I just came across a tweet by @made_in_cosmos reading:
Recently saw a bunch of posts and tweets that software engineers can’t be really productive for more than 4 hours per day on average.— Made in Cosmos ✨ (@made_in_cosmos) September 14, 2021
Anyone here consistently exceeding this? How do you do that?
This is a question I love to engage with! I quickly tweeted my reply:
4 good, highly productive hours/day as a software dev is right by my experience. I ran a years-long test on myself about a decade ago. One day I might do 10 or 12, but a couple days later I'd do 1. On average, I could sustain 4 hours/day over the very long term.— Paul Doerwald (@pauldoerwald) September 15, 2021
Since productivity, especially for creative workers, is a subject of this blog, I thought I’d take this opportunity to go a bit deeper.
I did literally run this test for years. At the time, I was living in the UK, working from home as a software developer. Every day I would sit down at my computer, and try to get myself into the zone. Sometimes I’d get in the zone in minutes, and sometimes it would take hours. Some days I wouldn’t get into the zone at all! On average, over the long term, I found I’d be able to work 4 hours per day.
How did I know this? Because I kept meticulous time sheets! As a lot of freelancers will tell you, timesheets aren’t that awful when you use them to make money 💰!
To me it was an interesting thread. Some people agreed:
Have you read Cal Newport? 4 hours of deep work is A LOT. I bet the average software engineer only puts in 1-2 hours of deep work a day.— NFT Dev Slumdoge Billionaire (@Shestovian) September 14, 2021
Nope. In 20 years I’ve never consistently done it. Occasionally I’ll need to charge myself up for a 72 hour binge to implement something extremely complex but then I need days of recovery after. It’s challenging because I also can’t be productive from a cold start.— Tao Te Chimp 🍍 (@practicingpath) September 14, 2021
It’s a biological limit and you see the 4 hour cap in authors, musicians, and scientists too. Stimulants change how you perceive your efficacy but the results after 4 hours show similar decline. Prob same reason they don’t help with studying.— Chris Chandler (@squanderingtime) September 14, 2021
Some people flat-out disagreed:
Moreover, I’m hesitant to think about anything else for hours after I’m done for the day because my brain is still processing ideas after I’ve stopped for the day. I normally write 10-12 hours at a time when first starting a project.— Everything Is Stupid (@JumboSlice10) September 15, 2021
Easily worked 8 hours (productive, too!), multiple nights every week, no problem.— Yatharth (@AskYatharth) September 14, 2021
No stimulants, just a lovely enjoyment, in my element, doing something I could do drunk, half-asleep, or anytime.
Coding is the easiest thing in the world for me.
Some people inadvertently agreed, by arguing they could do more, but often at a cost:
if I start the day with meditation & exercise & stimulants, and have literally no distractions (aka sacrifice my connection to my family and friends) and don't eat (mind gets dull after) then I can routinely go longer. almost always get depressed if I do this for extended periods— subtle himbo body (@sam_havens) September 14, 2021
lol, I’ve done a version of this for more than 4 years (no stimulants though). No wonder I was tired and burned out most of the time. https://t.co/afjyzmnZj2— Made in Cosmos ✨ (@made_in_cosmos) September 14, 2021
@robjpalmer quoted an older post of his, which half-agrees:
I managed to enter flow state for cerebral work for ~6 hours a day 5 days a week for months— Robbie Palmer (@robjpalmer) July 8, 2021
It completely detached me from my body, was very destructive
I think one of the keys is to find what you actually want, not what you believe you ought to want
By following fun & boundaries
On the whole, the thread seemed to come together on a few points:
- Once you get into the zone, it’s easier to work longer hours.
- If you’re passionate about the work you’re doing, it’s easier to get into the zone.
- A lot of people use amphetamines to increase their productivity 😨.
- 4 hours/day average seems to be the consensus.
Here are some things I’ve learned:
Things I can do to help me get in the zone faster
- Leave some work unfinished from the previous day with a note saying “I was doing x and the next thing to do is y”.
- Have a to-do list in front of me with the next to-do already lined up and ready to go on my computer.
A little bit of prep work the day before can give me a running start the next day.
Things that held me back from getting into the zone
- It’s hard to get into something if you don’t love the work... but even if you don’t love the work, discipline can give you reliable productivity.
- Having something on my calendar later in the day. Knowing that I had a long runway — more than 4 hours, at least! — meant I could let myself be free to embrace the zone.
- Having a phone call with a client was a HUGE productivity killer for me. Today, Zoom calls have the same problem.
Things that surprisingly didn't affect the zone
- For me, once I’m in the zone, context switching isn’t that bad, as long as the work is of the same type. As long as I keep coding, it doesn’t matter which project I’m coding for. However, as soon as I had to write a thoughtful email, proposal, or take a call, my productivity was shot.
Some lessons I’ve taken away
- My productivity seems to have gone up with getting an office, because I can factor out work-from-home distractions. On the other hand, having an office requires me to come home at a reasonable time (before dinner), whereas at home I had more opportunity to keep working into the night. That said, the nature of my work has also changed. It’s easier to spend a full 8 hours managing employees, writing emails, talking to customers, etc. than spend 4 hours focusing on a hard problem.
- A calendar day does not equal a working day. That make estimating really hard. I would estimate that something would take a day of work, meaning 8 hours, but that would actually mean 2 working days for me... and that was assuming I didn’t get interrupted by another client.
- As an employer, I give my employees freedom to simply take the day off if they’re going to be unproductive. I don’t need to pay them to sit around clicking nonsense. Better that I pay them to take a walk and rest their eyes and mind, and then come back the next day ready to focus. I get the same net productivity and a much happier, less burned out employee.
The very most important thing I learned
It’s okay for me to set a 4-hour productive work goal, and then walk away from my computer for the rest of the day. It seems counter-intuitive, but by doing this, I set myself up for another good 4 hours the next day, and the day after.