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 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.
If necessary, I can push this to 7-8 hours a day sustained for about 4 days, but then I need days to recharge afterwards before I really get anything done again.”
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.
TLDR: How many hours a day should I aim for per day?
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.
Your articles are amazing. I read a lot of different blogs and your style is just plain clear and helpful. Thank you so much.
So glad they are helpful to you. 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment.
I found your app today, it’s seriously amazing, thank you for your work.
Oh so happy to hear that! 🙂 Thank you for your comment!
Great article! I’m glad someone is writing about the real question.
But this seems like really bad news for anyone who has a knowledge work job but is trying to do a serious creative project in their off hours. Any tips or insight or research about how to make that possible, when both the job and the personal project are mentally strenuous?
That is a great question and something highly relevant to a lot of people nowadays. Probably something I will make a post about.
I know some who work on the creative project first thing in the morning and get up 1-2 hours earlier to make this happen. Working some on weekends is another option (although long-term can lead to burnout if it’s too strenuous).
In general, there are three factors that you can manipulate to get more overall energy in the day, and that is what you need if you are doing a serious project besides a job:
– optimize your physical health (a healthier brain can perform longer)
– reduce energy inefficiencies, stressing and worrying while doing a job is wasting energy that could go towards work. Working on mental patterns helps with this.
– take breaks, taking strategic and actually recharging breaks helps you to overall have more energy during the day as you recover some brain power throughout.
Will post about these three things in detail.
Great article! This is really making ne reflect on the high expectations we put on students to do mental work not only during school hours, but while studying and doing homework outside of it.
So true! Really good point. It is intense to do to school and then do homework and study… No wonder so many students get burnt out sometime during college.
I work as a consultant and my hourly rate is set by my experience. Being a little OCD I track my time with a stopwatch. My sweet spot seems to be around four hours per day billable but my colleagues are recording eight hours a day. Would I be dishonest to just double my hours since real time tracking doesn’t seem to be standard in my industry? I can guarantee I do as much work in a day as my colleagues.
That’s a really great question. I think that is a common issue with billable hours. What an individual can actually get done in an hour can vary so widely, and the more experience or focus someone has the less time they need for the same task. Of course experience also factors into the hourly rate… but ultimately I like to think of services as value based. You get a certain service and you need to decide if that is worth it the money you pay for it. How long it really took the service provider to do it, is in some ways not relevant to you. As long as both parties feel happy with what they got, it’s all good. This is also the reason why service providers often charge much higher “hourly fees” for large corporate clients. They tend to get much more value from it, so pricing goes up accordingly. There is just no perfect way to do this.
wonderful article, great app! thank you
Glad you liked this article and Amazing Marvin. 🙂
This is the article I have been looking for all my life! I am the type that worries about not doing enough work each day. But what is enough? I have asked other people around me and they come up with incredible numbers that make me think I have been wasting my time all day, though I actually manage to do 3 hours of mentally demanding revision with active recall a day. Thank you so much!
Wow! I am so glad I could help you find an answer to this important question. Most people never really track their work so the answer will be what they “think” is the right number based on job requirements etc.
I have worked in the same woodworking shop for 19yrs, and the previous one 8 years. Our office staff spend much of their day chatting, and doing every thing but their job, then when their part of a job is not done they cry foul as being too pressured. The wood shop is an open plan and most everyone is focused on their task. Yesm they may have ear buds in, and yes the younger ones often look at their phone, but only for quick looks. Part of the reason there is little talk has to do with the machinery both making noise and for the person who is using a machine not to be distracted. Some new hires do not understand shop etiquette and are abrupt in their movements, talk too much or spend too much time on their phone, which is not productive and does not equate in them learning the tasks they are there to learn. We, in the shop like to pressure them to find other employment. This does not mean that there is a negative vibe or hostile atmosphere. People take breaks, have something to eat, etc, but mostly they are on task. From what I have seen this is the norm for shop work environment. Shame so little gets done in the average office esp since they often get higher pay, and are more highly regarded by the business world.
Very interesting! Perhaps there is a more natural flow to working with your hands as well, seeing direct progress as you work can be very motivating as well. Maybe it is easier to get into the flow versus most of the office tasks that are perhaps a bit less natural to us humans.
Just the kind of idea’s and information I was looking for!
Hi! I partially agree to the content. Things to also consider:
I can do a lot more productive hours than described here. That’s is programming and complex debugging.
In the same way I went to the gym and became stronger, I pushed also my limits in demanding problem solving tasks.
As you can correct your training form over time and get better at training and actually get more results from less training, I noticed my problem solving capacity has tremendously augmented over the year or training my brain.
I gained new skills and now I don’t even have to use a notepad as much anymore. I can recall a phenomenal amount of details. I surpassed all my colleagues and I try to share with them how I do it.
All that comes to mind is to use gym training as an analogy as to explain how I augmented my problem solving capacity.
Very similar… While totally different…
Instead of breaking down muscle fibers, I am creating new neural pathways. Like in training, I cannot do 8 hours in line, whatever the mechanics involved, which I don’t know exactly, I can only do it in bursts, you could say like pomodero style, except you try and push your limits on your bursts duration. One more minute is like one more rep.
You can do much bigger bursts over time. There is definitely a cost to create all those neural pathways, it uses something as an energy source and you run out of it at some point. If you overdo it, you might cumulate some debt yes. You should only push your limits a little…
Consider this factor as well: programming is like playing for me, imagine yourself as a kid playing games all day long. I’m enjoying myself every day like if I was on vacation. I become a better “player” everyday (well you can plateau too though). If you do because you “need to” that’s a whole other game as to stay focused and productive.
Picture this, the kid that dances in place because he has to pee but doesn’t want to let the game go… Of course don’t do that haha but that kind of drive has to be in there is what I’m saying.
Now I admit, you will be lucky if you ever get that dream job. That you are so much into it and feeling so good that people will lock the office and set the alarm without even noticing you are there… Yep that happened to me.
Now if you don’t feel like that about your work, you will never really have the drive to push yourself over the limits and get better over time.
That drive, I think it part of the energy source I mentioned. Plus all the chemical stuff I suppose, that means sleep well eat well etc… Otherwise you won’t recover fast enough and you won’t ever be able to focus at some point.
So many things are as mentioned in this article and I agree with them. Not all because it’s missing the evolving element, as if you are born with a capacity/mental endurance and there is a spectrum of that … Yes but what about changing that and getting better… That is my main point I guess.
Getting better and having the motivation to want it and to respect your limits, while always pushing them a little so that you recover faster, or last longer, or having more efficient neural pathways over time or etc….
Thanks so much for your amazing comment! Completely agree. There is much that affects how much you can work in a day. And I only brushed on a few of them. If you do something a lot and build strong neural connections around it, you will be able to do this longer. It is mentioned briefly in the point about the more mental energy something takes, the less you can do it. Similarly, when you enjoy doing something there is less energy wasting on negative emotions and fighting against our amygdala who tries to keep us from doing something takes extra energy. So if that factor is gone because we fully enjoy it and derive primitive pleasure from it, our brain can do it longer. Another key point is to improve the brain/body on a physical level. I want to write a follow up post about how you can increase that limit, whatever limit you have right now. And a big part of that is optimizing brain function.
I think the key point is that no matter how optimized things are, there is a natural limit. At some point you have to sleep and efficiency decreases. And I wanted to show that many people have way too high expectations for themselves and feel like everyone else but them is productive. And that is very destructive.
Great article! I’m wondering if you have some kind of practical advice for a mechanical engineering student. I have 18 hours of class every week and honestly they all feel like they require pretty intense mental focus. If I divide 18 by 5 days of week, that’s about 3.5 hours per day, on average (Mon-Fri). Sometimes, after I have my class, I feel like I have little focus left to keep doing homework or studying. But I have to do them sometime, so I guess my question is:
Do you think it would be practical to work/study on the weekends as well? Or do you think it’s better if I have a day or two of no work at all to recharge?
Thanks for the great article! Just found this website and I will be checking the app soon!
Great questions! Couple of thoughts. First off, I would think about how much you get out of the lectures. Because it is an intense time and energy commitment. I am a poor auditory learner and at university I realized my time is totally wasted in class. So I stopped attending all classes for my last semesters (except where attendance was mandatory) and just used that time to study/do homework instead. Ultimately, it’s about doing things that give you the most bang for your buck (the most learning for your time/energy investment). Everyone learns best in different ways.
Another thing to consider is energy levels throughout the day. Perhaps after class you are in a low period of focus. Perhaps you have some extra time in the morning instead where you have more energy, or after a few hours of break time you find there is another window of 1-2 hours where you are capable of studying some more. It’s all about experimentation and noticing patterns.
There is no universal answer about the weekends. It’s all about learning to listen to your body. If you sit down, try to work, but it just feels like an endless struggle, get up and do something fun/restoring. Ideally something that benefits you on a healthy level (socializing, physically active, creative, resting, nature etc.) and includes a change of pace/scenery. If you try again later and you feel the same, maybe give yourself the whole day off. When our minds are not cooperating, it is a sign we need a break/to take care of ourselves.
I find, most people do really appreciate to have at least one day off completely every week. Where they can feel completely unburdened and just live into the day. It can be very restorative. But if it makes you feel more stressed (at least short-term) because you feel behind, give yourself a limited time frame on the weekend where you work. Limiting timeframes can help you be more focused when you do work, because you know you only have X hours to get your stuff done. If you give yourself all weekend, work expands to engulf the whole thing. But you just end up being very inefficient and/or spend a lot of time forcing work, when it’s hard.
This article is really amazing.
Just for clarification, you are mostly talking about 5 days of work with 2 days of rest for this, right? 6 hours a day max for 5 days equaling 30 hours of work a week? For the most intensive work its 3-4 hours a day max for 5 days equaling 15-20 hours a week?
Or are these not supposed to be including 2 days of rest?
I assume most people do take 1-2 days rest a week. But at this point it’s all an inexact science anyway, trying to get some ballpark figures. 🙂
Great article, it’s exactly the answers I was hoping for.
I think some of those rare people who work 100 hour weeks, what people don’t realize is that those are a different core personality type from most of us. Many of the people who do that are at their happiest while working and might even experience less enjoyment in leisure and play situations than the rest of us do. For some people it’s normal and healthy. For others it’s due to unhealthy productivity complexes and self criticism. In any case, the feature is that they LIKE working and feel at their best when they are doing it. I would venture to say that the majority of us prefer being lazy and should not push ourselves to be working 10 hours a day if we don’t truly enjoy it, because if you don’t TRULY enjoy it you are going to burn out hard and fast. Work is play for some people, but not for most of us.
Good point. When we do something we enjoy we can definitely do more of it. When something is easy and fun, maybe you can do 8 hours a day consistently. But even the most fun activity, when it requires a lot of mental energy, it will be hard to work that much. But when we dislike something a lot of mental energy is used on negative thoughts. And wasting too much of your life doing something you don’t enjoy is a valid point as well.
Lion, I think it’s wise to also consider the mental exertion of the workload of those who claim to work 100 hours a week. I promise you they aren’t in the trenches designing, coding or writing. They are likely an executive jumping from meeting to meeting discussing high level concepts that don’t require as much brain power. They might spend an hour in a meeting that is discussing and debating one high level topic, and I guarantee they tune out when their brains get drained. While for example a coder is constantly holding multiple lines of code in their brain, trying to find where the bug is, without breaking the UX.
It was a similar thing when I worked construction. The higher-ups would visit the site, dig 10 feet of trench to “show” how fast a trench can be dug then they would chastise the crews for being lazy and demand higher productivity. Then they would get in their truck and drive to the next site rinse and repeat. Hard labor for 5-10 minutes is far less taxing that 8-10 hours of hard labor day in and day out. So it is in the mental strength professions.
Very accurate! That is why it makes me sad when people try to strive for the “work hours” the Elon Musk’s of this world claim to put in. When they are in a completely different line of work.
This is particularly good news for freelancers and others who work from home. It’s easy to feel like you’re not “doing” enough when you don’t have to go into an office. Yet this research suggests that if you’re productive for just three hours a day, you’re outputting the same amount as someone in the office for eight hours.
Yes! That is a very good point. I think for freelancers this is also relevant for setting rates. You have to set a high enough hourly rate (if billing per hour) because you tend to charge just for productive hours. But an employee gets paid for lots of unproductive hours too.
Great writing!! I have time tracked for years, including pregnancy, childbirth and recovery. My average “wasted” time per day is nearly 4.5 hours. In my “productive” time I include work, chores, taking care of my kid and enjoyment (watching a movie). The reason is that we are not robots, and if we do not intersperse our time with enjoyable activities, then we lose our zest for life. Life is for being happy and content, after all. However, even after being most conscientious about not wasting time, there is still time that slips by. I was wondering if the amount of productivity could be increased simply by doing several different kinds of activities? What happens if a person programs for 3 hours, then takes a lunch break and then focuses on writing a few pages for a book for another 3 hours, followed by a snack, light exercise and then time with family, followed by a couple of hours before bed studying? Is this achievable? Thanks a lot for all your advice!!
So true about not forgetting to enjoy your life in all this productivity stuff! So important.
Good question. Just doing different mentally challenging activities won’t really give you more productive time. Perhaps a tiny bit since you are less bored. But mental energy is mental energy, there is just a limit to how much your brain can work until it needs a recharge (sleep).
I should be working. I opened this article instead. It was like the sun broke through a cloudy day! I quit my landscape design job 20 months ago because I just never had the mental energy to get my side hustle going the way I wanted. Now that I’m on my own as a designer I struggle with really productive days followed by stressful unproductive days. I want to work those 8 hours, then bill for them, then live the rich life, but so often I end up on Medium, or Facebook (I’m two months sober from Facebook!) or other time waster sites. I have incredibly productive days, followed by days I can’t feel honest billing for. I just checked the last three months and sure enough, I’m billing on average 20-25 hours a week. (I only bill for what I feel is productive time.) This article was Apple’s hammer in the movie screen for me. Immediately I’m reducing my work day to just 5 hours. (doing so I can still make $50,000+ more in a year than my previous job) That gives me 3 extra hours with my kids! (BONUS!!!)
One little tidbit that I recently learned that improved my productivity is getting the right nutrition. You have to feed your brain (it runs on glucose) otherwise you are pushing your brain like a car out of gas. There is a big difference between feeling full and being properly nourished. This has been critical for me. If I don’t feel like working, getting better nutrition has had an almost instant effect many times for me.
Thank you for spending your precious mental energy to produce this incredible post.
Wow, this makes me so happy to read, Brian! Thank you so much for sharing your story! As a freelancer you have to set your rates so that 4-5 hours a day gets you what you need. If you calculate it with 8 hours a day you will drive yourself insane. One tip that I always try to remember is that when you sit down and realize you are not being productive, you just have to get up and do something else for a bit. Better than going down the dreaded time wasting rabbit hole of the Internet, which just ruins our motivation and focus. And very interesting about your experience with food! So you eat something nutritious and quite quickly notice you have more brain power?