The 8-Hour Workday vs. 8 Hours of Work

I’ve been freelancing full time for a few months now, and one of the first things I did when I decided to take the plunge was invest in time tracking software (Toggl, for those curious). I worked hard to get into the habit of using it religiously from the beginning, so that I would have a consistent and hopefully accurate body of historical data from the get-go.

A month or so in, I found that I rarely hit 8 hours of work, despite working an 8 hour day. My average tends to hover around 6.5 hours per day.

This really rubbed at me, because I liked to think of myself as an efficient, highly productive, focused worker who didn’t waste company time. I get my shit done, and I often get it done sooner than most anticipate (including myself).

I started to really pay attention to what I did when the timer wasn’t ticking, and I found that what I was doing fell in one of two buckets:

  • Working: generally small tasks that take anywhere from seconds up to around two minutes. For example, reading an email really quick, firing off an email really quick, is my code done compiling, how much longer on that backup, etc.
  • Goofing off: Facebook, web comics, Twitter, reading nerd news.

The tasks in the first bucket should definitely be tracked! I’m still getting better at tracking my time in the fullest and most accurate way possible. But the “tasks” in the second bucket (calling them tasks might be giving them too much credit) shouldn’t be tracked, because I’m goofing off. I have considered tracking goof-off time and lunch breaks anyway, just to make sure that that’s where the lost time is going.

I was just starting to get caught up in thinking that if I wasn’t going to become more machine-like in my work ethic, then I would have to work longer hours in order to make up for the lost time. Then I read this piece in Fast Company that basically described me:

[Researchers found] that the 10% of employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days. What they did do was take regular breaks. Specifically, they took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work.

In a regular 8-hour workday, that roughly translates to 6 hours of work and 2 hours of break time, a pretty close match to my personal work-to-goof ratio. The question then becomes: am I one of the 10% with the highest productivity?

Assuming that I am, I’m trying harder to give myself permission to come in under 8 hours every day. My productivity and financial stability don’t seem to be suffering for it — I’m not stressed about deadlines, clients are not upset with me, and I can pay my bills — so it’s time to relax about it.

About Kelly Carter

I'm a freelance web developer, doing business under the name Rainworks Web Development. I'm a skeptical technophile, voracious reader, softcore gamer, and haphazard tinkerer. I have a long-term partner, a cat, and no time for glass ceilings.


  1. Kelly- such a good lesson. I think one of the risks of freelancing with a labor based service is that your income can be too closely tied to time card punching which can at times obscure the value of what you are doing.
    Most, if not all, of my work “breakthroughs” have come when I have stepped away from the work, and often a problem I have been struggling with for hours becomes clear in a matter of seconds.
    I am excited to see how this process continues to develop for you. In the meantime, give yourself a break!

    • You are so right, Jacqui — in fact, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on value-based pricing as well as productizing services. There’s definitely something to be said for stepping away from a problem and letting your mind reboot before approaching it again. I have solved many issues after getting a good night’s rest.

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