In the 9-5 era, much is made of squeezing every last drop of productivity to get ahead in the world. But realistically, how many hours can a human actually be productive and get work done each day?
Is it realistic to actually work for eight hours a day, like many people are still paid to do?
Well, let’s dig in and figure it out.
FYI, if you don’t want to read through the entire thing and just cut to the chase, scroll down to read the key takeaway at the bottom.
Why this question matters – setting the right expectations
Understanding the human limits of productivity is really important in order to be happy and productive.
You probably have an idea in your head of how much work you expect to get done in a day – some standard you hold yourself to. It’s important to realize that if that standard is unrealistic, you’ll never truly feel accomplished at the end of the day. Even if you did get a lot done.
That’s demoralizing and highly destructive to your productivity in the long run.
I have seen many poor souls who beat themselves up for “only” time tracking 5 hours on their tasks, expecting to reach the standard 8 hours. They push themselves to do more each day until they burn out or subject themselves to such negative self-talk that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they end up being truly unproductive due to complete lack of self-belief.
Setting the right expectations to begin with will help you to cultivate more positive emotions around your productivity like motivation and confidence, which are key emotions that will help you be productive.
What is considered productive work?
I consider housework, exercise, preparing healthy meals, and socializing to be “productive activities”. But in this article, let’s go with a bit narrower of a definition for what constitutes “work”.
Here is a list of typical examples of work activity:
- generating ideas
- solving problems
- filing & entering data
In summary, any task that requires a decent amount of mental focus, but very little physical effort is considered “work” for the sake of this article.
It’s the type of work many of us now do for a living. Knowledge work or even what Cal Newport calls “Deep work”. Highly focused task activity that requires us to really concentrate.
Of course, these activities can vary considerably in how much focus and mental effort they require, so they probably shouldn’t all be lumped together – but, we’ll get back to that a bit later on.
How to track how much time you actually work
It’s also important to note how to track productive hours so we’re talking about the same thing. There is a difference between hours that felt productive and hours that actually were productive.
Some people confuse working with sitting in front of a computer. But only a fraction of time spent sitting on our desk is spent actively working on a task.
So when someone says they work 60 hours per week. What they really mean is: I spent 60 hours dedicated to working or I spent 60 hours in a work environment.
But we are interested in how many of those hours are actually spent on real output-focused tasks? Therein lies an entirely different story.
Time tracking single tasks
A great way to track actual productive output time is to keep a to-do list where each task is between 5-60 minutes long and then track your time when you start the task and stop as soon as you finish the task.
For this to work, you need to break a task down until you have an action step that you can actually complete in one sitting. This is why your task should not be longer than 60m (most people need at least a quick break after 60 minutes).
You can track the time it takes to do each task with either a task manager that has integrated time tracking (like Amazing Marvin) or manually in a spreadsheet.
When you track time per-task and keep each task short you ensure you are only tracking time that is actually spent working.
Automatic time trackers
You can also use an automatic time tracker like RescueTime if most of your work happens on a computer and you can easily distinguish between productive sites/programs and unproductive ones.
Some people also work with the pomodoro method and if you stick to it, you also get a pretty accurate reflection of how many hours of work you had.
How many productive hours do knowledge workers average in a day?
So let’s dig into figuring out how many hours a human can be expected to be productive in a day. Let’s start with some data on averages.
An interesting study
There is an interesting study that showed the average knowledge worker is only productive for about 3 hours every day.
It’s no secret that many people browse Reddit, social media, or news sites at work. And we all know how you can get sucked into them and before you know it 30 minutes have passed.
Then there are breaks, talking to co-workers, and staring blankly at a screen pretending to work. So yeah, it doesn’t sound all that hard to use up 5 hours like that, does it?
Data from time tracking software RescueTime
As mentioned above RescueTime is software that allows you to automatically track which websites and apps you spend your time. Since you probably know in which apps actual work gets done, the app can help you figure out how much of your time is spent productively.
The app will give you a productivity pulse ranging from 0%-100% for each day.
RescueTime released a report for the year 2017 sharing the average productivity score of their users and to how many hours that translates to.
The startling result was an average productivity pulse of 53% for the year, which translated to 12.5 hours of productive time per week – that is 2.5 hours per day in a typical work week!
This seems to align pretty well with the 3h per day from the workplace study above. Looks like we’re getting somewhere.
Why should these averages matter to you?
But how do these averages help you figure out what YOU should aim for? After all, since you’re reading this article you are probably interested in boosting your productivity and becoming the best you can be. So why would you care what the average worker does?
You’re right, it doesn’t answer the main question. But it does give us some interesting insight into our natural productivity range. Plus, it might help you feel better about your current level of productivity. People who struggle with productivity often think everyone else works for hours every day with ease and that they are the abnormal ones.
What I have found is that many people who consider themselves unproductive are actually quite productive but tend to have much higher standards than average.
But let’s have a look at the upper ranges of productivity to help you set more realistic expectations for yourself.
What is the upper productivity range?
Analyzing tracked time from employees
One company that uses time tracking for their employees analyzed the data from their workers and saw that the most productive 10% of people worked 52 min for every 17 min break.
While I don’t want want to get into whether there is anything magical about this break pattern, what we are interested in is that this pattern translates to a total of about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday for the most productive people.
Interestingly, in most project planning methodologies, you also use 6 hours per worker for calculating how long project will take. So there is that number 6 again. This means that even project planners know that practically nobody works 8 hours in an 8 hour day.
On a side note, now you also know why so many projects miss their deadlines since the average worker logs 3 hours per day, not 6… 😉
In more modern companies (often tech companies) managers usually account 4 hours per person per day when sprint planning. Maybe they have learnt over time that this is more accurate? Especially for highly focused work?
A note on mental effort
Keep in mind that both of these data sets come from people working in an office, so the type of work these people do can vary widely in how much mental effort they require, and the type of work and effort required plays a big role in how much we can achieve in a day.
More on that below.
My personal experience
I track my time daily (with Amazing Marvin of course) and 6 hours of work time logged is a very productive day for me and indeed seems to be some kind of upper limit. I sometimes get up to 7-8 hours (depending on what I track that day and what kinds of tasks I am doing), but after a day like that I feel super exhausted and I usually can’t replicate it the next day and will probably perform below my average or have to take a whole day off.
Generally, I try to aim for 4-6 productive hours per day. This might not sound like a very large number, but you will be amazed at how much you can get done in 5 hours of truly focused and well-prioritized work. Trust me!
One thing to note is that I do a variety of activities every day – some more exhausting than others. There is planning, programming, writing blog posts, designing websites, customer support, research, generating ideas etc.
For the high output work like programming and difficult writing 3-4 hours is a great day. And 2 hours is still a very productive day.
What about other people?
Of course, I am just one specimen, and who knows where I lie on the productivity spectrum. So, I asked around and read lots of discussions in forums trying to nail down what others are saying about how many hours they can work each day.
Amazing Marvin users
I polled our Amazing Marvin users who use time tracking and many say 3-4 is what they aim for in a day. 6-7 hours is a super productive day for most of them and not easy to do consistently. We hope to be able to collect more time tracking data in the future to come up with more fleshed out numbers.
There was a lot of discussion about how many hours of work you can get done on Hacker News too (here, here and here). Hacker News is a community with a lot of programmers and entrepreneurs so the type of work is comparable to the type of work we’re looking at.
Interestingly, the number 6 came up again and again as an upper limit. Many people report that 6 hours of solid work a day seems to be the max for them. And after those 6 hours, they feel very mentally drained and completely done with work.
Another interesting thing that popped up is that programmers specifically seem to agree that for pure programming 4 hours seems to be the upper limit per day.
There was a similar discussion of how many hours a day you can spend writing in a writing forum. and for writers, it turns out the sweet spot seems to be around 2-3 hours of actual writing.
This brings us to the important point that came up a few times before: The max hours you can work a day is highly dependent on how much mental energy your tasks require.
Henri Poincaré (Mathematician)
Henri Poincaré was a French Mathematician. He regularly worked from 10-12 and then from 5-7. So a total of 4 hours. He noticed that working longer never really lead to any more work getting done. His work was definitely highly mentally draining.
Cal Newport and readers
Cal Newport did some time tracking experiments and posted about it on his blog in 2012. Many people in the comments reported their experience with how many hours of work they can consistently get done. It ranges from 2-4 hours per day.
The variance in task energy requirements
How mentally draining each task is is difficult to categorize. And it is highly individual.
Even one activity like programming can vary in terms of mental effort required . Doing some simple implementation is vastly different than coming up with a new complex architecture. Or, even just programming in a language you are more familiar with will require less mental resources and enable you to program longer.
It’s similar with writing. There is blog post writing and book writing. Then there are topics that just flow out of us and others that we really struggle with. And how much experience we have with writing is also a factor. Experienced writers can write for more productive hours in a day than beginners.
As a general rule, the more brain power (focus, creativity, lots of thinking) the work requires, the fewer hours you can expect to work each day.
The limiting factor of productivity
Another important takeaway from this is that for most of us our limiting factor for productivity is mental energy, not time.
When we subtract sleep, eating, hygiene, commute, and other commitments, there are often not as many hours left in the day as we think. Yet this number is usually still higher than what we are capable of doing when it comes to our mental energy.
We simply don’t have an unlimited amount of focus in us.
So ultimately the number of hours you can work each day depends on the mental effort required for your tasks that day. Some days you might log more time because you spent time on less draining tasks.
Your physical health also plays a huge factor in how many hours you can work. Simply being dehydrated can make focusing or starting a task such a struggle that we log much fewer hours. Not to mention days where we have high anxiety or feel down.
It really all comes down to how much mental energy you have available each day and how much mental energy your tasks require.
Should you aim for the maximum each day?
No. What is more important is that we find a number that we can consistently hit. This is our personal sweet spot.
Personal sweet spots vary from person to person because we all have different types of work and different amounts of mental energy available or tasks.
It is entirely possible that you will have days where even with your regular sorts of tasks you will shoot above your sweet spot, perhaps even hitting 9-10 hours of productive work in a day. But that usually comes at the cost of productivity debt.
Concept of productivity debt.
Just like there is sleep debt there is also productivity debt. We can accumulate this debt over time as we work past our sweet spot. When this debt becomes big enough we eventually burn out and need a lot of off time to recover.
Key takeaway: If we work above what is actually our sweet spot, we accumulate debt. Sometimes the effects are immediately there like this guy describes:
” I can do 12 with a lunch break; however, I will be a zombie next day and half-zombie the day after.
But sometimes it’s less obvious. If you’re doing 6 hours a day, when actually you could only sustain 4.5 hours, you might be able to continue for 2-3 weeks and then BANG hit total unproductiveness for weeks while you recover.
Also, if you work weekends, you need even shorter work days to be able to sustain productivity long-term.
So, it’s better to set daily goals that are focused on your sweet spot and not the maximum. The sweet spot is the number of hours you can work every day without accumulating productivity debt.
And don’t worry if you ever log below your sweet spot range. You might have worked on more draining tasks that day (tasks we dread also take more mental energy, even if they are “simple”) or your brain was simply not at your regular capacity. Make sure to take extra care of your brain if you feel like you are getting drained more easily than usual.
Finding your personal sweet spot and maximum
So how do you find your personal sweet spot?
The only way to know is to get tracking.
Seriously, if you want to set better time goals or are curious about how much you can work per day right now, get yourself a time tracking app or software like RescueTime.
Track your time for a few weeks and reflect each day on how you feel at the end of the day. Look for a trend. How many hours can you seem to hit consistently without feeling overly exhausted?
If you are hitting low numbers, no worries — you can always work on improving your productivity. But you need to know where you are starting so you can track improvements and see what strategies are working for you.
Or perhaps you are just doing very strenuous work. Make sure to factor that in. If you are new at something it will always feel harder and you will be able to do it for less time before feeling exhausted.
An important point – productivity is not just about time logged
Ultimately, time is a helpful guide to track our productivity and vital to help us plan well, but it is not the be-all and end-all for productivity. More hours worked does not always mean we were more productive.
Productivity encompasses other concepts such as effectiveness and efficiency too.
But, I know this guy who works 100 hour weeks…
It is possible that there are a few people who do manage to log 8-10 productive hours daily for long periods of times. But they are much rarer than you think.
Most often when you dig deeper you will find that one of the following points applies:
People define and track work differently. My bet is that people who claim to work 100 hour weeks do not actually track their time at all. So to them time spent working means how much time they allocated for work or sat in front of a computer trying to work, etc.
But there is a lot of inefficiencies like that. Even when I am super focused and I track my time with the task tracking method, there are usually 10-15 min that get lost on average per hour. Maybe bathroom breaks, getting water, thinking about something, small interruptions — it all adds up.
Checking email and answering and having a semi-casual phone call, business lunches. There are tons of activities that technically can be counted as work, but aren’t perhaps all that productive or strenuous in the end.
Also, people lie sometimes. To others and themselves.
Ultimately, it’s not helpful to compare yourself to others. Everyone has a very different work situation and current level of ability.
Focus on finding your sweet spot and trying to hit that consistently. And don’t sweat it when you don’t. Remember productivity is more than hours logged and your current productivity level does not have to stay this way forever.
If you track your time and are setting time goals for yourself, I recommend sticking to the 5-6 hours max per day rule for a mix of regular task activities. If you can consistently hit that number via actual time tracked on tasks, you are among the most productive in the world.
Any work that produces a lot of output and requires a lot of focus and/or creativity (think writing, programming etc.) are high mental energy tasks. For those types of tasks, a good upper limit seems to be 3-4 hours a day. And working 2-3 hours on those tasks per day means you had a very productive day.
The key concept to remember that mental energy is the limiting factor here. And the more mental effort your work requires, the fewer hours you can work each day.
Each person has a sweet spot of hours that they can work each day without getting burnt out over time. It’s important to figure out what your current sweet spot is and trying to hit that consistently.
Curious how much work you get done? Try time tracking for a while (you can use the Amazing Marvin 30 day trial).
Also published on Medium.