The 9-to-5 model is fatally flawed

I’m back from my vacation, and trying to settle back into my work schedule. The harder I try, the more obvious it becomes that modern office hours are a crazy leftover of the industrial age. Somebody, do something.

When brain-work is involved, shift-work hours are plain useless. A bold statement like this calls for an explanation. Funny thing is, I’m in a gyan-giving mode this hour. So read on.

Modern office hours (“the eight hour day”) are a vestigial leftover of the Industrial Age. It was probably OK in a era when people were cogs in the wheel of an industrial machinery, and didn’t have to be “very” mentally alert.

Modern work is knowledge work or, taken at an extreme, often Creative work. Knowledge work requires an ability to think about diverse issues, hold multiple bits of data and weave together disparate loose threads. All of this requires the brain to be active…none of this could be done well with partial attention. All mental faculties have to be available to get the job done.

Early Birds, Late Birds: Not all people are alike. Some  people like to rise early, and are bright and motivated early in the morning. These are called “Larks”. Other people are late risers, and their body and brain are at their best much later in the day. These people are called “Owls”, for obvious reasons.

How do you feel about attending a meeting where half the people don’t show up to any of the meetings?

That’s how it is when you schedule a meeting at 9am, or 4pm. Half the audience has “checked out” because they are either early risers or late risers. Their brains are not able to process much information…even if you put them on a caffeine drip. Their contribution to the meeting is Zip. Zero. As Jim Morrison says, “Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin!”

Well, Jim, how do I say it…not everybody is in! Should we start regardless?

There is new evidence that strongly supports afternoon naps. These are good for maintaining energy levels, as they are good at improving memory retention. Both are things you need more of, as a knowledge worker. Why wouldn’t modern workplaces recognize this, and make it easier for people to work at peak-performance? Instead, someone who indulges in a nap is thought of as being lazy! That’s crazy.

Why not try alternate work hours, which allow employees to function at peak mental levels. How about “Donut days”…with heavy activity in the morning and later afternoon, and a big hole in the middle? How about “come when your mind is open” days?

There’s not much data on this yet, but I am willing to bet that the mental performance ratio between peak performance and low mental performance, for the same person, would be a ratio of 5:1. That is, the same person would be five times more effective at the same task when their brain is open.

There is an anecdote about a famous mathematician- Paul Erdos (Google him, he’s really, really famous), who would often knock on his unsuspecting collaborators’ doors at odd hours and say, “My Brain is Open“, and then go on to write brilliant mathematical papers with said collaborator. Then he moved on to the next person and declare that his brain is open.

There are other things I can wring out of this story-line. But I’ll need a nap before that. Meanwhile, let me just ask you this…Is your brain open?

There! I have successfully combined Jim Morrison’s poetry with Paul Erdos’ math. My job here is done!

About Gaurav Rastogi
Gaurav Rastogi is a writer and a business-exec living in the San Francisco bay area. His other blog is a personal philosophy blog at

4 Responses to The 9-to-5 model is fatally flawed

  1. Richa says:

    Well, my ideal workday would not be shaped like a slab or a donut but swiss cheese!

  2. Brilliant! That would make another blog post Richa. Swiss cheese Versus Chocolate slab Versus Donut. This workday business is tasty, and fattening! 😉

  3. Pingback: Friends at the workplace…who needs them? « Two MBAs, One Blog

  4. Shiva says:

    Right on spot, actually I need to work only couple of highly productive hours (max 4-5) a day to complete a work day:-). Hard part is to convince my employer, thoughts?

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