When I was still working at Apple, not yet committed to making the leap, I devoured the work of many extraordinary individuals—including the co-founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma. I was also devouring a lot of snack foods, overdosing on caffeine, and every night, my wife and I would take turns biting each others’ heads off.
I was miserable, disrespected, and despite offers of promotions from two different departments, I still didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere.
What would Jack Ma have told me the way out of that rut was?
Jack Ma says successful people should work 72 hours a week, 6 days per week.
This method, coined the 996, is designed to elevate performance, test worker resolve, and keep production flowing for as much time as possible.
For fun let's compare that to 40 hours a week. 40 hours a week = 2,080 hours a year. 72 hours a week = 3,744 hours a year.
OnLY 1,664 hOuRs (69.3 days) mORe 😵
But I can understand where he’s coming from.
Culture vs Economy
Chinese culture places immense value on strict hierarchies, puts the collective over the individual, and places one’s worth as a person on how well those expectations are fulfilled.
The general Chinese approach to professionalism boils down to being what the boss says you do for the team, you do without hesitation. This does mean that there are fewer complaints of “That’s not in my job description” when interdepartmental work is concerned. Everyone is encouraged to pull together and learn together.
But at its worst, this ideology leads to some cold-blooded extremes.
Head of Huawei Technologies, Ren Zhengfei, allegedly told a departing employee who couldn’t balance family needs with work demands, “Why resign? You can get a divorce.”
Culture isn’t the only thing driving the 996 that Ma, Zhengfei, and others swear by. There’s also an economical factor.
Chinese jobs are looking at an average of 32 applicants per position. Venture capital has fallen by 12%. The tech sector growth is slowing down.
To combat potential future losses, employers are purposefully cultivating an environment that has fewer people doing more work to cushion the expected blow. Job-seekers, already in high competition with each other, are jostling to meet the new standards. As a result, current employees have a vested interest in adjusting to long hours being the norm.
Although the Chinese government has ruled the 996 is not something that can be made compulsory, that’s only a legal technicality.
I wonder what Tim Ferris, author of the Four Hour Workweek would think. Ferris says, "Set up your life so you work only 4 hours a week!"
Who do I agree with? Neither! Ma is crazy and Ferris is totally unrealistic.
I respect both Mr. Ma and Mr. Ferris greatly. Both of these men had strong impact on my choice to be an entrepreneur.
The Problem with the 996
It’s not hard to see that "Are you willing to put in 72 hour weeks on a regular basis" on a job application means that not only will a 'no’ put your resume straight in the trash, but if you’re hired, you’ll be expected to actually do it!
That under-the-surface mandatory schedule is where things fall apart.
The atmosphere that created the 996 is full of people who are so doubtful of their prospects in other jobs that they’ll sign on for a schedule they’re not equipped to handle because bearing it is preferable to sleeping in a bus station.
That kind of desperation drives quality down hard. It's dehumanizing.
A mandated (explicitly or unofficially) 996 won’t guarantee you a workforce of dedicated employees. More likely, what will happen is you’ll have a handful of real busy bees and a larger number of totally depressed drones.
Even the higher pay associated with 996 schedules isn’t a guarantee of the quality of work associated with a healthy team.
Think about it. If all the extra money an employee earns is going towards food delivery fees and caffeine pills, and the person in question is only present because the alternative is unemployment, what do you have?
You have a workforce of captives.
If the only reason your staff member is working 72 hours a week is because they have to. It's just a matter of time before they leave or production quality begins to fall apart. Jack Ma's friend, Richard Liu admits that his massive empire, JD.com is going to go under if his workers don't become more productive.
Having grown up as a trapper, I can tell you that desperate people act much the same as frightened animals. They probably won’t bite you, but the levels of adrenaline-fueled stress can drive human beings to do destructive things!
Here’s the thing. I believe that as long as the work is being done, hours shouldn’t be compulsory either way.
If you find someone who works well under the 996 who’s going to thrive and give you quality work, hire them on, and pay & treat them accordingly.
Jack Ma wrote that without the 996 system, China's economy was "very likely to lose vitality and impetus".
Richard Lu stated that years of rapid economic growth in China had boosted the number of 'slackers.'"
BBC reports, "[China] has enjoyed economic growth averaging 10% for more than 25 years - from the late 1970s to the mid 2000s - but in subsequent years that has slowed to nearer 6%."
How do you fix slackers? Make them work 72 hours a week? That's insane. All you'll do is create a bunch of depressed slackers.
Finding the optimal, most productive number of hours
As an employer of 20+ staff and contractors in countries around the world, I can tell you that making it all about the hours they work, instead of what they get done and get to do, is a huge mistake.
If you have an employee who puts in their 9-5, stays late only when needed, and uses their vacation time liberally while still providing work of the same high quality, forcing them to stay longer at work for no practical reason is killing the golden goose! 💀
The most important thing is not how many hours but how much production (with reasonable expectations). Naturally, yes, more hours can result in more production but many times not. There is another factor: the talents and capacity of your employee.
Sometimes it’s different for CEOs and founders.
In the beginning stages of a business it’s not unusual to work a 996 naturally.
I’m an established business owner with full-time staff, and sometimes this is still my mode!
But there’s a key difference: Getting a business off the ground is supposed to take more work—especially if you’re still working for someone else while you’re doing it!
I slip into the 996 because I’m passionate about what I do. If I’m working late into the night, it’s because I want to.
Even if you’re only working for yourself, if the long hours you’re putting in feel like a trap every time you sit down at the desk, eventually your animal instincts will kick in, and you’ll chew off your own leg...metaphorically speaking.
Pro tip! The more you let the staff become a part of the vision, helping build something with you, the more excited they are to help you achieve the mission instead of staring at the clock, wondering when they get to go home.
And I think Tim Ferris's idea is right—create margin for your life—but 4 hours a week is totally unrealistic. Here is why: the kind of people who have the ability to build a business that allows only 4 hours a week love doing business so much that they will fill up that time doing business anyways.
If you're an entrepreneur who puts in an endless amount of hours into their work, ask yourself: Do you do it because you have to or because you want to?
We’re told that everyone has the same 24 hours, and that’s technically true. But like most technical truths, the saying doesn’t tell the whole story.
Now that my children are in their teens, I have way more time to devote elsewhere than I did when they were in diapers.
A young, hustling entrepreneur who has 90 minute commutes has a good chunk of their day taken.
Meanwhile, someone with a home office can choose to spend those same hours listening to podcasts, or getting a good workout, or conducting a professional video-meeting.
Different people have different ways of filling their time! That’s just a fact that we have to accept as entrepreneurs, from our staff and from ourselves!
So, if you can’t rely on quantity of hours providing quality work, how can you create an environment that works for you and for any employees that run the spectrum of priorities and personalities? Take these steps.
1) Get realistic
You will have to sacrifice to succeed. An entrepreneur's goal is freedom. Margin to travel, visit exotic places, buy nice cars, give to those in need. Take on challenges. Build products the world had never seen. All those things are a complicated way of saying freedom—to be whoever you want to be, even if that want is to work all the time.
But never in the history of the universe, whether it's political, religious, or financial freedom, has freedom been won without sacrifices.
It's not easy. That's why we have a team of staff and coaches to help our members achieve this goal. We don't sell a course and wish you good luck. We train you, step-by-step and give you realistic expectations.
2) Enjoy the process
You're on an adventure. You are building memories you will miss some day.
Some of my favorite memories are working on my Amazon stores with my son at our favorite table in our favorite coffee shop.
3) Review KPIs regularly
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are the equivalent of a heart rate monitor for your company. Those indicators and how often you measure them need to make sense for what you’re measuring. 📈
Calculating profits on a daily basis won’t show you a trend that makes sense to take action on. But calculating consumer interaction on social media biannually won’t yield results you can act on in a timely manner!
4) Decide on your goals, then decide what you must do to reach them
This sets super realistic expectations. What I love about being an entrepreneur is that I don't have to do it anybody's way but mine. I can pick my own hours.
We have a student who gave it just 2 hours a day, 5 days a week. Within 8 months, she did $200,000 in 30 days at 50% profit margins. If she needed to do it more part time it would have taken her longer, and that's totally fine. If she chose to give it more time upfront, she would have scaled faster, and that's fine too.
There is no right amount of time to spend. ⌛️ Pick what works for you. Did she work until she hit her 40 or 72? No.
5) Deep dive on problems
When you’re looking for your car-keys do you say ‘Forget it’, take an Uber, and leave the house unlocked for days at a time until they turn up? No!
If you and/or your staff are constantly missing deadlines, producing low quality work, or not hitting specific goals, then you owe it to everyone to figure out exactly why. Even if you’re working solo, the answer is never as simple as ‘try again and try harder’.
6) Don’t be afraid to ditch what (or who) isn’t working out
Firing people you like can be hard—even when these people are costing you money! But you can’t tolerate the drain for the sake of staying comfortable.
It gets even harder when what needs to go is your business.
I sold vape pens and other such supplies on eBay with so little success that the best thing I could do was sell the company for $35 and move on.
This is especially true for methods of running your business and your life that don’t work.
Imagine you’re a single dad homeschooling three kids, and you hear a "guru" say ‘Get out of your house while you work, it’s the only way to get inspired and be effective!’
Are you going to bundle three kids into your car every day and let them loose in a Starbucks? Or would you be willing to admit that what worked for that other business owner won’t work for you?
The journey gets so much easier when you let go of the false shame you carry for not being able to live like Guru McGee!
This is why I focus on providing education over so-called axioms.
The key is whether or not you realize the best working hours for your small business—not anyone else’s.
Get honest with yourself about your goals, and go after them in the way that works for you!