Five benefits of working less

Why I work from nine to five and take over five weeks off every year as a tech startup CEO.

Jul 11, 2023

A brown wooden dock on a lake surrounded by trees, mostly pines, but also some birches. The sun is shining outside of the frame, the sky is blue with white fluffy clouds and the water is rippling lazily in a soft wind.

I've been the CEO and co-founder of Sharetribe for over ten years. During that time, I've taken at least five weeks off every year. And that means completely off, not even checking work emails. I've also worked no more than forty hours per week, usually from nine to five, throughout this time. 

Taking parental leave into account, I've been away from work nine weeks per year on average in the last four years. I've tracked my working hours, and my average is a bit below 40 hours per week.

It's not common for a startup CEO to work this way. So I want to share why I do and why it might make sense for others as well.

Your startup should enable you to live the life you want

When my co-founder Antti and I founded Sharetribe, we agreed that the company should always enable us to live the lives we want. We had big ambitions and goals for Sharetribe but agreed that our lives would never be made miserable here and now because of them.

This principle alone doesn't mean less time at work for everyone. Steve Jobs spent a big part of his waking hours working, but I believe that was because he really wanted to. In his famous speech at Stanford, he said: 

If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? Whenever the answer is no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

The better you know yourself, the easier it is to ask the question: what kind of life do you want? For Antti and me, one obvious answer was that while we really enjoyed our work, we cared for many other things as well. Most importantly, we wanted to spend time with the people important to us. We didn't want to be people who would, on their deathbeds, regret working too hard. In contrast, people don't generally seem to regret working too little.

Not wanting to work all the time meant Sharetribe might never become a unicorn. We accepted that. While we hoped to make a big positive impact in the world, building a huge business was never our top priority.

In retrospect, I think this approach is a big reason why Sharetribe is still around after a decade, while most companies that were started at the same time are not. Some of them probably followed Bill Gates: "I never took a day off in my twenties. Not one. — I didn't believe in weekends; I didn't believe in vacations." This approach ended up taking Gates where he wanted to go. But I'm pretty sure that for every Gates, there are a hundred entrepreneurs who worked just as hard but didn't succeed and ended up burnt out and disconnected from the people they care about.

I still really enjoy my work. I feel excited every Monday morning when it's time to start a new week at work. I doubt that excitement would be there after all these years if I had followed Gates' advice. 

An important disclaimer: not everyone has the option to work less. To be in that position is an immense privilege. As a startup founder, running your own business hopefully gives you the opportunity to decide how and when you work. Maybe having the choice was one of the main reasons you started the business in the first place.

Create your own definition of success

Every person is different, and because of that, they want different things in life. I don't think it's a good idea to pay too much attention to how success is defined in society at large. I believe everyone should define what "success" means for them and then work towards achieving that. Here's how I define success for myself in my earlier post about balance:

Success is staying independent and pursuing our mission while turning a profit. Success is hearing from our customers that our product changed their lives by allowing them to pursue their dreams. Success is Sharetribe team members sharing how joining our company restored their faith in work where they can pursue ambitious goals without having to sacrifice their personal life. Success is when I look back at the years that have passed, I can't imagine spending them any other way.

Antti and I have significant differences in how we want to spend our time. I enjoy routine and a clear separation between work and time off. As an entrepreneur, I can choose my working hours, and I have come to the conclusion that coming to the office at nine and leaving five from Monday to Friday is what works best for me and my family. That's how I feel happiest and most productive. 

Meanwhile, Antti has been taking full advantage of the ability to work from anywhere. During the past decade, Antti has spent months or even a full year traveling, writing code in the back of a bus on a mountain road in Chile, deploying code while lying in a hammock in Bali, or fixing a server issue on his mobile phone while watching penguins in South Africa (note to any concerned Sharetribe customers: this was back in 2012 when it was just the two of us running the show. These days, our server monitoring approach follows industry best practices, and all our systems have excellent uptime). Antti alternates between doing long hours for a couple of weeks and then working only a couple of hours per day while traveling.

Our daily lives look completely different because we are different people. This is how we want things to work for every member of the Sharetribe team. They, too, should be able to create their own definition of success, and Sharetribe should enable it.

Five business benefits of working less

While achieving financial success has never been the primary motivation for working shorter hours and taking vacations, I believe that in our case, our balanced approach to work time has helped us get where we are today: a company of 22 people that pays its team members well and has more than 1000 paying customers in over 70 countries. Here are five benefits that we have gotten by taking enough time off.

1. Lead by example to create a healthy culture

The science is clear on the impact of long hours on an average human being: it's pointless from a productivity perspective and can have a significant negative impact on your health.

Still, people are different. Some individuals are wired to be able to work more while still staying productive. Bill Gates is probably one of them. However, what science tells us is that most people are not like Bill Gates.

So even if you are one of those people yourself, it's important to keep in mind that most people in your team likely aren't. In the end, the output of any company is the combined effort of its team. If you want to lead a productive team that doesn't burn out, you need to make sure they don't work too much.

And companies are led by example. Let me show you what I mean. 

Netflix pioneered the "unlimited vacation policy", where employees were in charge of deciding for themselves when to work and when to take a holiday. However, the policy quickly became known as a "no vacation" policy. 

In the book No Rules Rules on Netflix culture, the authors observed that some Netflix teams had managers that took long vacations every year, while others had managers who took no vacations at all. The result was not very surprising. People in the former teams took a lot more vacations and were happier about their lives. In the latter teams, people decided against vacation for fear of being ostracized or even losing their jobs. 

Now, Netflix is trying to fix this. Top leadership encourages more managers to take vacations, and CEO Reed Hastings himself typically takes six weeks off every year. The more they succeed in this, the better their business outcomes will end up being.

At Sharetribe, every team member has five weeks of paid vacation per year. This is not a policy special to Sharetribe – we're lucky to run a business in Finland where vacation time is mandated by collective bargaining agreements. We have a spreadsheet for everyone's vacation days,  including the founders'. If we're not using our holidays, everyone will know. If someone starts to accumulate vacation days, we'll have a discussion and ask them why they're not using them and what we can do to help them do so. 

Antti and I also track our working hours just like everyone else on our team. We've noticed that it helps make sure that people don't end up accidentally working more than intended. As a result, people in our team have very little pressure to work overtime, and it's easier for them to maintain balance.

2. Give yourself time to work on the things that matter most

There are only so many things you can do in a day that truly have an impact on your business. If you work all day, it's easy to work also on things that matter less, as there's so much time available. If you're putting in fewer hours, it's easier to feel that the hours you put in are truly productive and impactful.

37signals, a well-known successful software company, has a 4-day workweek policy during summertime. Kris Niles from 37signals writes: "Removing a day each week forces you to prioritize the work that really matters and let the rest go. It's not about working faster, but learning to work smarter."

37signals is an extremely successful company financially, and it has made its founders millionaires. They often cite their balanced approach as one of the reasons behind their success.

3. Remove yourself as a bottleneck to empower your team

If you're always working and involved with everything, it's easy to end up in a situation where no big decision can be made without your advice or approval. This creates a bottleneck that slows your team down. And feeling irreplaceable is stressful, even for a founder. 

Antti and I protect our free time. While we can always be reached by phone if necessary, I typically don't receive a single phone call or SMS from work during my five-week summer holiday. Members of our team have taken more responsibility and are empowered to handle issues by themselves. As a result, our team works efficiently also when the founders aren't around.

4. Foster creativity by giving yourself time to think

I often think about interesting work-related problems when I'm not working. I don't force it: it just comes naturally to me because I enjoy my daily work so much. I give my mind the freedom to wander, and sometimes it starts processing a work-related issue. Some of my best ideas have come to me while walking our dog in the forest or at my daughter's bedside while waiting for her to fall asleep.

There's strong scientific evidence that tells us that our brains need time to idle to maximize creativity. I definitely recognize this in myself: I need enough time when I'm not forced to work to be able to process ideas. For example, this article was largely written in my head during those idle moments. When I arrived at the office today, I simply pulled up my laptop and started typing.

5. Build your patience to sustain productivity over long periods

Building a business is a marathon, not a sprint. Startups that die often do so because they become demoralized. Their teams don't want to be working on the thing anymore. If that doesn't happen, the company will likely survive. And the longer the company survives, the higher its chances of achieving success on its own terms.

To avoid demoralization, you need to be patient. Working less is a great way to build your "patience muscle". Oliver Burkeman writes in his excellent book Four Thousand Weeks:

One critical aspect of the radical incrementalist approach, which runs counter to much mainstream advice on productivity, is thus to be willing to stop when your daily time is up, even when you're bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done. If you've decided to work on a given project for fifty minutes, then once fifty minutes have elapsed, get up and walk away from it. Why? Because as Boice explained, the urge to push onward beyond that point "includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time" for work. Stopping helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to the project again and again and thus to sustain your productivity over an entire career.

It's been nearly twelve years at the time of this writing since Sharetribe was founded. I'm thrilled to come to work nearly every day, and I usually need to force myself to stop working at the end of my workday, just like Burkeman describes. I feel incredibly lucky to feel this way, as it has a huge impact on my perception of the quality of my life. I also think it significantly improves the quality of the work I produce. I attribute this largely to the fact that I've managed to build my patience muscle by not working too much.

Final thoughts

The purpose of this article is to show that there is no one path to success: every person and company is different, and instead of taking too many cues from others, you are likely better off by doing what feels right for you. For some, that might mean working really hard, but for others, a more balanced approach is right.

The conventional startup wisdom says that if you want to do great things, you'll have to work hard. In this context, "working hard" usually means working long hours. I can't help wondering if this conventional wisdom is actually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most people who start a company believe they need to work really hard because it's perceived as the only way to succeed. What follows is that pretty much everyone does work hard, including those who succeed.

Afterward, we look at the people who were successful, and since they emphasize the importance of hard work, we conclude that proves the point. What is often left unsaid is that the vast majority of startups fail, even though the people who started them worked just as hard. But as we start from the assumption that hard work leads to success, it must follow that these people didn't work hard enough.

What would our world look like if the conventional wisdom would encourage more people to work the way Antti and I do? Perhaps a bigger portion of startups would succeed and stand the test of time. Maybe more people would found companies. And even if that wouldn't be the case, I'm pretty sure that people working in those startups would feel a lot better about their lives. And ultimately, isn't that what matters the most?

Photo by Vivian K on Unsplash.

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