How to lie with numbers: How many hours can you work?

Library cubicles

One might argue that numbers are apolitical. I mean, how do you spin the number 4? How do you argue about it? Whether to close the top loop or keep it open? There’s not much there.

Unfortunately, numbers can be used to promote anyone’s agenda.

So in the spirit of Mark Monmonier’s classic “How To Lie With Maps“, here is a way that one can lie with numbers.

It starts with the question: how many hours a week do you have where you could be working at a job?

The 40 hour work week

The 40 hour work week, divided into five 8-hour days, has been an entrenched part of our our society for 100 years, stretching all the way back to Henry Ford (and beyond). Before that, six days a week, 10 hours per day was common. Sometimes a lot more.

Putting aside the arbitrary nature of the 8-hour work day (and it was always arbitrary), let’s talk about how much we work in an average week: 40 hours.

Keep that figure in mind as we pivot toward a topic that’s dear to us.

Get a job

Let’s say you’re one of the millions of people in this country who have debt of some kind. There’s really only a few ways to move the needle in terms of paying it off:

  • Spend less money
  • Make more money
  • Sell something
  • Get an extra job

It’s that last one that I want to talk about.

I was recently at a financial seminar where this one was trotted out: “If you need extra money, get a part time job!

Now, this is clearly true. If you got a second job, all the money you make at that job could go toward paying down your debt (and then building wealth, which don’t forget is actually the same thing).

That’s not the part that I have a problem with. The problem is the statement that often comes after:

We work 40 hours a week. There are 168 hours in a week. And you mean to tell me that you can’t work an extra job?

Well now hold on. I’m all for second jobs. But I hate this.

What we talk about when we talk about 40 hours

Let me show you how this is misleading.

We start out with a chart like this. When taken without context, 40 hours out of a total week looks like this.

Hours in the week
Hours in the week

Now don’t you feel lazy?

Except it’s not true.

According to Gallup in a study made in 2015, U.S. adults in full-time positions worked an average of 47 hours a week.

But then you have to get to work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average commute is 25.4 minutes. So that’s an hour each day you spend conveying yourself to and fro, 5 hours a week total.

So now we’re up to 53 hours.

But you don’t spontaneously wake up at work. You need to shower, get dressed, make food and feed yourself (and perhaps you have others to feed). At the very minimum, this is 1-2 hours a day. I’ll average it to 10 hours a week.

Now we’re at 63 hours.

Here’s what the chart looks like now.

Hours in the week (slightly revised)
Hours in the week (slightly revised)

Oh yeah, sleep

While we may not be doing it successfully, we need to sleep. The 8 hours of sleep figure is disputed (some say 7 is enough), so let’s say 50 hours a week for a round figure (notice that I’m including every day of the week now).

And since it is almost impossible to fall asleep instantly (though at the rate we’re going, it might just be possible), we need to add an hour each day for this process. It doesn’t count as sleep.

We’re now up to 120 hours. Our chart looks like this:

Hours in the week (more realistic)
Hours in the week (more realistic)

Now, fill in the blanks with everything else you do during the week. Food shopping, other errands, housecleaning, and more shave even more precious hours off this total.

I’ll stop here. But my point being, if you feel like you don’t have enough time for a part time job, that’s a valid feeling. You aren’t lazy because you “only” work one job.

I understand why people make the argument based on numbers alone; we really don’t have a good sense of what our time goes to. (I’ve long believed in the adage of “track or you will fail” but I haven’t actually applied that to my time management.) But to make the argument that we have 128 free hours in our week to work more is patently unreasonable.

You can still do it

Now, nowhere in this do I say that a part-time job is impossible for everyone. Time is an elastic quantity, and if you force yourself to insert, say, 10 hours of work into your life, even if your life feels totally full, you will fit it in somehow! It might not be easy, and some other less essential activities may have to drop, but it can be done.

My point is that you can get another job, even if your life is full. It’s just not going to be easy, and you are to be forgiven for feeling resistance and a struggle. Don’t let the fact that you’re “only” working 40 hours convince you otherwise.

But is it the right move for you to work an extra job? Well, ask yourself one question: how badly do you want it?

(Also, before you do make any moves, make sure you discover the secret life of your money.)

But enough about me. Would you get another job to help pay off your debt?

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