How to Work 80+ Hour Weeks

I remember going through a stage in my life where I thought the concept of The 4 Hour Workweek was cool.  I even tried it out, and I created my own muses.  It turned out that I got very bored, I didn't really enjoy the type of "lifestyle" work I created for myself, and some of the things I did weren't suitable as a muse company.

When an entrepreneur picks up a book like 4 Hour Workweek, it's probably by accident or curiosity, as it was in my case.  But once a workaholic, always a workaholic.  The 4 Hour Workweek for me was torture, and even if I could have my way, I wouldn't want that lifestyle.  I've learned that I really enjoy the stuff I'm currently doing in startups, to the point where I do it all the time.

And so when I'm asked by people "What do you do?" I respond usually with "I'm a drug dealer" or "I'm taking over the world."  Of course even when I say it with a straight face, I have a hard time trying to convince people that I spend all of my time doing that type of stuff.  So I attempt to explain how I work in startups, I code, I do usability, I design, I eat lots of pizza, get very little sleep, have little left over for a social life, and I read Paul Graham essays excessively (although if you're an entrepreneur, it's not excessive to read and re-read his material).  And occasionally if I'm feeling bold, I'll slip in the fact that I usually spend more than 80-100 hours in front of my PC a week.  Not straight working, but a majority of my time is spent working, if not I'm learning something new.

And so inevitably the next thing I'm asked is "Wow... How do you manage that?"  And most people lookat you like you're crazy, as if you're slaving your life away and have no regard for it.  The real truth is, entrepreneurs have a much greater respect for life and the purpose of a startup is to condense much of what would have been a very dull, very boring 9-5 for 40-50 years into a fast-paced, stress-intensive 4-7 year startup.

There's really nothing magical about the number 80, or 100 (remember we're talking about work weeks here).  The fact is there are 7 days in a week, and 24 hours in a day.  People have to sleep about 6-8 hours a night, on average, to maintain peak performance.  My number seems to be 10, where I operate perfectly throughout the day with zero drowsiness.  However I rarely get 10 hours on any given week day, although I'll usually let myself catch up on sleep during the weekends.

Keep in mind that there are times where a startup is in a "crunch mode" where sleep is almost non-existent and non-important for days at a time.  This is actually a highly debated topic because a lot of studies have been done on whether "binge working" is really productive or healthy for the employees involved.  Obviously it's not.  At least for extended periods of time.  This type of work habit is very painful to endure for long, although with the proper conditions[1], the team will work just as hard as the co-founders.  Usually, it's not a problem unless you're a very early employee, as the milestones are very intense in the seed stages of a startup where there is nothing but a "light and non-functional prototype" to show for.

So we have 168 hours in a week.  Let's assume a worst-case scenario and say that you need 9 hours of sleep a night, every night, even on weekends.  That's what the doctors are recommending, so we at least know this will keep you mentally sane to follow this.  There goes 63 hours, you still have about 100 left in your week.

Now 100 discretionary hours a week sounds like a lot.  But it's not when you consider how many distractions we are faced with.  Paul Graham has recently "unplugged distraction" (nice metaphor Paul) by unplugging his working computer's internet connection, and only using an alternative computer for internet-related activity like e-mail, news, games, whatever.  I actually think this may be something I should do, as I've recently been enlightened to how many distractions I've got.

It seems a little awkward, by the way, when you wrap things like "social life" in a box labeled "distractions."  Most of my college friends would think I'm pretty weird if I just suddenly disappeared and never answered phone calls or text messages or Facebook wall posts.  And they'd think it was even weirder if they were labeled as nothing more than a "distraction" in my head.  But you have to make up your own mind about what is distracting you, and what's not.

The analogies that Paul uses for entrepreneurs are very similar to that of a drowning man in a pool.  Many people in startups just don't succeed because they're not committed or determined enough.  And some of the startups Paul has witnessed succeeding are from people who have the determination of a dying man (that was his literal example) drowning in water.  That doesn't paint a pretty picture, of course.  But when you put yourself in that position and you start thinking about priorities and distractions, you start to dumb things down a lot.  And that hazy cloud that couldn't quite help you understand what was truly distracting or not is quickly removed by your primal instincts that say "either this gets done and I know exactly where my priorities are at, or they don't get done and I'll loan my hours of time out to various people, various distractions, various tasks, that are not related."

That's really what I think it comes down to when you're opting-in to the 80 Hour Week (or whatever 100 Hour Week) mailing list.  It's nothing more than understanding you have a very finite amount of time in each week, and each week you're expected to deliver very real results to your investors.  By the way, if you're reading that last sentence and sort of shrugging it off because I used the word "investor" than you should really think your situation through.  I know the word "investor" is thrown around a lot, and in a negative way, but the fact is they pay your expenses while you can sit around with your friends and build a company.  This isn't a circus to them, they are betting their money and their time on you, so be prepared when you sit down with them each week and explain what you've gotten done.

I think this is fairly obvious to most people, especially those who are out of college and graduated.  And one of the reasons this type of thing interests me is because I'm still in college, and I'm constantly being approached with distractions.  Many of them don't even seem like distractions, and in fact some of them really are just things that are necessary.  Like going to spend time with your family for the holidays, right?  Well, I think it's good, but my habit is that I'll break my routine which takes a lot of effort to get into, if I take too much "vacation time."  I try and actually bring my work with me on vacations so that I don't come back feeling like I did after I failed that final exam after Christmas break because too much time away made me forget all of the material I crammed and memorized earlier.

I tend to write for other college entrepreneurs, so if much of the stuff I'm saying seems obvious, it probably is and should be since you were there 5-10 years ago.  But for us in college, we're still young and learning quite a bit.  I also tend to work on my own projects on the side, so much of this will be a "duh" for those who are seed companies, funded, with investors who are involved, active, and have a vested interest in your progress.  I, on the other hand, am just hacking my own stuff together, but I still feel compelled to work with the fever of any other full-time, fully-committed entrepreneur.

100 hours a week is quickly spent, especially when you're in college, and especially if you're tied down in a relationship.

In college, the list is pretty long.  A lot of my time spent when I'm not coding or designing (or dealing drugs/taking over the world), I actually play computer games.  For some people, it's the XBOX 360 or PS3.  I've always invested my money into my PC, I've always liked the idea of dual SLI cards.  And there aren't many games I play, but the ones I do, I enjoy quite a bit.  Recently, in an ongoing effort to "unplug distractions" and do my cleanup, I've uninstalled many of them.  I sat there for a good 10 minutes, wondering if it would be something beneficial or not.

There's really nobody to say whether games have a positive impact, or whether it's a good way to a "work life balance."  I'm not even sure entrepreneurs have a work life balance when you think about the drowning man analogy.  But, when you're breaking down your week and something tells you there are too many distractions currently there, sometimes it requires difficult decisions.  Even something as trivial as deleting a game off your system can be a difficult decision, because you know it's there when you get stressed over a bug in your code and are ready to give up.

There are lots of other things that distract college students, like TV.  I think Paul covered this pretty well and said the average person watches 4 hours of TV a day.  Say goodbye to more than 25% of your week right there.  And what has actually happened or been produced because of that?  I actually have almost no problem with TV, as I just don't watch it very much anymore.  I enjoy movies quite a bit, but even then I'll only watch a few movies a week at most, and that's only during certain weeks.

The parties and alcohol and socializing and all of that good stuff is another obvious distraction for college students.  Those can easily take up your entire weekend.  Even the small stuff, like getting lunch or dinner every day, can take away the very limited amount of time you have to work with in a given week.

What I've found to be true of the case is that if you're slacking off, you'll find things to distract you.  PG describes this phenomenon pretty well by saying you should take an hour out of your weekend and sit alone with nothing except a pad of paper.  The idea is that you'll become very uncomfortable because there are things that you sort of "crave" and are already attached to that feed off your time and attention resources.

The same can be said of those who are graduated, out of school, or in a relationship.  Unless you're funded, you may be moonlighting or working on your own project on the side.  If that's the case, that's tough.  I've seen a lot of stories on YC news where people really struggle with holding down a full-time job and then coming home to do a startup.  I'm not really an expert on that, but I want to say it's close to impossible.  I know a full day of work of itself can be exhausting, not necessarily because it's hard, but because 8 hours is a really long stretch of time to be sitting in an enclosed space for so long.  And as with any regular job, it can be dull, so it's difficult in that sense.

So if you're out of school, work can eat away your time, and relationships... do we need to even go there? [2]

So if anything, I would say feel extremely lucky with the time you have if you're working full time on your startup.  I've seen lots of companies in this stage, and it sounds easy, but consistently working 80 hours a week is really hard.  It's endurance, and it's staying determined, even on your bad weeks.  It's not just that, but it's obviously a constant struggle for keeping distractions out of the way.  Social networks, news sites, and the likes are always going to be there.

The final trend that I may have noticed recently is when engineers in the startups become wrapped up in the business elements.  I know it's preached that you shouldn't hire business people early in a startup, but if you're finding that it's taking up that much time, why not hire a President or CEO who can handle all of the day-to-day stuff while you can worry about engineering?  Maybe I'm just misunderstanding seed startups, but I've always thought that co-founders who are technical should stay fairly involved in CTO type of role, instead of branching out and getting into the business stuff.  Maybe I'm wrong there, but it only makes sense to me.

[1] Conditions that are really good for having a team pull all-nighters with co-founders: substantial equity packages, steady and available amounts of caffeine, a clear goal in sight, overwhelming commitment displayed by co-founders.

[2] For the sake of conversation, relationships are unavoidable face time.  The only exception I would give is if it's a long-distance relationship where you only see each other every once in a while, in that case, it may work if you can find a way to limit phone conversations.  I'm single, so I don't really have to deal with this one too much.

Disclaimer: this is the first version of this article, and may change in the future, although I tend to just enjoy writing these things as I think of them.  It doesn't go through quite the amount of scrutiny or review that PG's essays do, and I don't expect them to come quite as close in terms of quality or comprehension.