Diminishing returns

How many hours should you be working?

June 6, 2011: 10:22 AM ET

In a world where jobs aren't certain, it's tempting to never call it a day. But at a certain point, it must pay to go home. Determining that point, however, is the tricky part.

By Laura Vanderkam, contributor

FORTUNE -- In an uncertain job market, fortunate people with steady paying gigs often think twice before shutting down for the day. But is there any benefit to responding to those additional emails or hanging around the office for that extra hour? Is there a weekly hour sweet spot?

It's a tricky question. One hour per week is too little to do a job well, and 168 -- the total number of hours in a week -- isn't right either. Such a sleep-deprived person would be non-functional (not to mention smelly from a lack of showering).

The answer must be somewhere in the middle; a point of diminishing returns where previous hours boost productivity by a large margin, and additional work hours wouldn't help much. But what amount of hours could that be?

In a competitive economy where people still value their family and leisure time, figuring out the answer could give businesses a strategic advantage, so it's no surprise that plenty of people have conflicting opinions on the matter.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tells graduates in his usual commencement address that "it never hurts to be the first one in in the morning -- and the last one to leave."

In last year's bestselling book Rework, 37 Signals co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson complain about people who "try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them.... This results in inelegant solutions." Workaholics "aren't heroes," they write. "They don't save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done." More

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