Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The 3 Hour Workday

My first exposure to the concept of the three hour workday comes from the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I have read similar articles on the subject over the years and it makes total sense to me.

From the beginning of mankind (ladies included) the amount of work required to secure the necessities of life (food, clothing, and shelter) takes about three hours a day. This has held true from Stone Age to modern man. Before the modern era, man would hunt for a few days and then cure the meats acquired. Gardening complimented gathering. The time needed to build shelter, hunt, garden, process and cook foods, and produce clothes took about twenty hours a week per adult. Some days and weeks required longer hours of labor, but over a year, the work required to survive averaged about three hours a day. The remaining time was spent with friends and family playing games, talking, sharing and other pleasurable passtimes.

Then we got civilized. Then we decided that anyone that worked less than 10-12 hours a day is lazy. Now we admire those that work 14-18 hour days. All this insanity started around the beginning of the 20th Century. Only the task of nonstop labor was appreciated.

Working longer than 50 hours a week in unhealthy and leads to all kinds of nasty diseases. Lack of sleep has brought humanity some of our greatest disasters. Is it really comforting to know your surgeon hasn't slept in eighteen hours as you go under for bypass surgery? Do you feel safe knowing your airline pilot only slept four of the last 30 hours? Are you a better driver when sleep-deprived and high on coffee?

Where did we go wrong? Can we get sanity back into our lives? I believe we can.

The basic necessities of life took three hours of labor a day on average in the past. Today, with machines and other time saving technologies, we can support our needs on 10-15 hours per week. "Needs" need to be defined to understand how we can live comfortably working only 15 hours a week.

"Needs" include food, clothing, shelter, and in our modern world, transportation. Food costs very little if prepared at home. In 1970, food consumed about 12-15% of our income, depending which study you read. Today we spend 6-7% of our income on food and that includes meals out. Preparing food at home easily reduces the expense to 2-3% of the average household income.

Clothing is also inexpensive unless you need a closet choked full of trendy threads you only wear a few times if at all. Transportation costs will depend on your location. If you live in a large city, public transportation is available and the cheapest route. If you live rural, you will need a car. You do not need a $30,000 gas-guzzler. You need a reliable vehicle that gets you from point A to point B economically.

I saved shelter for last. Housing costs have risen significantly in the last 40 years; some argue even faster than inflation. However, when comparing apples to apples, housing costs are affordable. You see, in 1970, our society (I am talking the United States here) lived in homes of around 1100 square feet. Today we live in homes over 3000 square feet and fewer people live in each home. The price of an 1100 square foot home today is the same as it was in 1970 adjusted for inflation, maybe less than inflation with the housing market problems of the last several years.

Now we come full circle. How can we live a decent life without working ourselves to death? I am not asking anyone to try living on three hours of works a day. You could, but if you want other things, you will work more. The questions is: How much of your life do you want to sell in the form of employment to someone else to get more stuff? Understand there is nothing wrong with wanting and/or having stuff. I am asking you to consider balancing your wants with the selling of your life energy, as Dominguez and Robin call it, and the real pleasures of living your own life your way, with friends and family.

We work 40 years in the workforce because we want to, not because we have to. Most of the stuff we buy ends up in a landfill in less than a year. We work countless hours to satisfy these fleeting desires. If we balanced our real needs with modest desires, we could all easily retire by age 50 or earlier. We choose to work ourselves to death.

Is it really worth it?


  1. Keith, I love this post. I read Your Money or Your Life when I was in my early 20s and I still think about it all the time. I wonder if simply not consuming is enough - when there are still so many other expenses, like housing. And raising kids only makes it tougher.

  2. You are right about kids making a frugal lifestyle tougher. It is worth the effort, however. I am certain my children will remember the lessons taught when things get down. Regardless, I am committed to a sustainable lifestyle. For me.

  3. Great post. Though not so easy to implement.

  4. It would be tough, but I have clients that live it. The key is to have no debt. Debt payments kill any opportunity for early retirement or reduced hours.