The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done

There aren't many hard-and-fast rules of time management that apply to everyone, always, regardless of situation or personality (which is why I tend to emphasise general principles instead). But I think there might be one: you almost certainly can't consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than about three or four hours a day.

As I've written before, it's positively spooky how frequently this three-to-four hour range crops up in accounts of the habits of the famously creative. Charles Darwin, at work on the theory of evolution in his study at Down House, toiled for two 90-minute periods and one one-hour period per day; the mathematical genius Henri Poincaré worked for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman and many more all basically followed suit, as Alex Pang explains in his book Rest (where he also discusses research supporting the idea: this isn't just a matter of cherry-picking examples to prove a point). 

 

Before you jump down my throat, I realise, of course, that many such figures relied on wives and/or servants to keep their lives on track. And in any case they didn't live in an era like ours, where those in high-status jobs feel they have to work as relentlessly as anyone. The moral here isn't that you ought to be in a position to rise from your desk, once your four hours are up, then spend the rest of the day playing tennis and drinking cocktails. (Though if you can, I say go for it.)

 

The real lesson – or one of them – is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to "maximise your time" or "optimise your day", in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer. And drop the perfectionistic notion that emails, meetings, digital distractions and other interruptions ought ideally to be whittled away to practically nothing. Just focus on protecting four hours – and don't worry if the rest of the day is characterised by the usual scattered chaos.

 

Pathological productivity

The other, arguably more important lesson isn't so much a time management tactic as an internal psychological move: to give up demanding more of yourself than three or four hours of daily high-quality mental work. That's an emphasis that gets missed, I think, in the current conversation about overwork and post-pandemic burnout. Yes, it's true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours. But it's also true that we're increasingly the kind of people who don't want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don't feel we're being productive. The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run. 

 

How far you can check out of the culture of unproductive busywork depends on your situation, of course. But regardless of your situation, you can choose not to collaborate with it. You can abandon the delusion that if you just managed to squeeze in a bit more work, you'd finally reach the commanding status of feeling "in control" and "on top of everything" at last. The truly valuable skill here isn't the capacity to push yourself harder, but to stop and recuperate despite the discomfort of knowing that work remains unfinished, emails unanswered, other people's demands unfulfilled. 

 

That's the spirit embodied by one monk at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, interviewed by the writer Jonathan Malesic for his forthcoming book The End of Burnout, which I've been enjoying. The monks' daily work period lasts (can you guess?) three hours, ending at 12.40pm. Malesic writes: "I asked Fr Simeon, a monk who spoke with a confidence cultivated through the years he spent as a defence attorney, what you do when the 12:40 bell rings but you feel that your work is undone.

 

"'You get over it,' he replied." 

To receive posts as soon as they're available, subscribe to my email The Imperfectionist.