Elon Musk is regularly asked at interview what the secret of his success is. He’s a modest character, and so he’s loathed to chalk it up to his own personal genius. Instead, he puts it down to his 100-hour work weeks. He’s just willing to work harder and longer than his peers.
But is this really the reason? And should you, as an entrepreneur, try to follow in his footsteps?
There’s a case to be made that Musk’s success doesn’t really have much to do with his ridiculously long working week at all. Many observers have commented that his success has more to do with the fact that he was able to capitalize on new technologies the moment building a compelling product became feasible. Take his car company, for instance. Battery technology was terrible during the 1990s. It simply wasn’t possible to safely pack lots of energy into a small space and use that energy to power a car. All the electric cars that were built had terrible range and were frighteningly expensive. But come the mid-2000s, things changed, and batteries got safe enough and energy-dense enough to make commercial electric vehicles feasible. Musk just happened to be there with the right ideas at the right time and immediately began building his new empire.
But there’s another reason you probably don’t want to work a 100-hour week. As an article on Career Camel recently pointed out, people need a work-life balance if they’re going to stick with a particular job – even entrepreneurs. There’s this idea out there in the ether that all entrepreneurs are obsessed with their work and do nothing other than stare at their computers, figuring out how to make their products better. And while that might be true for rare obsessives like Musk, it’s not true for the rest of us.
Research has shown that worker productivity declines rapidly once the working week breaks 40 hours. By the time you’re working 60 hours, every additional hour you work is only 60 percent as productive as when you were working just 20. This finding has actually led many entrepreneurs to deliberately cap their working week in an attempt to bolster their productivity.
When Todd Howard of Bethesda games studios found out about this research, he changed his behavior. He used to work every hour of the day to make sure that his company was running smoothly and that the game he was making were the best in the world. To his credit, they were splendid, but the personal costs for Howard were high. He was regularly working eighty-plus hours a week and not getting time to see his family or friends.
Upon discovering the benefits of working fewer hours, however, Howard changed his ways. He made a strict timetable designed to ensure that everything he needed to do during the week could be condensed into set working hours.
So next time you hear somebody saying that as an entrepreneur you have to work 100-hour weeks, think twice. Does it fit your character?