Seeking What-Work-Cuts Stories

To better imagine the lives of future ems, I want to learn more about the lives of people who work near eighty or more hours per week today. Since I haven’t found much academic work, I thought I might ask readers here directly.

If you, or someone you know well, has spent a year or more doing “work” (including commuting, school, and childcare) in the ballpark of eighty or more hours per week, I’d like to hear (in the comments below) about how your/their non-work priorities change as a result. Compared to similar folks who work only forty hours a week, high-work folks must spend less time sleeping, eating, socializing, watching TV, etc. But which of these activities take the biggest hit?

One clue might be the ratio of time spent on activities on weekdays vs. weekends. On weekdays we spend about as much time as on weekends on grooming, phone/email, eating, and sleeping. But we cut way back on art, religion, social events, and home maintenance. Here are the stats: a 2010 breakdown of weekday and weekend hours per activity, for US civilians age 15+, from the American Time Use Survey:


Personal care activities 9.20 10.11
Sleeping 8.38 9.34
Grooming 0.70 0.65
Health-related self care 0.10 0.08
Personal activities 0.01 0.02
Travel related to personal care 0.01 0.02
Eating and drinking 1.20 1.36
Eating and drinking 1.10 1.20
Travel related to eating and drinking 0.10 0.16
Household activities 1.68 2.06
Housework 0.53 0.67
Food preparation and cleanup 0.54 0.60
Lawn and garden care 0.18 0.28
Household management 0.12 0.14
Interior maintenance, repair, and decoration 0.05 0.09
Exterior maintenance, repair, and decoration 0.05 0.07
Animals and pets 0.10 0.09
Vehicles 0.04 0.05
Appliances, tools, and toys 0.02 0.02
Travel related to household activities 0.04 0.05
Purchasing goods and services 0.71 0.82
Consumer goods purchases 0.32 0.49
Professional and personal care services 0.10 0.03
Household services 0.02 0.01
Government services 0.01 ~0
Travel related to purchasing goods and services 0.26 0.29
Caring for and helping household members 0.54 0.43
Caring for and helping household children 0.42 0.36
Caring for and helping household adults 0.03 0.02
Travel related to caring for and helping household
0.09 0.04
Caring for and helping nonhousehold members 0.20 0.23
Caring for and helping nonhousehold children 0.06 0.08
Caring for and helping nonhousehold adults 0.08 0.09
Travel related to caring for and helping nonhousehold
0.06 0.06
Working and work-related activities 4.40 1.33
Working 3.96 1.18
Work-related activities 0.01 ~0
Other income-generating activities 0.03 0.04
Job search and interviewing 0.06 0.02
Travel related to work 0.35 0.10
Educational activities 0.60 0.18
Attending class 0.39 0.02
Homework and research 0.16 0.15
Travel related to education 0.04 ~0
Organizational, civic, and religious activities 0.26 0.56
Religious and spiritual activities 0.09 0.31
Volunteering (organizational and civic activities) 0.14 0.18
Travel related to organizational, civic, and religious
0.03 0.07
Leisure and sports 4.67 6.40
Socializing, relaxing, and leisure 4.19 5.67
Socializing and communicating 0.55 1.07
Relaxing and leisure 3.58 4.45
Watching TV 2.52 3.23
Arts and entertainment (other than sports) 0.05 0.15
Sports, exercise, and recreation 0.31 0.40
Travel related to leisure and sports 0.17 0.33
Telephone calls, mail, and e-mail 0.18 0.16
Telephone calls (to or from) 0.10 0.10
Household and personal messages 0.07 0.06
Other activities, not elsewhere classified 0.35 0.34
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  • M

    I don’t see how the sacrifices on the margin now are particularly relevant. Why would selectively pressured ems get free time at all?

    It seems to me that – barring a centralized solution where we can eliminate “cancerous” lineages and end up with a million billion cyber-Eloi rather than a billion billion cyber-Morlocks – the best that can be hoped in an em future is that our (those of our) descendants (who remain sufficiently complex to be considered such) will be modified to find their work intrinsically motivating in ways that early 21st century humans would approve of. I think I’m okay with the idea of the future mainly being about enjoying all the fun, interesting, and complex subtasks involved in increasing the expansion of computronium a little faster; or in helping your comrades with all the fun, interesting, and complex subtasks involved in invading The Enemy and seizing their server space, with the knowledge that it’s all a big game and everyone’s having fun. But given the vast possible space of minds these seem optimistic.

    • ” I think I’m okay with …” well, don’t worry too much about it because the overwhelming statistical evidence seems to me to be that we’re doomed, and so is computronium, which probably will never manifest much beyond the ability to populate the world with a limited number N+1 simulations (otherwise we’d be living in a world right now with many deeply shelled simulations).

      • mjgeddes

        Yes, the ‘Go’ board position isn’t looking good. Unless someone can pull a sufficiently ‘awesome’ late play out of the bag, I’m afraid we’re dead men walking. At this late stage, only 神の一手 (‘kami no itte’) can save the day.

  • Ely

    I’ve spent the last two years working nearly 80 hours per week in graduate school. My work time is split between writing computer code, compiling results into summaries, charts, and papers, and doing lots of reading for research and for software development skill building.

    I can give more details if requested, but loosely speaking this workload has affected me as follows.

    (1) Energy and effort spent enjoying time with my girlfriend has plummeted. My sex drive is essentially non-existent, and it’s very difficult to switch my brain off and be emotionally engaging with her. To her credit, she has been accommodating, but when I “come up for air” and get slight breaks from work, all my body wants to do is eat melty cheese carbs, watch TV, and “zone out.”

    (2) Exercise has dropped to nearly zero. I still take walks to help myself think and get fresh air, but I used to be an avid runner and I love regular exercise. I’ve become much more irritable and often lack motivation which I believe is a symptom of lack of exercise.

    (3) I don’t keep in touch with friends or family as sincerely or regularly as I would like to.

    I still perform regular household chores (cleaning, laundry, dishes). I rely on my girlfriend for cooking because (and this is noted in Kahneman’s recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow) I feel like I’m always under such a cognitive load that I have literally no willpower to avoid just getting pizza, burritos, or whatever else is fast/tempting. I especially lament my eating habits because I care a great deal about health and for all the knowledge about nutrition that I’ve been able to acquire, none of it gets put in practice.

    I find that I sleep very little during the wee, and almost not at all near deadlines. To “compensate”, I sleep for 10 or more hours on any day when I don’t have immediate obligations. I also find that I take extremely long showers when I’m similarly far from obligations. I don’t want to leave warm, comfortable spots to deal with the amount of work that I face.

    I’ve been seeing a counselor most of the past 3 months. It’s been good to verbalize these issues, but I still do not believe that I have enough time to achieve the work assigned to me. I believe I am intellectually capable of it, but that I cannot cognitively process information speedily enough to keep up with what I am expected to do, especially regarding software development (which I emphatically hate).

    Everyone, including my doctor and dentist, just tell me the truism “Be less stressed. Just eat correctly and exercise first; shirk responsibilities if you have to, and things with get corrected slowly.” But this is never accompanied with any advice for how to be less stressed, how to meet my work requirements and somehow eat well and exercise.

    In my specific case, essentially every leisure hobby that I have has been completely removed. I love to play chess, read for pleasure, write, play and watch sports, and attend beer festivals. But I haven’t done any of those things in a while, and often I work under the assumption that it will be indefinitely long before I get to do them again.

    In many respects, I have a bittersweet, sad wish that I was already an upload. I feel that I could tolerate 16-hour work days if only it wasn’t for the way my back hurts, the depressing sleepy feeling I get, lack of exercise, etc. I also have a lot of career anxiety because it’s hard to see if there actually is a career for a research mathematician that combines a decent salary, good working environment, reasonable hours and vacation, and intellectual freedom.

    • “I also have a lot of career anxiety because it’s hard to see if there actually is a career for a research mathematician”

      I think you fall into a bit of a cursed zone where you are just threshhold competent to do something that you really want to do.

      This wouldn’t be a problem if you were smarter (which I guess for your field means genius) or would be as satisfied by less demanding work. I’m sure you already know this.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      (1) Energy and effort spent enjoying time with my girlfriend has plummeted. My sex drive is essentially non-existent, and it’s very difficult to switch my brain off and be emotionally engaging with her. To her credit, she has been accommodating, but when I “come up for air” and get slight breaks from work, all my body wants to do is eat melty cheese carbs, watch TV, and “zone out.”

      Ok, maybe that is a little too abrupt…
      Look, sex is a basic drive, it isn’t something that you want to lose.
      Our bodies deteriorate way faster than we expect,
      believe me, you do not want to look back from middle age, with all
      sorts of subsystems starting to creak, and realize that your youth
      is gone and that you didn’t really get to use it.
      Two years a a sizable chunk of sunk cost, but if the field is burning you
      out already, you really want to talk with people in other fields and see
      what other opportunities exist.

  • Pole

    Ha, ask people working for Foxconn in Shenzhen for 12h pd, if only they had time to read a philosophical blog like this. ;P

  • DissertationWriter

    I’ve been doing 80+ hour weeks for about 18-20 months now. My priorities have changed as follows:

    1) I’ve almost completely eliminated my active leisure time. I still walk my dogs twice a day, as there is no alternative, but my recreational reading has almost stopped (down from 2+ novels/week in ‘better’ times). My TV watching has been pared down from ~ 10 shows that my wife and I used to watch down to 2-3 that I really enjoy and can find time for.

    I do still find time to read blogs and the internet, but I largely do that as mental ‘naps’ from work, rather than as focused leisure time in the evenings.

    I used to enjoy playing computer/video games as a recreational activity, and the time spent working so many hours has completely sapped my desire to play. I just don’t have the energy to get into games the way I used to. I’m not sure if this will come back or not if I am able to cut back on work.

    2) My sleep has taken a hit, in that I sleep much more poorly than I once did. I still get enough hours per night (mostly …), but it’s not great sleep, and I feel the hit.

    3) Household chores have become less regular. I still wash dishes, cook meals, etc., but I often put off bigger tasks and just do them occasionally instead of often. For example, the floors only get mopped once every 2-3 weeks now. Laundry gets done only when it has to, rather than once per weekend.

    4) Energy for relationships of any kind is at an all-time low. When I do have free time, I just want to veg out or sleep.

  • Albert Ling

    The poster named “Ely” above is a strong candidate to be THE guy who is copied a billion times!

  • John Maxwell

    Shouldn’t we be looking for the individuals with the highest salaries, since they’ll be the ones who are most profitable to emulate?

    It’s not at all obvious to me that additional hours worked corresponds to additional wealth created.

    The hypothetical guy who is going to get emulated billions of times over is the engineer who was offered $3.5 million to stay at Google when Facebook made him an offer.

    Most likely, his emulations will work 80 hour weeks if and only if he does. (He’s obviously already got a working style that suits him extremely well.)

    • I’d love to see data on work hours at the high tail of productivity.

  • T

    My question is why do you/they do it? It sound’s like painful life. Objectively, there is no gun to anyone’s head saying he or she has to work in a certain occupation (we’re not Stalinists yet). So, is there a “benefit” that keeps people in these situations? This isn’t a flippant question, and I don’t intend to invite insulted responses. I really would be interested in how people are viewing and coming to terms with themselves remaining in these situations.

    • Someone from the other side

      Most of the truly interesting and influential jobs out there come with rather gruesome hours…

  • Ely

    T, I understand your statement is earnest. From my perspective, I often spend a great deal of time contemplating why I do what I do. I don’t have any good answer, but for whatever reason when I’ve tried to do other things it makes me even more unhappy. I was an algorithm developer for a government research lab for a while and didn’t enjoy the lack of research freedom. In many respects, I think the desire for intellectual freedom is a serious psychological curse. Companies don’t want to interview you because they think you won’t care about the bottom line or profit (and they’re right), but most other jobs (professor) are impossible to get and require you to give up so much of your youth if you are not at the genius level. I think I am exceptionally bright, but that most of my academic achievements have been gained through brute force and exhaustion of will and work ethic. That’s a very depressing position to be in because as you move up in academia and become an adult, there are severe diminishing returns for the long hours you put in.

    For many grad students, there seems to be superficial reasons that keep them going. They don’t want to be regarded as a failure, they truly don’t have any marketable skill other than writing academic papers, they have a chip on their shoulder to have that credential or be regarded as the smartest person. Very honestly, I do not have any of these issues. I’m perfectly happy with how intelligent I am and would be fine quitting early with a master’s degree if the right opportunity came along. I don’t care about credential or prestige basically at all. And I have job experience as a software developer prior to my current math PhD program.

    But when I really try to think about what I would do for a living, I basically just feel like the main character from the movie Office Space. I have zero motivation to do any task upon which someone else’s profit depends. You could take a task that I enjoy, like cryptographic complexity issues, and attach the concern of the NSA and I am suddenly so uninterested that it’s like pulling teeth. Or take something interesting like the functional analysis of Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods, and attach the interest of an algorithmic trading firm or a government lab and I’m suddenly extremely uninterested. I’m currently trying my hand at some philosophy of science questions, which “feels right” to a greater degree, but I’m not sure the trade-off for less pay and worse job prospects is really worth it.

    I know I have to make some practical trade off to eat and not die, but it really feels like I’ve painted myself into a corner and every option seems to either be too far from my scientific interests, too little pay relative to the work involved, too few vacation days, too little autonomy, etc. I think being very intelligent makes you extremely sensitive to tiny perturbations in these attributes of a job. I don’t feel very capable of just being satisfied with some “normal” compromise.

    • mjgeddes

      The perfect job fit for transhumanist types (and ems too perhaps?) is trading in my view. You are using your brain, you are investigating how futures markets work and discovering new things, you are constantly calculating probabilities and applying rationality to try to win. Better still, the income is locationless (can be done anywhere in the world) and you are answerable to no one.

      Just the market charts, the ticks/pips/bars, the prices, the stakes, the margins, the entry points, the exit points and the stop-losses. Perahps ems spend all day and all night trading?

      • Trading is zero sum. If people actually want to make the world a better place, they have to actually create something, either new knowledge, new products, new value-added.

        Somebody still needs to create the value that the zero traders spend all their effort trying to acquire. If those zero sum traders actually created something, there would be more value for everyone.

      • Ely

        I agree with daedalus2u. The prospect of being a trader or consultant is depressing because there is no intellectual freedom, it’s repetitive, and it is zero-sum. I want to do things that help people have better lives. Lubricating the financial system does this a little, so I don’t hate on traders, but not nearly enough for me to be non-chronically-depressed while I work that job.

      • Paul

        Trading is not zero sum…trading produces fair prices, which in a capitalist economy makes efficient resource-allocation possible. Because of the efforts of traders, more “valuable stuff” can be made (even if the traders themselves didn’t do the making), because producers of stuff don’t have to also be speculators and risk-bearers. Does homeowners insurance add value? Is it zero-sum? What’s the difference between homeowners insurance and a put option?

        I don’t know what professions Ely has worked in, but as trading goes there is a great deal of intellectual freedom. Furthermore, having consulted (and done a few other things), I would claim that consulting is the MOST intellectually free and BY FAR the most non-repetitive profession.

      • Finch

        > I don’t know what professions Ely has worked in, but as trading
        > goes there is a great deal of intellectual freedom. Furthermore,
        > having consulted (and done a few other things), I would claim that
        > consulting is the MOST intellectually free and BY FAR the most
        > non-repetitive profession.

        Having worked in both as well, I have to agree. Consulting is awesome and I wish I’d found it sooner.

        Ely: Talk to someone who actually does these jobs. Do not base your opinion of them on what your inexperienced academic peers say. When you are in school it is easy to think that everything that isn’t school sucks. When you leave you’ll wonder how you ever got excited solving contrived and oversimplified problems that no one cares about.

      • Paul, that is not always correct. For a market to be efficient, the market must be transparent where buyers and sellers have equivalent information and multiple options. When a monopoly power is involved, the market is not efficient and the monopoly power can extract a disproportionate share of the value added in the value added chain from raw materials to consumer utilization.

        It doesn’t matter what the monopoly is in, if the monopoly is in an essential part of the value added chain, then that monopoly can extract a disproportionate share of the value added. That leaves less for the rest of the value added chain, and in the limit not enough to support growth of the rest of the value added chain, so growth slows due to the monopoly power, and growth is limited to what the monopoly power will allow.

        This is a common business strategy, become a monopoly power, then use that monopoly power to maintain monopoly power. It would be even more common if it were not illegal.

        What traders try to trade on is inside information, information that they have a monopoly on. Turns out that is illegal too, but it is still extremely common. In effect, the function of traders is to be the conveyors of differential pricing information, but they do so at a cost that is equal to the the differential being conveyed. If all market participants had perfect or even equivalent market knowledge, there would be no pricing differentials that traders could profit from.

        The problems that caused the financial meltdown was that the “information” was being gamed. S&P and the other raters had a financial interest in rating CDOs as less risky than they were. Some of the traders knew this (the traders that hired S&P), and so could take that into account.

        Traders only add value to a market when they are a small fraction of the market. Once traders start to dominate the market, they extract a disproportionate share of the value-added and the non-trader value of the market declines.

      • Ari T

        mjgeddes, are you a trader? Honestly, just talking to people who work at the industry (other than your own) is a cheap way to get highly beneficial information about the job’s work-life balance, how interesting it is etc. No need to do theoretical reasoning that is probably detached from the real world.

        daedalus, trading is zero sum but that doesn’t make it useless. For example if I traded my apple pie to your watch, you appreciated the apple pie more than your watch, and I appreciated the watch over my apple pie. It was zero-sum, but we both benefited and mirabile dictu, social utility was created.

        Take prediction markets for example. Many laymen might condemn them as pointless gambling. It is zero-sum but they create information. The smarter the speculators are, the more efficient the market is. Likewise real speculators transfer information from “real world” to prices. Sometimes it is just correcting the mistakes (bias hello) of other traders but that is mostly efficient too.

        In stock market, the social function of speculators is to make the market more efficient. The better they do their job the less we waste capital.

        Of course not all speculation has to be efficient. Ripping each other off is certainly possible in ways that waste human capital or cause massive reallocation on real street. This depends highly on empirical data and the details. Average economist opinion is your best bet there.

      • Ari, I agree that trading can be beneficial by removing inefficiency, but that can’t be what is driving the economy. Once all of the inefficiency is removed, then any profits that trading removes above that weakens the economy by removing profits that could be used to generate growth in non-trading sectors.

        We know that the economy can’t be sustained if 100% of GDP goes to traders, some GDP has to go to people who make stuff and who grow food. How could we determine if the percentage of the economy being captured by traders is too high, or too low? If it is too high, then the economy can’t grow. We should see capital chasing the high “yields” of zero-sum trading and not the low yields of steady growth. We should see essentially what we have now; high unemployment with banks sitting on money they won’t lend and corporations sitting on cash that they won’t invest because there is no demand because unemployment is so high.

        What happens if there is not enough trading to make the economy efficient? This is somewhat tricky conceptually. What is important isn’t the amount of profit that trading takes out of the economy, what matters is how much is left in after inefficiency and the trading profit that it cost to remove that inefficiency is taken out. Inefficiency and trading profit are both components of GDP that don’t produce economic growth. In other words, if trading simply removes inefficiency and collects that inefficiency as profit, there is no change in the fraction of GDP available for economic growth and there is no benefit from trading. To produce a benefit, trading has to reduce inefficiency at a lower cost than the profits that trading extracts.

        I think greater “efficiency” at trading is a problem that is now impeding growth. As trading becomes more “efficient”, it captures a larger fraction of the inefficiencies in the market. When trading captures all of those inefficiencies, trading provides no benefit to the market, the benefit is only to the traders. In the limit, if traders captured all “inefficiency” in the market, then everyone else would be reduced to subsistence wages and subsistence profits.

        If traders generate an inefficiency and then profit by exploiting that inefficiency (for example by scamming credit ratings), then there is negative benefit to the economy (i.e. it only hurts the economy). I think this is a major type of trading that is going on now and is characterized by the CDOs. CDOs were extremely opaque “investments” that were deliberately opaque and inefficient so as to scam investors out of their money.

        One way to fix this is with a tax on every transaction. If every transaction was taxed, then traders would only make the transaction if their profit exceeded the tax. A portion of the inefficiency is then captured as tax and used to support the government and lower the taxes on other parts of the economy. Inefficiency that is less than the tax would be left in the economy and would represent increased profits to the parties in the transaction without the trader. Since a trader has to make two transactions (buy low and sell high), the trader gets hit with two taxation events where the normal buyer and seller only get hit once.

        I think a good goal would be to set this transaction cost at a level where it is a major funding source for the government.

      • Ari T

        daedalus, how about get a decent economics book instead of trying to duduce the laws of efficiency on your own. The role of speculators is to move knowledge from real-world to prices. It can be a mathematical patterns in prices, or just practical knowledge about the conditions (like the future demand or supply of given resource). In some ways, its hard to distinct the two. Since conditions in the world are changing all the time (entropy hello), there will be need for speculators. Bias and price patterns could reduce in theory though.

        The marginal product of speculator is not that much different from any other branches of production. So yes it does contribute to GDP, when rents are not collected. Trading uses resources. GDP is just a number. Efficiency is getting about more outputs with same inputs (resources). That is what good manufacturers do, and this is what (useful) speculators do.

        Maybe the size of financial sector is currently too big and mostly rent-seeking. It possible. I don’t have an opinion on that. I’m not an economist. These are quite complex questions. However, if trading does not increase the market efficiency, there will be no trading profits either (on average).

        And I won’t comment on your armchair economics on the financial mess. I’ve heard plausible stories that highly contradict each other especially on what should be done (from experts), and non-economists have very little useful to say, like Robin has said before, other than confirm their bias, that is.

        The “tax on trading” is basically Tobin’s tax, supported by ATTAC. Normally we wan’t to get rid of transaction costs (and increase liquidity), not increase them. It is kind of like saying if you make it harder to buy cars, you’ll have less rip-offs. Very little empirical research backs it up, Tobin’s tax is more of signalling that “we do something about the evil capitalists” that sounds half-plausible. Most people who interested in it are not economists but left-wing politicians, which makes me very suspicious. It won’t raise much revenue, let alone fund government.

      • I agree that because economists don’t agree on what caused the financial crisis, some of them are blinded by their bias. That doesn’t mean that all are blinded, and it doesn’t mean that there was not a definite cause. It doesn’t mean that “no one knows”, or that there are no policy changes that would accelerate recovery and prevent future crises.

        That the financial sector had to be bailed out and couldn’t be allowed to simply fail means that it is too big, too interconnected and insufficiently regulated. That individual trading companies had to be bailed out because they were too big to fail means that they are too big and the first thing that should have been done after they were bailed out was that they be broken up into pieces, each of which is small enough to fail. It doesn’t take any economic expertise to see and understand that. That there are economists claiming otherwise simply shows me how biased they are.

        What ever economic “efficiencies” are obtained by the size and interconnectedness of the financial sector it comes at too big a price if the whole sector needs to be bailed out. The economy can better deal with an ongoing degree of inefficiency than it can deal with periodic catastrophic failures. People may disagree with that, but my guess is that such people are biased because they gain both from the faux efficiencies and from the bailouts following catastrophic failure.

        My reasoning behind a Tobin tax is that it displaces the cost of a transaction off zero. In effect it adds “resistance”, to slow down transactions and make the system more stable. In a past job, I build equipment that could separate flour from bran. In talking to flour companies, they said that fluctuations in the wheat market were much larger than their profit margin on turning wheat into flour. The only way they could do business was to base flour prices on the wheat futures market and when the order for flour was placed to buy wheat futures for delivery when they needed the wheat to make the flour.

        Trading only turns information into pricing when markets are fair. If markets are not fair because of collusion, insider information, deception, and manipulation, then markets simply unfairly enrich those who practice collusion, insider information, deception and manipulation at the expense of those who don’t. Since the “advantage” of collusion, insider information, deception and manipulation is so large, it isn’t easy to deal with. A Tobin tax would limit that.

        If markets were fair and well regulated, I would see no need for a Tobin tax. The problem is that markets are not fair and are not well regulated and are unlikely to be so because the market makers have the power to manipulate the regulators via lobbying.

        I think that the traders who got bailed out in the financial crisis know full well what caused it. They just don’t want to say so because it would then be dealt with and would reduce their income. They want to turn that information into profit/pricing as many times as they can by getting bailed out again and again.

        I am surprised to see objections to a Tobin tax coming from stock brokers. They charge commissions on sales don’t they? How would a Tobin tax be different except that it would be smaller?

      • Ari T

        “I agree that because economists don’t agree on what caused the financial crisis, some of them are blinded by their bias.”
        It means you shouldn’t try to cherry-pick opinions from experts. I’ve heard enough well-reasoned opinions from many sides that I don’t bother having an opinion.

        “That individual trading companies had to be bailed out because they were too big to fail means that they are too big and the first thing that should have been done after they were bailed out was that they be broken up into pieces, each of which is small enough to fail. It doesn’t take any economic expertise to see and understand that.”
        Yes it takes expertise. First of all, what is the optimal size of a company. If several small companies misallocate the same amount of capital it is pretty much as the same thing as big one does. You need to make calculations of what kind of incentives small firms face. Then you also run into questions of knowledge problem, evolution of financial institutions and so on. Financial regulation is complex business, trying to make “obvious truths” is signalling high status not understanding the enormous complexity of the issue. Even Robin has told people to ask someone else because he isn’t sure he knows enough about the crisis. Focusing on the size of the institutions is missing other less sexy things like interest rates, animal spirits, macroeconomic theory, capital theory etc.

        “Since the “advantage” of collusion, insider information, deception and manipulation is so large, it isn’t easy to deal with. A Tobin tax would limit that.”
        What makes you think you know any better than the median economist? Sweden managed to kill their bond market with that. Tobin’s tax sounds a lot like minimum wage law. Something that signals we care about the poor, but actually just harms them. It seems like rather easy problem to see through if we had a prediction market, and people with bad analysis would pay for their mistakes.

        Many forms of Insider trading can be efficient. In fact in perfect markets, the only people making profits would be insiders. And the legal definition of insider trading is very different from the economic one. The “legal” insider trading is very small part of global markets compared to the economic one. To give you a basic example, if I know there’s a gold under your house, and buy it, but don’t tell you, I’m doing insider trading. Banning this is probably efficiency loss. Everyone who is making above-average profit (even with their own job!) is an insider on markets by economic principles.

        Sure there rip-offs and ways to gamble the system through arbitrage of asset positions, but I hear people whining about insider trading every now and then without actually understanding the efficiency calculations needed to understand different forms of it, many of which are efficient. Basically I see it as another status signalling game.

    • Mitchell Porter

      You could try washing dishes for a living.

      • mjgeddes

        Washing dishes is very low status.
        Whereas, creating a wicked-smart AI that initiates Singularity makes you the ultimate ‘big man’ status-wise. Dangerous is exciting and exciting is sexy.

    • G

      Are you sure you don’t care about credentials or prestige? Maybe you actually do but at the same time you don’t want to be the kind of person who cares about such things and it ends up manifesting in weird ways, for example as your inability to enjoy any work done on behalf of others.

      Regardless of its source, this inability seems like a terrible curse, that makes you virtually doomed to unhappiness in the world we live in. You seem to perceive it as a fixed trait of your personality but try to imagine is as something changeable and then actually change it. Seek counseling / therapy, explore more alternative career options, talk to friends and family who are likely to influence you. Anything to escape the choice between a life of 80 hour work weeks in an intellectually taxing profession and a life of ennui.

  • Vladimir M.

    Out of the people working 80+ hour weeks, the set of those that might be reading this blog is unrepresentative enough — but I think the even stronger selection effect is for those who would be willing to spend time writing blog comments.

  • Doug

    I’d say this highly depends on the nature of the work driving your schedule. Specifically how much control you have over your own schedule. On the one side are investment bankers and medical residents. They are working a lot of hours, scheduled completely at the whims of their overlords. Often their work is scheduled with little to no prior notice.

    Investment bankers are notorious for being called into the office at 8:30 AM on Saturday and be expected to be there by 9:00, dressed formally and ready to work 12 hours. They also have little control over their environment or what they work on.

    The common saying describing how time tradeoffs are made is “Work, social/family life, sleep. Choose two”

    On the other side are people like grad students and entrepreneurs. They log very high number of hours, but have high control over the scheduling and work environment. This makes putting 80+ hours a week far easier and less stressful. Entrepreneurs often have their spouse and family working at their business. This helps cut down on the need for non-work family time, because even though you’re working many hours you still see your family a lot.

    Also hobbies and a structured recreational/social life can be mantained, because work can be scheduled around those things. IMO the main thing that gets sacrificed in this type of work is sleep, commuting time (because you setup your office to be in or near your home), television (with a shift from watching whatever’s on to watching structured planned series on Netflix), video games and socializing with non-close friends.

  • Matt

    A perspective from the law, based on a wide set of observations (to help mitigate the selection effect issue mentioned above):

    -Sleep: almost universally gets cut back. There is likely a selection effect where people that work 80+ hours are above average in their resilience to lack of sleep. Those that are not, eventually drop out.

    -Exercise: is surprisingly essentially. I would predict the time spent exercising among the 80+ crowd is far above the median. Your body/mood/concentration just breaks down if you work that much and don’t do semi-regular exercise. The Ely poster who says he no longer exercises has only been doing 80+ for a year or so and by his description it sounds unsustainable. I’d attribute this mainly to him not sneaking in exercise.

    -Eating: doesn’t take much of a cut either, but for depressing reasons. Meal preparation drops to 0. You can turn eating at restuarants–which is time consuming–into a work activity by eating with collegues or clients. If not eating out, you only eat food prepared by a partner, or else “fast food” (ie frozen, take-out, etc.).

    -Weekends: I think the main difference is that most people treat weekends as mini-vacations. If the average 40hr person imagines their busiest weekday, and just extrapolates that across a 7 day week, they would come pretty close to a 80+ hour lifestyle.

    -Opportunity Cost. The last general comment is that everything takes on an opportunity cost anxiety. Because of this a lot of normal activities like errands get compressed and made more efficient, but there is a certain level of stress added to everything in the process.

    • Ely

      It’s been more like 2 to 2.5 years of nearly zero exercise and 80+ hours per week. I think, when pushed, it’s amazing what humans can sustain. You can’t sustain it happily, but you somehow do what you have to. I agree that on paper it seems like I could “sneak exercise in”, but the problem is more psychological. I’m fully aware that I need and want to exercise, even for just 10 minutes. I could buy a cheap treadmill-only membership to a local gym and just go for brief periods of time asynchronously. I’m well aware of that, but feel utterly incapable of making that happen. I have a lot of work anxiety and I often feel like I am not capable of really enjoying anything (TV, sex, dinner, exercise, etc., etc.) if I have a large amount of work hanging over my head.

      What’s even worse is that by killing myself this way, I am just slightly productive enough to make employers happy. Most people think that if you hit this burnout stage and your schedule becomes a Delta function on work, that productivity drops. I have never experienced this. I basically have a linear work-per-unit-time curve and it only saturates out when it physically prevents me from sleeping or eating. Even beyond 80 hours per week with no exercise, if I sit in the chair for 5 extra hours, I get 5 extra hours worth of high-productivity work done. It’s just that I am not talented enough to finish all the work I am expected to finish without shirking all other activities and working for 80 hours. If I had the same productivity curve but was about 10% more talented, I’d probably have lots of free time, or if the job was 10% easier than it is.

      • David C

        I think you should read the link John Maxwell posted. It’s very common for people to believe they’re getting more work done by working longer hours when they actually aren’t. The literature also suggests that this problem is even more true in intellectual jobs than it is in manual labor jobs.

    • y81

      I pretty much agree, having worked 80 hour weeks as a lawyer for long periods, though not recently. In my case, exercise did get cut back, but I’ve probably never gone longer than 12 to 18 months at this level, so maybe Matt is right that it isn’t sustainable.

      I would add that, unlike grad students, lawyers who work at this level can hire a maid to do most of the errands, shopping, cleaning etc. that otherwise occupy most people.

      Adding to what Matt said, I would say that (i) socializing (other than with work colleagues) goes to zero, (ii) recreational reading goes to zero, and (ii) watching TV, for me, meant watching the ninth inning (Rivera gets the save) as a way to unwind after getting home and before going right to sleep.

    • Kitty_T

      I worked the 80+ hours per week as a lawyer as well. (Off and on – I was in M&A for nearly 15 years so work hours followed the business cycle, and I went through a few of them. I can attest, though, that, when you know you will be hit with 80+ hour weeks again as soon as the economy picks up, you don’t reschedule your life in any way that might lead you or anyone else to depend on your doing anything but working 80+ hours.)

      I agree with Matt’s summary (particularly his perceptive opportunity cost point), with the exception that I also didn’t exercise at all. I don’t think I was unusual, though there were a good number of dedicated gym-rats at my firm. I still don’t exercise now that I’m working more like 40-50 hours per week, though, so maybe it’s just me. Or maybe there is a correlation between people driven to work obsessively and people driven to do other things obsessively (maybe exercise).

      I’d also add anecdotally:

      -Vacations/breaks: Because these were so infrequent, they tended to be much more extravagant that what I’ll do now that I get regular vacations and weekends (and can be fairly confident that I’ll get another day or two off at some point in the not too distant future). In part there was a sense of “I deserve this because I’ve been working so hard, and because I’ve been working so hard I need extraordinary measures to decompress” (which even at the time I recognized as high-octane hooey). It was also a strategy to discourage clients from deciding I needed to cancel for work at the last minute (because they’d be reimbursing me for tickets and deposits and such).

      I was also willing to pay a premium for convenience (both to save time planning and to go to places well equipped enough for you to continue working, so you can actually go) and to avoid possible disappointment. If you think you’re only likely to get one week off a year, the risk of making a bad choice in a “quirky” hotel isn’t worth it.

      In contrast (or counterpoint) to that, once the blackberry became a standard-issue leash I seemed to notice a large increase in vacations that involved open ocean cruises, hiking in rural Malaysia and the like, where there were no telephones or wireless connections. Maybe there’s a cost-free way to handle that for ems, but I suppose it depends on what their leisure would be like.

      -Help: As y81 says, lawyers who regularly work those hours often have outside help to cover the personal duties they cut out. For a fair number of the men this help was called a “wife.” Most women (and the men whose wives continue to work) had more of their income eaten up with replacement domestic labor. (I am lucky enough to have an itinerant professor for a husband, so we had child care costs but he cleaned and cooked.)

      -Shopping: As with vacation time, there is a willingness to pay a premium for convenience and speed. If it weren’t for the internet I would probably have stopped shopping for anything but the most bare necessities. As it was, I did weekly grocery shopping from my desk in less than 5 minutes.

      -Education: Only as required by law. (Which it is for practicing lawyers.) Non-work reading of all sorts fell by the wayside as well.

      -Meals: In addition to eating out (or ordering in) a lot, there is the horrid habit of eating at your desk while working, which trains you to eat on autopilot (very bad for long-term weight maintenance) and does unpleasant things to the digestion. Then there is the incremental destruction of rain forest caused by re-printing docs with salad dressing on them.

      -Social Life: If you don’t cut this entirely, your acquaintances will do it for you because you have nothing to say for yourself other than to talk about work.

      -Family: This moves to the backburner (after work, sleeping, eating, showering, and decompressing enough to go back and do it again the next day). You won’t suffer through the 2nd grade play about the food groups, and you have an excuse to put off annoying calls from your mother, but it’s not all positive. I remember having to deal with a work emergency for 14 hours on my daughter’s 4th birthday (a Sunday).

      Cutting family obligations has knock-on effects for family members because someone needs to do many of the family-related things the 80 hour worker doesn’t. To the extent those things aren’t or can’t be outsourced, other family members have to take them on, requiring them to make cuts to other areas of their own lives (including their own work). I’m not sure how that would translate to the experience of future ems, but an effect like it might be something to consider.

      • Kitty_T

        Sorry that was so long –

  • Jarno Virtanen

    I’ve seen pretty convincing evidence (for example, sleep studies quoted in William Dement’s Promise of Sleep) that sleep debt is strictly cumulative. Ie. if one’s sleep need per day is 8 hours, taking away half an hour of sleep for 16 days has the same effect as skipping one night’s sleep completely. If you take away half an hour of sleep a night for 3 months, it’s equivalent of skipping 6 nights of sleep. At this point, most people would be having extreme difficulty staying awake even at their circadian peak and probably will be having microsleeps during waking hours.

    Sleep efficiency does increase a little bit if you have a decent amount of sleep debt, because it is easier to fall asleep if you tend to be tired. But if you compare that to healthy individual’s sleep efficiency, it probably saves at most 20-30 minutes of time a day. Having extra sleep debt comes with a price, though. It decreases your ability to sustain focus and decreases your alertness and energy. In addition, sleep plays an important role in memory forming and encoding so having an irregular sleep schedule is probably a net loss for the individual.

    All in all, I don’t think it’s even possible to cut on your sleep in the long term. And anyhow, it’s probably a better strategy to sleep as much as you can even in the short term, because sleep has such a crucial role in many aspects of productivity.

  • Paul

    Having done 80+ hours for just under 3 consecutive months, I completely agree with these cuts (in order):

    “exercise” (cut completely, no time)
    “weekends” (thank god I had that time for work)
    “meals” (usually some granola bars for breakfast, or completely wait until dinner to cook and eat one huge meal for the whole day)

    Near the end there, I started missing appointments, turning things in late, asking teammates to do more work, and completely forgot about (and missed) social commitments I made.

    So I stopped doing it! But I plan to try something like it again for another few months…although it was stressful it was undoubtedly satisfying.

  • Learned My Lesson

    As someone who isn’t able to function well on reduced sleep, I found that a year of 80+ hours work weeks (not counting another hour a day commuting) came close to eliminating all major discretionary parts of my life.

    I was able to keep to that schedule at low stress by making essentially no non-work plans (perhaps every 2-3 months, I’d make modest plans). I worked 7 days a week to even out the load, and the bit of time which was left went mostly for assorted maintenance requirements (eating, showering, paying bills …), with an hour or so a day for miscellaneous use, some of which was spent reading before falling asleep. I didn’t exercise much before that year, and continued my very limited level of exercise (every few weeks for 30-60 min).

    I found it unsustainable, but not because I was on track to burn out in the way I had expected. I was surprised to learn that I was capable of doing this if sufficiently motivated. The core problem was that the benefits of working that hard were front loaded in my situation (I learned a lot in demonstrable ways at the beginning by taking on extra job responsibilities). Over time the benefits of that extra work (which were mainly financial after the initial period) became far smaller than the opportunity costs. Some of that effect was from the diminished marginal utility of money after the initial burst of effort had raised the compensation that I could reasonably expect for 40 hours work.

  • David C

    My mom is a workaholic; over 90 hours a week. She doesn’t have time to exercise, regularly gets take out or fast food on nights she works late (my dad rarely cooks), and her social life is mostly limited to church and family. I don’t think her TV watching habits are that far below average.

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  • Dear Robin, Unfortunately I missed this topic, and I do miss reading this blog, but I have no time (heh). If you are still interested in stories of 80+ hour work weeks I’m another who’s in that category (3 jobs: my 3yo daughter, my research, grant proposal writing) . And I’m stopping that nonsense with large life changes (another international move) in a few months. You are welcome to send a private email to gather data 🙂 and talk/catch up. Ciao for now, Amara

  • Evidence in support of the idea that work doesn’t cut that much: