24 Hours: Thoughts on Email, Meetings, and Life Priorities

Posted on February 5, 2018 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion, Individual Solutions
Florence Duomo - 24 hour clock
Image: Paolo Uccello’s 15th century 24 hour clock at the Florence cathedral.

If you are a knowledge worker, you are most likely used to working fifty, sixty, even seventy hours a week. The higher numbers are standard in hi-tech culture, as seen for example in Silicon Valley. This fact has important ramifications that I explore in this post.

The cold equations

The basic equation governing our lifetime allocation is the following:

  • Daily hours = Work hours + Life hours + Maintenance hours


  • Life = family time, leisure, hobbies, reading, rest, etc.
  • Maintenance = eating, sleeping, personal care, etc.

And Work?   Ahhh…

  • Work = Productive Work, Meetings, more Meetings, Email, and even more Email.

Now, assume you spend your weekdays like this:

Work              12 hours

Life                   5 hours

Maintenance    12 hours

   Total              29 hours

Oops! Something has to change. There are only 24 hours in a day, so you need to cut 5 hours.

Where will the missing 5 hours come from?

  • The easy source is maintenance: sleep less, gulp your meals in a hurry – say you cut 2 hours.
  • Okay, three more hours to cut. So, you can shorten work to a perfectly reasonable 9 hours.
    Or you can cut Life to 2 hours a day.

Of course, what people do is sacrifice the three Life hours. After all, work is sacrosanct!

Bye bye, family, leisure, hobbies… End of story!

Now, let’s take a closer look at what all this means.

The price

Surprisingly, there is wide agreement in the research community that anything over 40 hours a week is a waste of effort: 70 hours a week is actually less productive in the long run than 40 hours, considered the optimal workweek, because of increased stress, higher error rates, and so on. So, the employer gains nothing from encouraging employees to steadily work long hours (I say “steadily” because occasional short spurts – “Crunches” – of intense work, as before a product release or during some crisis, are a different story, though not without controversy either).

Meanwhile, employees certainly lose – not only because the overwork saps their energy and health but because they get to have less of a life, less leisure, less time with their loved ones. And the latter certainly pay a price for this neglect. Kids grow with more screens than parents around, with dire results. Some parents declare they enjoy the overwork in a challenging job; maybe they do, but their children most certainly don’t.

Why we pay it

So, if everyone loses, why are so many of us working those long workweeks? There are many reasons. One is the ignorance of managers, who feel – erroneously – that more hours surely mean their subordinates are producing more output. Another is the gap between the workers’ self-perception of their productivity and their actual output: they feel the overwork is useful even though it isn’t. And then there’s the social pressure to work longer – and I don’t know which is worse, that from above with its implicit threat, or that from one’s peers. I remember a woman coworker, a very talented and successful engineer, who had to leave our plant at 5PM sharp to go get her children; she told me her coworkers would give her a nasty look – and on occasion an explicit word – that meant “You leaving already?” Not that they thought her work output lacked anything, mind you – but it just seemed wrong to leave after “only” a full 9 hour day…

Where email and meetings come in

All the above has been discussed many times, but there is an angle I want to stress here that hasn’t. Consider again my assertion:

  • Work = Productive Work, Meetings, more Meetings, Email, and even more Email.

Ideally Meetings and Email would be a sub-category of Productive Work; indeed, ideally all time spent at work would be productive. In our dreams, anyway. In reality, most time spent on email and most meetings are deeply counter-productive, have little or no added value, reduce creativity,  and create stress and mental anguish.

So here we were, trying to find three hours a day we could cut, and we went after Life hours? When we spend much of our day in totally unproductive work activity? Knowledge workers spend some 20 hours a week on email, and even more on meetings; can’t we cut back there?

What you should do about this

The first thing to do, in order to recover your life, is to reduce, intentionally and methodically, the time you spend on useless email and useless meetings, keeping the useful only. That could easily gain you 10-15 hours a week. Some of this you can do alone, by adopting email management tools and strategies (many of which have been discussed on this blog over the years), and by declining to be in meetings where you bring no value. Some will require a group effort, which you can try to drive, either as the group manager or as a team member. I’ve written about this too. Many solutions, those in email space, are also found in my Solution Guide.

Of course, all this will be useless if you save those 10-15 hours and then plug them right back into the job, by taking on more tasks. You should put the gained time into your family and yourself. To do so requires an act of will and a fearless conviction that if you do a good job you will not be punished by your management. You will have to ignore the peer pressure, and to ensure your supervisor understands the mutual benefit of a sane workweek. I’ve seen this happen to people I managed or worked with when they attained 45 years of age or so – suddenly they started to go home at saner hours at the end of the workday. I could sense that they’ve had the epiphany that their family matters.

And here is a more radical thought: even if you fail to find enough time by slashing useless email, you should consider prioritizing Life over Work by ditching some of the not-so-useless email. You aren’t managing to handle it all no matter how late you work at it, I’d bet – so why not be proactive and ignore some of it earlier in the day? If you can’t have it all – a 60 hour workweek and a family presence – your life and family matter more. You should be able to be there for your spouse and kids – you deserve to be there with them – heck, it is your duty to do it! You can probably do so while being an excellent and productive employee, but even if you couldn’t, you ought to consider finding another role, or another employer, possibly even earn less, but be there for them; and for yourself. Just a thought…

Incidentally, for a lovely animation of how Americans spend each hour of the day, see here.