Emily Articulated: The 40 hours of adulthood

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

The transition from youth to adulthood is filled with milestones — not just to keep us on a trajectory toward maturity, but to serve as reminders to our younger selves that we’re not quite so “grown up” as we might think.

I shipped off to college at 18 because, despite not knowing much about what my future would hold, I was certain the pursuit of a degree was the first milestone necessary for arriving at adulthood. But, even with the independence of living on my own and filling my time with curated lessons about the world, I still couldn’t legally drink a beer or mingle with others capable of doing the same. So, I concluded, I must not be an adult yet.

Then, at 21, when I entered a dimly lit taproom, I proudly presented my driver’s license with the date of my birthday matching the little marquee behind the bar reading “born before this day, 1991,” and felt the pangs of “making it” ringing in my chest. But, before the end of the night, I saw my peers throwing back shots, crying in bathroom stalls, puking in trash bins and stumbling out into the streetlights. Seeing this, I decided again, I hadn’t yet arrived at adulthood.

At 24, as I sat in my new office chair, closing the door holding the plaque that displayed my name and position, I was certain: My 9-5 job, with benefits, my own office and real-world impact, was definitely adulthood. 

However, when settling into the routine of punching a time clock, idly checking and rechecking emails, stretching out my time in front of the coffee maker and slogging through the final hours of the day, my certainty of arrival to adulthood waned. I wondered, “Wasn’t I supposed to be thriving in my 40-hour-a-week day job?” and, “If I am an adult, shouldn’t I be capable of consistent, full-day productivity?”

Posing these questions to my coworkers, all of whom were firmly rooted in my notion of adulthood — you know, having families, owning homes, understanding taxes, calling to schedule their own doctor appointments, etc. — I was surprised to hear that they felt the same about their productivity. 

These adults had long since accepted that the first hour of their work day would be spent “settling in” and that the hours leading up to quitting time would inevitably be spent running out the clock. My coworkers understood Mondays as being spent with only partial productivity, and that their Friday afternoon work ethic would be less than rigorous. 

Learning these attitudes begged another question: If being an adult wasn’t the problem, why were we incapable of a fully productive 40-hour work week? 

To answer this, I turned to the experts.

Arguing that the productivity conundrum is the result of shortcomings with the 40-hour work week, Forbes contributor Ashley Stahl described the human capacity for intense focus, especially in the workplace. She writes, “Beyond five to six hours of focused concentration, productivity either plateaus or declines. What this seems to indicate is that the extra two to three hours in the standard, full-time workday (or more, for the multitudes of employees who are banking tons of overtime weekly) are not very productive.”

Supporting these claims through proposing a four-day work week — or a 30-hours-per-week alternative — renowned American psychologist Adam Grant explained at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, “We have some good experiments showing that if you reduce work hours, people are able to focus their attention more effectively, they end up producing just as much, often with higher quality and creativity.” 

He continued, “They are also more loyal to the organisations that are willing to give them the flexibility to care about their lives outside of work.”

Finally, in a Japan Times article titled “Four-day workweek boosted productivity by 40%, Microsoft Japan experiment shows,” Kazuata Nagata wrote, “Amid calls for improving efficiency in the workplace in a country notorious for having long working hours, [Microsoft Japan] conducted the trial to see if it would boost employees’ performance.” 

Studying 2,300 regular office workers’ productivity after switching from a traditional 40-hour work week to a four-day, 30-hour schedule, “the experiment saw a 39.9% increase in sales per worker … [and] about 92% of the employees viewed the four-day work week in a positive manner,” Nagata reported.

Learning from these experts at 28 years old, I regularly clock in around 30 hours a week, or four full days of productivity, filling my mornings with the highly focused intensity that comes from knowing I have a life outside of my job. When I sit down at my computer, it’s not to drag out the hours on my time card but, rather, to get my work done as efficiently and effectively as possible.

I enjoy what I do and feel like my days are well spent, valuing the hours I dedicate to working as much as the hours I spend pursuing other things. Thus, I can conclude, I must finally be an adult. 

Except, what was that piece about having a family, owning a home and filing my taxes on time?

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