Serious work, working less than full time? Examples? Resources?
December 30, 2016 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Looking for information/examples on ambitious/accomplished people working less than full time. Can you do serious work, and take it seriously, while spending less than 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year on it?

I’m self-employed and have a fair amount of flexibility in how I structure my working time.
I find it increasingly the case that:

a) I really take my work seriously, and get a lot of joy and meaning out of it, and feel it contributes to the world.

b) There are a lot of other areas in my life that matter to me that also take a lot of time (being a good parent and spouse, maintaining friendships, staying in shape, having some time for leisure...)

I love the idea of structuring my life so that I can have a bit more time for all those “non-work” things.

But It’s mentally hard to escape the norm that says that most people are at work something like 40+ hours a week, most weeks of the year and that if you’re serious about your work, you work more than that.

I’m looking for a few things to help think about this:

1) Examples of well-known people who did great things while working less than full time on those things.

2) Any writing/resources about people who accomplish a lot while working less than a full-time year (and making time for other things in their life)

3) General thoughts on the question: Is it even possible to do serious work, and take it seriously, while working less than full-time all-year?

(Bonus q #4: Am I asking the wrong question here? Is working a shorter week not actually the answer to better work-life balance? If you think I'm off-base with the question, I'm happy to hear that, too..)

posted by ManInSuit to Work & Money (24 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I have this problem in some ways and not in others. I am a serious worker person, I have a "brand" (sorry) that is decently well known and consistent, I love what I do. I am also, however, very concerned with being a good friend/neighbor/family member/citizen and to really do that I've decided it takes more than just the ass-end hours around my jobtime. Even when I worked at MetaFilter I was a 35-or-less employee (obligatory caveat about work/life balance) and when I worked for Open Library it was a sub-part time job.

For me it's about money and status. Which, hang on a sec, isn't quite right. Basically I do a lot of writing and public speaking about libraries and technology. However, to keep from being just a pundit, i also have to know a fair amount about the ecosystem of libraries and be a member of that community, not just someone who is outside it looking in and giving "helpful" advice. So there is a sense on which I only deserve to have that position if I also have people from within the community willing to pay me to do work there. Doesn't have to be a lot of work. Doesn't have to be a full-time job's worth of work but it does have to be within the industry. If people won't pay you to do that work, there is a sense (even though I fight this personally) that maybe you're just pretending to work, since money is the sort of lingua franca of this stuff.

Other than that, full-time usually gets you certain things like health care (in the US) and maybe an office and co-workers who can (especially for men) offer socialization opportunities which are useful especially as people get older. So think hard about those thigns and how they work in your life.

But really? If you can make it work moneywise and you're otherwise a fulfilled and happy person, people won't even KNOW you don't work full time unless you tell them. You write your own story about who you are and it can emphasize work as much or as little as you want. So think about what you'd like that story to be.
posted by jessamyn at 7:56 AM on December 30, 2016 [18 favorites]

College professors come to mind. Most schools consider 3 classes to be a full course load. Call that 5 hours of classroom time per week. Most professors work on a 2:1 time ratio - assume at least 2 hours outside class for every hour in class. Plus office hours and advising or department work. So 15, maybe 20 hours a week, 25-30 tops. With a long midwinter break and summers off. Most professors take the work quite seriously: people's educations are their responsibility.

I'd also add that a whole lot of jobs don't involve 40 hours of *work* per week. 40 hours of being there, yes; of work, no.
posted by Cranialtorque at 8:10 AM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: College professors work a lot more than 40 hours a week in my experience of academia, all year round. I knew a few people who slept in their offices when they were finishing grant proposals. Some of my former colleagues worked a 4-day week as part of their contract, but it was seen as fairly unusual.

This 'Power Part Time List' from 2015 (and previous years) might be what you're looking for has many examples of senior people working less than a 40-hour week, in lots of different fields.
posted by Catseye at 8:18 AM on December 30, 2016 [19 favorites]

College professors would seem to come to mind, but even some officially part-time professors find it doesn't work out that way. Friends of mine who have gone part-time have found they were still leaned on to do the same amount of committee work, etc., as when they were full time.

When you have your own business, it can work out to be part-time, but if there is an unplanned time suck that comes up, you can't control it. For years, I ran a seasonal business with my partner. Because it was seasonal, we could count on having x number of months off. Although health insurance was prohibitive in that situation, and I was getting us that by teaching, and see above re college professors. And our business was something that depended on my partner's whole way of being, sort of similar to what jessamyn describes I think. Nevertheless I think you can get closer to real part-time if you can really protect blocks of time weeks or more long.
posted by BibiRose at 8:53 AM on December 30, 2016

I quit my 40+ hour job as a City Planner in 1995 and picked up web development at the dawn of the WWW. I haven't really worked more than 20 hour per week now for over 20 years. I guess I take my work seriously. It takes sacrifices, but at this point my wife and I spend 3 months every year in Europe. No reason to cling to the 40 hour norm. It's poppycock.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:00 AM on December 30, 2016 [7 favorites]

a lot of law enforcement and emergency response jobs work on a 3 24-hour day or 4 12-hour day rotation. but then you have to also make sure you're working for a place that's not grossly understaffed and constantly requiring overtime. i think this is pretty serious work; people's lives are on the line.

if you have passive income, like from real estate or franchises, making good choices about management below you can result in full time income while working a few days a week.

find out what kind of service people need in your area, and train in a niche to provide it. for example, there are only five licensed providers of active release technique (a soft tissue rehabilitative therapy) where i used to live. our area had a population of 1 million. by virtue of demand, they can make full time money without working full time hours. they work for themselves, and can set their own schedule, which is also a big factor in finding the balance you are in search of.
posted by zdravo at 9:04 AM on December 30, 2016

Self-employed here. I take my job extremely seriously (what with my inordinate fondness for food and shelter) and I don't physically work 40 hours a week. Some days I put in 10 hours, some days I don't put in 2 hours. That being said, the actual here-I-am-in-the-shop-doing-things part of my business is often not where I put in the most work - I'm doing research and thinking about my business all the time, even when it looks like I'm staring off into space. So how do I count the number of hours a week that I really work? It's impossible.

I can't evaluate the success of my self-employed lifestyle by hours; I evaluate it by the bottom line at the end of every month. If I made enough money, I did enough work.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's tough to break from the cultural mindset of how "work" is. You could try working backwards to figure out what your minimal needs are in terms of income. To meet these obligations [groceries, rent/mortgage, childcare, retirement savings, savings for rainy day] you need to make X dollars and you can make those dollars in Y time. Once you have that amount of money, you have done your serious work and can use your other time for your other work.

When I transitioned to running my own business it was in part to make room for afternoons when my kid would be home from school after kindergarten. I took the amount we were spending in full-time daycare and claimed that for my own. My husband didn't seem to get that I was counting that as income at first but why shouldn't I? Am I free? No. I am not free. So, it's part of my balance sheet and it saves us money and stress in other ways.

I can get a lot of work done within the time I have allotted to do it which is not "full-time." But even the notion of "full-time" is a social construct with specific legal issues around benefits and wages. It is essentially meaningless as we have found out by the notion that "full-time" is any time at 40 hours per week to beyond right up to that point that your bosses feel is the "just right" time to get additional unpaid work out of you right up to the breaking point where you quit.

The most important part of my work in terms of whether I am "legit" or not is that I am meeting the obligations I have set before me. Because I won't do this career as a hobby. I jumped into this job without a real understanding of how much people in my field give away their time. Almost everyone doing what I am doing has a spouse that makes a "real" income with benefits. But I have the damn student loans (real) and I have obligations (real) but also I need to be a parent (very real) and I need to keep my well-earning spouse happy and I need a little dignity for myself.
posted by amanda at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, I have observed a lot of Anesthesiologists (often female, but no need to muddy the waters) who only work part time for pretty much all of the reasons you mention in the original post.

Here in Washington state, there are also a surprising number of part time teaching jobs. I am considering just teaching part time next year for all the same reasons. (My content area is technology and engineering education.)
posted by seasparrow at 9:07 AM on December 30, 2016

As the child of an associate professor at an R1, I can assure you that this is not the line of work for people who want to work less than 40 hours a week. My entire life, my dad has worked at least 6 days a week. He's about to retire and I honestly have no idea what he's going to do all day because I've never seen him do anything but work.

Legitimate part time academia is not really known as being highly remunerative.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:13 AM on December 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: This is difficult for lawyers. I would like to be a very fine attorney who does very fine work, on a manageable scale (like 40 hours total per week. Or 25 would be great!). Many firms equate "being a very fine attorney" to massive volume (like 60 hours per week), and attorneys who scale back are judged harshly for it. "He is not committed". "She is not serious". Even in the solo world, to which I have recently thankfully escaped, the structure of the system (clients calling you needing stuff on their schedule, not your schedule) operates to limit the flexibility. The world just equates "being a very fine __________" to lots of hours and volume of "good old fashioned hard work and elbow grease". I don't know how we escape this.

I have just given you the opposite of what you asked for, so sorry for the rant, but I wanted to say that I feel you on this.
posted by bluesky78987 at 9:34 AM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

So there's the 'real'/meaningful-to-you work and then there's all the overhead that supports it – that makes it possible for you to do that real work. If you can get your overhead efficient enough that the total of [your overhead work plus your core work] is less than 40 hrs a week, more power to you. The total number doesn't necessarily relate to either your 'seriousness' or the quality of your work.

From my world: virtually all artists working today, including the most successful and recognized, are "examples of well-known people who [do] great things while working less than full time on those things." That includes all of us: the fulltime freelancers, the ones who do non-arts-related jobs for money, the ones who teach, and even the independently wealthy ones for whom income is no object but building a career still requires complex overhead work.

Our real work, making the art, is a fraction of our work hours. For example, I've been a freelance classical composer for 11 years and, globally, I've always spent only a small fraction of my work hours on actual composing. Most of my work hours are planning, negotiations, research, grant applications, communications, etc.

(The only time I'm actually composing 40+ hrs a week is when I'm at an artist colony, and in that case, it's not only that meals and all other needs are taken care of... and it's not only that I'm away from my kid and family... it's that, on top of all those practical realities, I did concentrated work in advance to take care of everything I possibly could on the business side, leaving that precious week or two of colony time as free as possible.)

I'd say don't focus on number of hours; focus on defining and paying attention to other metrics of success and seriousness (only you can define those for your career).
posted by kalapierson at 9:38 AM on December 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I cannot recommend it unreservedly because I haven't read it, but The 4-Hour Workweek might be food for thought. Another book I haven't read yet but you might look into: Slack, which discusses the link between productivity and busy-work. (spoiler alert: they're inversely correlated, according to the author)

I think one of the reasons I haven't read T4HWW yet is because I find the title hyperbolic and sort of the long-form version of "click bait," but it might be worth taking a look at if, as I suspect your problem may be, you're seeking some validation on the premise of your "question 3." Anecdotally, examples of people who do not work a traditional 40-hour week job over a 30+ year career abound, and I'd almost suggest from anecdotal evidence (including my own life) that MOST high achievers do not engage in some arbitrary steady-state job.

Really, the only questions you should be asking (which you've pretty much covered in your stated assumptions):

- are you making enough money to support yourself and any family you are responsible for?
- do you like what you do?
- are you meeting your obligations to others in the amount of time you put in, i.e. meeting client/co-worker deadlines?
- do you feel that what you do is "meaningful" and/or "contributes"? (and there's a million ways to answer that, to the extent that it's almost unanswerable and the answers fold in on themselves. But just to look at it like an economist, is what you do bringing enough economic value to others to support the money you're making in the long run?

If those things are true and you're doing all this in an ethical way, then the spectre of the 40 hour work week or what your dad would think or the Ghost of Christmas Past doesn't really apply. Don't worry about it.

One bit of anecdata from my own experience: I left a job where I had to be in an office, was expected to be available to customers and phone calls from the boss about 10 hours a day (and of course deliver stellar results on questions and projects that required deep thought) for a job where I mostly telecommute, mostly develop goals and objectives for others (I report to the owner and am the COO). And it's both more rewarding, more "value-added," and, in a way, easier. I probably have about 30 minutes of "grunt work" to do most days. And it's been hard to get used to the idea somehow. There are days I don't think I'm doing a thing, until I look back and realize that something very strategically important got done. It just "feels wrong" some days when I get through my work day wearing sweatpants and don't shave. I associate it with being home sick from school or something. There are also days that I feel tired or want to do something else and make it a point to avoid work, only to find that some inspiration strikes and I accomplish more that day than the rest of the week, which I think is based on some form of productivity/efficiency paradox if I could just figure it out.

TL;DR - if this is a new situation for you, it may just take some getting used to.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:46 AM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

That you are self-employed makes it much easier to attain a better work-life balance than the norm, IMHO. Tim Ferriss has built an entire empire and brand (yup) as an author with a book called The 4-Hour Workweek. He's done a lot more than that but this book was the platform for everything that came after. And it's all about how to trade money for time and how to focus on what you're best at, outsourcing the rest, yadda yadda. BTW, this is not easy to do: If it were easy, I'd currently have a fat bank balance and be spending my holidays in the tropics. But that book and his blog are great resources for considering the issues you raised and finding tools to help you realise a better balance of work and life.

That said, if you already can support yourself on fewer than 40 hours of work per week then this may be the real problem:
It’s mentally hard to escape the norm that says that most people are at work something like 40+ hours a week, most weeks of the year and that if you’re serious about your work, you work more than that.

I think it can be hard to escape that kind of bullshit industry pressure in Silicon Valley and New York (and other places) depending on your profession and your personality (are you super competitive? Are you externally motivated rather than internally motivated?). If income isn't the issue but how you feel about allocating your time is the issue, then you should be reading philosophers or talking to a therapist or, first and foremost, exploring mindfulness meditation.

As a recovering workaholic, I can say this: We don't get those hours back. Sure, any extra hours spent working may help us achieve financial success or industry respect or other things (including a refuge from real-world problems waiting at home). Still, any unnecessary hours at work are hours not spent with people we love or taking walks or saying hi to a neighbour or reading books that will make us laugh or getting sleep we need or building and enjoying community. As it turns out, an "important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses." TL;DR: Work matters; so does yours relationships. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:02 AM on December 30, 2016

I know quite a few doctors who do less than 40 hours a week of direct clinical time. (e..g, 3-4 days a week, or 1 week on/1 week off). Although typically doctors do a lot of administrative work, coordination and charting "off the clock" which usually adds up to another 10-15 hours a week, meaning that "full time" is more like 55-60 hours a week and "part time" is closer to 40 hours. As is standard for our society, these are mostly women and they've done it because, like you, they find that their ability to feel like they're adequately addressing other areas of their lives is overshadowed by work if they do it full time.

If you're also thinking of "working" as "doing your core business for 40 hours a week" I would encourage you to move away from that. Freelancers typically spend substantial amounts of time on business development, bookkeeping, etc., and that is real work. I know a couple of fairly prolific full-time writers of fiction and I know only write for 3 hours a day, and they use the rest of their day to do editing, promotional work, checking email, reading background material, etc.

Even if you're not doing 40 hours' worth of work-related activity, if you are bringing in enough money and doing work that satisfies you, I don't see any reason to increase the hour count just because you can.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:30 AM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oops, randomkeystroke beat me to it. I have read the book and recommend it.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:51 AM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

How 'accomplished' does 'accomplished' mean? I once had an ultrasound done by a very nice tech, and overheard a conversation in the hall:

'Anaya! You're here today!'
'Heh. Yes, how are you?'
'Good, good... Seems like I don't bump into you much!'
'I'm only here a few days a week.'
'Oh, are you also working elsewhere?'
'Nope. A few days a week is all I need; I'm pretty frugal.'

This was in Toronto, not a crazy-low COLA city. I was young-ish and tremendously impressed that somebody had simply opted out of the 40-hour week. Why go grasping for more $ when you could have adequate $ and more time? And how neat to find work that would accommodate that. It wouldn't pay like part-time doctoring, but few can part-time doctor with the loans afoot, and I imagine it was substantially less stressful.

(Nthing 'my father was a college professor and that, despite the long summers, is not a short week.' He was pretty much 9-to-5 and graded papers at home as well.)
posted by kmennie at 11:24 AM on December 30, 2016

My husband is in the trades (painting and remodeling) and though he hustles a lot, he often works 4 day weeks, and sometimes less.

A lot of his days start at 9-10 ish and end at 4. Of course, there is always *something* that needs to be done (writing bids, checking out jobs, getting supplies, payroll, managing subs and employees, marketing) so some of that is done in the evenings or weekends or on days off... but it's WAY more flexible that when he was working 8-5 at his 'normal' job. And better money.

He could probably take on more work, and he may as the business grows, but we have a young child so a lot of that energy redirects there.

I've noticed a huge difference in how he much is available, and how much more efficient he uses his time. Like some weeks, it's a hustle and he clocks maybe 50 plus hours, and then the next week, it might be a 3 day week. And things slow down in the winter, so there's more planning, prepping, and looking ahead.

We also want time to.. just hang out with friends, work on our house, do volunteer stuff, be in our community, write, exercise, all that.

I know therapists who run their own private practice and work 3-4 days per week (field I'm going into), and that appears to work well for a lot of people.
posted by Rocket26 at 11:56 AM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You might be interested in what I previously wrote about Lucille Ball.

Piper Laurie also had a serious acting career while taking long sabaticals to have a family. She apparently was pretty critical of the lack of serious roles for women in Hollywood.

Julie Numar established herself as a serious actress, then had a special needs child in her forties. After that, she largely devoted herself to her child and supported herself with real estate she had inherited. At some point, she capitalized on her established reputation by taking cameos in, for example, the movie "To Wong Foo, thanks for everything, Julie Numar" and she appeared in a George Michael music video.

I don't recall the name, but some historical figure made his money investing. He viewed it as a game and spent 30 minutes a day on it

Anecdotally, I was internet acquainted at one time with a homeschooling mom who made six figures a year in real estate. She said she worked 15 hours a week.

I have also read that the guy who played Aragorn in LOTR got rich off those movies and doesn't much work these days. You might look for articles on his life. He was an ordinary Joe, not from a privileged background. I have found articles about him insightful and interesting.

I think there are actually lots of examples out there, but they may not advertise it because it gets them taken less seriously if they harp too much on how little time they actually work. They seem to put more focus on communicating the high quality work they do. This is probably the best approach to achieving what you want. You want to be known as the go-to guy/gal for X thing and you want to minimize the fact that you don't spend that much actual time on it. You need people to see themselves as paying for the high level of quality of the product, not for a certain amount of your time.
posted by Michele in California at 12:13 PM on December 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ricardo Semler's The Seven Day Weekend was interesting to read but bit fluffy as a book. He basically turned a successful company into a mega successful company and has a radical management style that includes plenty of time off for big picture stuff like family.

My husband ran a successful business from our front room for nearly 10 years. He never worked a 40 hour week. Most weeks it was 4-5 hours while the kids were at school. The whole point was to not work a 40 hour week. He never felt uncomfortable about that. He did his best but I wouldn't say he took the work seriously. It was a service and an industry that is a contrivance, not anything particularly beneficial to society. It was mainly a vehicle for us to have other things; we had plenty of time for the kids and for each other and for leisure.
posted by stellathon at 2:06 PM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

I feel like this basically describes people who are at the tops of their fields: They go into consulting and spend less time on work, but offer more value. Feeling refreshed and focused is not a bad thing, and it's something that comes from taking breaks.

I don't think working less than five days per week is the only way to achieve a work-life balance. I think having the freedom to work shorter days or take breaks is the key. Flexibility to work extra hours when you need/want to or cut hours when you have other things going on is the key for me. I've always worked a normal "week" but simply being able to duck away for other things in my life gave me the breathing room I needed. YMMV.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:22 PM on December 30, 2016

Doctors work all sorts of weird schedules. Many of the pediatricians in my kids' practice work three-day weeks. A friend of mine works one week a month as a hospitalist. And a pediatrician cousin spent years picking up random shifts at her old practice as a shift into partial retirement. The nice thing about having a hard-to-get credential like an MD is that people already know they can take you seriously and you're committed to the work, and there are so few MDs out there that you can probably find someone willing to hire you on your terms if you want to have an unconventional work arrangement.
posted by potrzebie at 3:02 PM on December 30, 2016

I feel like you might find some good examples of this in Your Money or Your Life (book) and on the Mr Money Mustache forums; maybe also try key words like early retirement.

I've sort of done this, but my needs are simple and I'm not particularly ambitious. I work hard while I'm at work, but I'm not serious as such - and opt for benefits and flexibility over pay.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:01 PM on December 30, 2016

Response by poster: These are all amazing and helpful answers, thanks!!
posted by ManInSuit at 5:06 PM on January 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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