Clock In Whenever: The Joyful Anarchy of the Tech Work Week

May 2, 2017 - 10 minutes read

Eight hours a day. Five days and 40 hours per week. Clock in at 8 and clock out at 5.

Regardless of industry or objective, work schedules tend to be remarkably similar. So how come techies, app developers, and startup founders work such odd hours — and can traditional business models learn from their unconventional work habits?

According to researchers in the psychology of productivity, the answer is “yes.” (And NYC iPhone app developers are proving it every day.)

It turns out that “eccentric” tech workers who only focus from 5pm to midnight can be just as productive as their counterparts clocking in over morning coffee. More unorthodox schedule shifts based on an individual’s biorhythms can cut work hours in half in some instances.

Want to find out how this is possible? Read on.

Where does the 40-hour work week come from?

While most of us think of the standard work-week as the default, it’s actually an invention that’s less than a century old.

Before the Industrial Revolution, 10-16 hour days were the norm, whether you worked in a factory or on the family farm. Things changed dramatically when Henry Ford (of Ford Motor Company) had a game-changing insight: people who are always at work can’t buy things. Without people buying things, there’s less incentive to make things. Essentially, he realized that America needed a broad middle class if the economy was going to thrive.

Within just a few years, the “working for the weekend” mindset had become a staple of American culture and drove huge growth in consumption and leisure for average Americans.

Unfortunately for those of us in the 21st century, however, the economy isn’t driven by the same forces anymore. In a system that values innovation and efficiency above all else, the rewards of a cookie-cutter schedule just don’t measure up against a workforce that’s constantly getting faster, smarter, and more result-oriented.

At least, it’s certainly proven to be the case for iPhone app developers.

Do schedules increase productivity? If so, what kinds?

The big problem with the 40-hour work week isn’t the hours so much as the schedule. So-called “night owls” have long been maligned as lazy and inefficient, but research suggests that night owls can actually produce faster results and focus for longer — so long as their work hours take place later in the afternoon and evening rather than first thing in the morning.

Our bodies adhere to certain rhythms that govern when we feel energetic, when we feel sleepy, and when we feel productive. These circadian rhythms are much more complex than the simple wake/sleep cycle. Virtually everyone deals with these cycles, but there are variations based on genetic differences.

The hours that are best for one employee may be unprofitable for another — just another reason why uniform work schedules are inefficient. For app developers, it’s important to experiment and discover your own energy cycles and a personal schedule that’s most productive for you.

How to hack your work week for maximum productivity

Like most techies, we have more than a handful of productivity hackers on our team here at Dogtown Media. Here are a few of the scheduling and self-organizational hacks that we’ve found most helpful in boosting productivity, both in and out of the office:

1. Measure impact, not time

Metrics should drive everything an app developer does, but picking the right metrics can be tricky. Always be sure that you’re measuring according to tangible results rather than wishy-washy goals like “two hours of work on x” or “work on y this afternoon.”

2. Upgrade your to-do list

To-do lists are helpful, but they can quickly get out of hand when you’re managing or working on five different products at once.

Rather than listing every last thing you need to accomplish, try picking a handful of high-priority tasks you know you have time for in the next 4 hours or so. It’s much easier to reach the end and schedule out another 4 hours than it is to fall short and wind up combining lists across days.

Companies like 37signals have used minimal, short-term to-do lists like this to drive remarkable growth with ultra-short working hours, as described in their book ReWork.

3. Batch like tasks

If you work in tech, chances are you’re familiar with the vicious cycle of constantly checking in via email, Slack, Hangouts, and other messaging and collaboration tools. While communication is important, it often winds up eroding the blocks of uninterrupted time that are needed to do deep and meaningful creative work.

One way around this, widely popularized by productivity guru Tim Ferriss, is to group your mundane daily tasks into one time slot — and keep them there. This could mean limiting email and social media messaging to a half-hour block in the morning and another in the evening.

“Mundane” tasks vary from role to role at an app development studio, but no role is senior enough to be completely free of them!

Once you have the obnoxious day-to-day business relegated to certain times, you will have more time freed up for creative work. It’s a good idea to attack tasks that involve concentration and creativity when energy levels are high, whether that’s first thing in the morning before the onslaught of more stressful matters or right after a rejuvenating break.

4. Don’t overwork

Speaking of breaks: take them often. And don’t always time them out — just as you should measure your workload by what is accomplished rather than the hours devoted to the task at hand, you should measure your break time by the amount of relaxation achieved, not the amount of time it takes to get you there.

Among all the forward-thinking workplace trends in app development and tech, startup founders in particular fall prey to one big mistake: overworking. Studies come out every year supporting the notion that recharge time and proper sleep are essential for focused creative work. In spite of this, the race to bring your app idea to market invites a lot of all-nighters and caffeine-fueled marathon coding sessions. While this can be a good thing in the short term while team morale is high, long-term team strategies have to emphasize productivity over time at work if a startup intends to evolve and survive.

For a lot of app developers, the work is always lingering in the background, even on the weekends. But it’s important to take off at least one day a week — one day to totally ignore work (try to avoid even discussing it, if you can!).

Some startups, such as 15Five have even instituted “blackouts,” where employees are instructed to ignore work for a whole week (and yes, that includes checking email). This type of extended company-wide break is a great way to revitalize a team and renew enthusiasm ahead of a daunting new project.

Individuals in the workplace

These tips can help anyone in the workforce, whether you’re completely independent or stuck in a traditional corporate 9-to-5 gig. But the point of these productivity hacks is that the hours worked are less important than the results gained.

The classic 40-hour work week is no guarantee of results. By this point, it’s an arbitrary number that has little to do with productivity. In fact, it’s often downright unproductive, forcing workers who might excel if they could work according to their own unique energy cycles into an unnecessarily rigid schedule.

That’s why so many startups and mobile app developers have ditched Henry Ford’s old model for a more personalized and efficient approach to the work day. The nonconformist innovators of the tech industry have elevated the old cliche about working smart, not hard into a way of life — and who can argue with the results? It’s just a matter of time before other industries wake up and smell the coffee (hopefully sometime after noon).

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