Is 4 hours of productivity the max?

Paul Doerwald
September 15, 2021

I just came across a tweet by @made_in_cosmos reading:

This is a question I love to engage with! I quickly tweeted my reply:

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:

Some people flat-out disagreed:

Some people inadvertently agreed, by arguing they could do more, but often at a cost:

@robjpalmer quoted an older post of his, which half-agrees:

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.