have enough real work to fill the day. Even when we're busy, management has the expectation that we will only really work 6 hours out of 8, with the remaining two being meetings, phone calls, breaks, etc. And even when we're busy, there are always days when the brain just isn't firing on all cylinders, and I don't get 6 hours of good productive coding done.
posted by CMcKinnon at 4:02 PM on May 6, 2010

My old office job averaged about 4-5 hours of work for every 7-hour day (I'm not including lunch hour; we had 1-hour unpaid lunches in addition to our 7 expected work hours).
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:20 PM on May 6, 2010

I'm also in the 2-4 hour zone, and end up spending the rest of the day faffing about looking for stuff to do. However, my boss is more than happy to let me do so, as there have been a few dozen times over the last couple of years when I worked upwards of 80 hours a week, including overnighters, to get stuff done on which others had slacked horribly.
posted by elizardbits at 4:54 PM on May 6, 2010

On the other hand, I work at a startup, doing software; I'm in the office from about 10:30 to 7, which probably includes an hour or so of web browsing. I don't take a lunch break, and most days put in another couple of hours in the evening from home. And I usually get in a few more hours over the weekend. And that's just how I like it -- no shit-work or meetings, just hours of interesting stuff. (In the past I've had jobs with 2-3 hours of work per day, and I can't stand it.)
posted by phliar at 5:03 PM on May 6, 2010

Realize you're getting a somewhat skewed audience sample here. For example, I'm surfing from work right now (5:30 on the West Coast). So are many people, I presume. The people that post here are the ones most likely than others to be the ones surfing while working. The people that aren't are either lying, or they'll be chiming in later in the day.

There are, of course, the Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and various others chiming, though.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:30 PM on May 6, 2010

Suddenly it is apparant that I am overworking and have some validation to why I feel so out of line with others I work with.
posted by Haujobbin at 5:39 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am a teacher. I work from 8:30-4:30 (sometimes 5:30 is I supervise after-school care) and of that time, I have four hours of classes and 1 hour of duties on a typical day. I am definitely 'working' during those times! As for the other times, it depends. When I have a 'prep' I usually do have work to do if I am about to start a new unit with one of my classes (I teach a specialty subject and only have to program in that one curriculum area, albeit for different grade levels) but once I am in the midst of the unit, I don't generally have a ton of prep to do. And the hour after school from 3:30 (when classes end) to 4:30 (when we are allowed to leave) is generally dead time for me. I never seem to get any work done and usually chat with co-workers or check email.
posted by JoannaC at 5:46 PM on May 6, 2010

Mr Meat: Yeah, I "work" probably 6/8 and do 1 or 2 more when I come home.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:06 PM on May 6, 2010

Public radio producer here. Because what I do is so intensive in research, production, and editing (both scripts and audio), there's just no way I can pushpushpush ALL day long. I work best doing a sort of "interval training," whereby I'll work for an hour, take ten minutes to myself, etc. Unfortunately, I almost never have a standard eight-hour day - more like 9-12 hours and often stretching into the night - so if I didn't take those moments of downtime, I'd really lose my mind.
posted by mykescipark at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2010

for an 8 hour day, anywhere from 4 to 7.8, and everyone has those outliers which are closer to zero due to sickness, insomnia whatever. Anyone who says they don't on average waste less than about 1 to 1 and 1/2 hours a day is lying or a robot, and by waste I mean not doing billable work; sometimes that other stuff is really quite valuable in getting to know about other parts of the business etc., but it is still not technically what you are billing for. Definitions are everything though, and some people would interpret part of what I am saying is non-billable time as "work." My definition is if you were a consultant billing in fifteen minute increments would you include it or not on the bill - coffee break, no; discussing how your business unit fits into another unit, perhaps; discussing office politics, probably not unless it relates to how your consulting work can be done better, etc.
posted by caddis at 7:10 PM on May 6, 2010

I think it really depends on your job. I've had jobs where I could get everything required of me done (and more) in 5 hours, and would spend 2-3 hours a day surfing the net and sending personal emails and not feel a twinge of guilt. Currently, I probably do about 6 hours+ proper work in a day, an hour or so speaking to colleagues and browsing relevant internet sites, with about 15 minutes for lunch and a couple of 5 minute breaks here and there.

If, after completing all the tasks you have to do that day, there isn't anything else work related that you can do, then don't feel guilty about not having enough to do! It may just be that you are more efficient than your co-workers. But if you're bored (or worried that someone might twig that they don't need someone full time doing what you do), create projects for yourself or ask your colleagues or your boss what else you can help out with / get involved with.
posted by finding.perdita at 7:14 PM on May 6, 2010

I'm an editor/production coordinator at a small publishing firm. In a 7-hour office work day (an hour for lunch that I don't take), I usually work about 4-5 of those hours and leave an hour early. It's hard to say though. I'm not spending long chunks of time surfing the web or chatting with colleagues. Considering there are other people in my (open plan office) who literally spend the first hour of the day playing Sims and many other moments of their day watching videos on youtube, I think I'm doing alright.

Also, a lot of the work I do is dependent on others. I have to wait for reviews from several different people throughout production, and I'm pretty efficient and tend to be waiting on people more often than they are waiting on me. Like mykescipark, I generally "interval train" and stretch out my work day when I'm working from home, which is almost all the time (I have a full-time job, but I'm also a freelance writer and fact-checker and often have another 4-6 hours of work to complete on top of the regular gig). Actually, I think the fact that I work from home 95 percent of the time is one of the reasons I'm able to stay ahead of schedule, despite a pretty hefty and complicated work load. I'll actually work 7 hours when I'm at home because I'd feel guilty otherwise, even though I have no qualms about dicking around when I'm actually in the office.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 7:23 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I work in a school district. My work is seasonal, like a farmer. "Hey, it's standardized testing time, again!" When necessary, I work like a Trojan. When there's slack, I think about what I could do to improve (ie, make less stressful) my work environment. In the end, the slack probably contributes more to my productivity than the "OMG! We need this by Tuesday!" activities.
posted by SPrintF at 7:39 PM on May 6, 2010

I'm a manager.

My expectations are pretty clear - I expect my direct reports to be present and able to deal with issues that come up when they are scheduled to. If there are no issues, which includes outstanding ongoing work, then I am fine with them surfing the net, chatting with coworkers, or even playing idle Popcap-style games.

What I do not truck with is my staff doing something that removes them from ongoing work (anything with headphones or takes them away from the area of activity) or distracts them from it. If someone needs something, then I expect them to be there and able to assist as scheduled.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:45 PM on May 6, 2010

I don't know, but it sure ain't the 8 hours I'm supposed to. I go through Busy Season and Non-Busy Season. Unfortunately, what with Technology Making Things More Efficient!, Busy Season is getting shorter and shorter. NBS is "random projects time" and I never know if I'll even have enough work to "look busy" with from year to year. I am afraid to ask for more work, though, in case I look like someone who could easily be laid off.

But even on a busy day, dear lord, I need to take hand breaks or surf the net for five minutes or something, because no way can I sustain constant concentration for 4 hours at a pop.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:27 PM on May 6, 2010

It's hard to say when I am "working" or "not working" - there is a story about a writer who was criticized for looking out the window, and not typing. He said "Typists type. Writers look out the window". It's the same for me. Shower solutions come to me regularly and I am certainly not "at work" when I get those. In a ten hour day I probably browse the Web for an hour or two, and engage in badinage with cow-orkers for another hour or so.
posted by jet_silver at 8:44 PM on May 6, 2010

Wow, I envy most of you. I spent the last year working at a furious pace easily 8-10 hours a day, every day, as an ITPM/tech lead/vendor manager/account manager with 10-15 projects inflight at any given time in addition to being the sole front-line point of contact for support issues for 2000 users. I was lucky on days I could snatch 30 minutes to eat something. Every single day was a fire drill. A year in, I figured out that these weird episodes I was having some evenings were panic attacks and that it's really not normal to regularly feel like I have an elephant sitting on my chest. I asked to be laid off at the end of 2009, and since have been looking for one of these jobs that only requires 4 or 5 hours of concerted effort a day. Dear lord, please let me find a job like that.
posted by 2xplor at 10:25 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Lately, I only have enough work to last 2-4 hours in a 7.5 hour work day

That's the norm for every office job I've ever had, and is the norm for most of my friends in office jobs today.
posted by mediareport at 10:33 PM on May 6, 2010

Some random thoughts:

- Depends on how you define "work." One definition: if you stop paying attention, then things get fucked up (immediately). By this definition, the hardest work would be jobs like bus drivers, some classroom teachers, assembly line workers, etc., where any lapse of attention can have dire consequences. Many/most white-collar and some blue-collar jobs don't really fit that definition.

- Also important is the learning curve involved: even seemingly mundane tasks (filling out and processing paperwork, for instance) can seem very demanding (and take a long time) if the situation/environment is new/unfamiliar to the worker whereas intense, complex tasks can sometimes feel effortless when the topic/task/context is familiar.

- Many jobs and organizations are so poorly designed that's practically impossible for employees to regularly put in a full 8-hour day on legitimate tasks, despite what they may claim. A lot of productivity problems across industries hinge as much on employees wasting time with busy work and over kill as more garden varieties of "time wasting."

- As others have mentioned above, US culture tends to obsess these days over productivity but in many cases seems to favor "busyness" over "business." It's quite refreshing to work with a colleague, as I do, who has the reputation in our organization for being extraordinarily productive as a researcher, administrator, and mentor (as a genuinely nice person). What's striking to me, however, is that up close, there's not a lot of mystery: he follows through on mundane, doable tasks *as soon as* they come up, works consistently but in shorter sessions on projects requiring longer commitment, and consciously seeks buy in from and collaboration with colleagues on the biggest tasks, meaning that the work load gets distributed across a greater number of workers, most of whom feel a stronger motivation to invest themselves in completing things. Nothing too profound, but the results are amazing.
posted by 5Q7 at 10:46 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

2xplor, I feel that way now. I work in tech support and I easily spend 5+ hours just on the phone troubleshooting, often with irate folks. Then there's 1-2 hours of actually writing up the cases I've opened, answering emails, and talking to QA/engineers about possible bugs and ongoing issues. I eat at my desk almost every single day. I've worked harder at this job than at any other I've ever had, and far harder than I ever worked in college, and I am still frantically behind on stuff all the time.

On the other hand, I can see how knowledge work, such as writing words or code, might require some hours of mulling and puttering. I still consider productive, even if you're not actually moving your hands across the keyboard.
posted by guybrush_threepwood at 11:32 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

On the low end, I work two overnight shifts at an IT job and literally do somewhere between two and ten minutes of work during each eight-hour shift. I'm onsite in case of emergencies.
posted by cgc373 at 11:54 PM on May 6, 2010

I recently started recording my billable hours as a software developer, and I find that a full day's work typically results in 4-5 billable hours. That is typical of my colleagues around here.

I like to quote Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology: "Four hours creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician".
posted by blue grama at 12:03 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I spend 6.5-7.5 hours out of 8-8.5 hours per day working, usually at varying rates from 80-90% concentration.

I can't really fathom how someone can consistently only work 2-4 hours a day out of 8.

Would your colleagues not find out?

Are they all just as inefficient (in which case I don't understand how the employer is profitable) or are you all just twice as skilled as your coworkers?

More to the point, isn't that a lot of wasted time? If you are that skilled and efficient I imagine you could find a higher position with more fulfilling work but better pay, or alternatively start your own business and work to your own clock.

Perhaps some of you really are creative geniuses whose work can only be done in spurts of brilliance, but I doubt that encompasses most of us.
posted by kid A at 3:10 AM on May 7, 2010

Worked in IT consulting. Averaged between 1-2 hours a day. Many days zero work. My friends (mostly in consulting). I do work quickly, but I'd say almost every single person I know under 30 working in office jobs work less than 4 hours a day.
posted by sandmanwv at 8:06 AM on May 7, 2010

I only have enough work to last 2-4 hours in a 7.5 hour work day and it's driving me nuts with feelings of guilt and sloth. Could it be that this is normal?

It's not normal and you should worry. If cuts need to be made the person working 2 to 4 hours per day but collecting full pay will be missed less than some guy working twice as much. I recommend spending some of your extra time improving your skills or doing projects for the business beyond your formal job description. I understand your pain. I was in a similar situation once and when you have little work but have to look busy it can be quite stressful, boring and unrewarding.
posted by caddis at 8:42 AM on May 7, 2010

Back before I started taking medication for ADHD, I was getting actual work done probably about half the time; now, at the same job, it's more like 80-85% of the time. (There is always work to be done, never really a situation where I'm not working because I'm waiting on someone or something else, although the urgency of various projects can vary.) I was never reprimanded for not getting enough done/not getting things done quick enough pre-meds, which always kind of surprised me at the time-- no one gave me the impression that I was less productive than my coworkers.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:44 AM on May 7, 2010

Oh, and I am really familiar with the feelings of guilt and sloth you mention. I don't know if there's any possibility you have ADHD-- I don't mean to suggest it as an explanation for everything, I just know that I feel so much better about myself with the knowledge that I'm not just a useless, lazy, weak person who's not accomplishing stuff because I lack willpower and good character. So if you missed this thread you might want to check it out.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 9:11 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't really fathom how someone can consistently only work 2-4 hours a day out of 8.
Would your colleagues not find out?

This is not all that noticeable in a world where everyone is in separate cubes, unless you have a nitpicky boss keeping track of your every move. As long as you're in your cube staring at a computer and you leave a work-related screen get the drift. It's not like you're working retail and getting yelled at for standing still for 5 minutes here.

Are they all just as inefficient (in which case I don't understand how the employer is profitable) or are you all just twice as skilled as your coworkers?

Could be either scenario.

More to the point, isn't that a lot of wasted time? If you are that skilled and efficient I imagine you could find a higher position with more fulfilling work but better pay, or alternatively start your own business and work to your own clock.

Is that a lot of wasted time? Yes, but the employer is paying for your time from 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. regardless of your workload. So...yeah. As for finding a higher position, uh, this is not as easy as you think it is. Especially these days. And every single person isn't cut out to run their own business either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:19 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: If you are that skilled and efficient...

In my case - and in the case of most here, I would think - it has nothing to do with skill and efficiency. It's just that I (we?) am (are?) not being given enough work to do. Hell, I often do my work extra slowly to make it last longer.

I imagine you could find a higher position with more fulfilling work...
Every time I get a new job, part of my aim is to find something more challenging, requiring more work. I make this clear when I interview. It never seems to happen.

Anyhow, I just wanted to weigh in on that. It sounds like this is more common than I had originally thought. That makes me feel better. In my case, my boss knows I want more work and I am not in danger of losing my job.

Interestingly, like many here, I am an IT consultant (although, in a very non-technical role). I am 'benched' and have been for more than a year now, so a few billable hours trickle in for me here and there, but I mostly work on internal projects on an as needed basis. I would be looking for a new job because this is so boring/stressful, but I'll be off on mat leave in a few months anyhow. But, there is no reason to believe that switching companies would remedy this problem.
posted by kitcat at 11:50 AM on May 7, 2010

I'm a web designer. I'm in the office 8-9 hours a day (1 hour lunch break).

I like to think I average 5 hours of productive time a day in the office. This figure goes up depending on: how many people think it's OK to come over to my desk to ask questions that should have been e-mailed; the amount of meetings planned; and the nature of the tasks at hand.

If I'm actually designing, I can work for 5 hours straight in the afternoon, because I can do this solo. Doing development there's a lot more waiting for people, so the productive hours go down.
posted by wolfr at 1:23 PM on May 7, 2010

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