The three-or-four-hours rule

Oliver Burkeman, a writer of self-help and time management books, says that most people are not capable of devoting more than three or four hours a day to intense mental or creative work.

The way to be more productive, he writes, is to fence off three or four hours a day for your high-priority work and deal with the routine work and busywork later.

If you’re a creative worker, you don’t become more productive by working longer hours.  You become more productive by finding a few hours each day to focus on your most important (not most urgent) work.

This is true of me, and I think it is true of a lot of people.  It explains people like the SF writer Gene Wolfe who had a time-consuming job as a trade-magazine editor, and did his writing only in bits and snatches of time, but still did outstanding work.

Of course not everybody has a work schedule or a life in which they can set aside even a few hours for creative work.  But for those who do, the following is good advice.

It pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to “maximize your time” or “optimize your day,” in some vague way, but specifically to ring-fence 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 characterized by the usual scattered chaos. ​

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.

I’m reminded of the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.  He wrote that most human thinking takes place below the level of consciousness and is based on rules of thumb developed over millennia of evolution.

What we believe is logical reasoning is based on subconscious assumptions and prompts of which we are unaware, although we can give logical rationales for what we do.

It is possible, he wrote, to slow down and engage in evidence-based logical thinking, but this is exhausting, and most human beings lack the ability to do this for more than a few hours at a time.

Now logical reasoning is not the same thing as creative thinking.  What they have in common is the need to focus without distraction.


The three-or-four-hours rule by Oliver Burkeman.

Notes on Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Pang.

Daniel Kahneman: “We’re Beautiful Devices” by Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian.

What Meditation Can Do For Us, and What It Can’t by Adam Gopnick for The New Yorker.  One way to improve your ability to focus,

Why Slowing Down Is the Key to Creativity by Alex Tzeinic for Aero [Added 8/31/2021]

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One Response to “The three-or-four-hours rule”

  1. Bill Harvey Says:

    Thanks much, Phil.

    Sartre said “Three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon- you’ll get a lot of work done.”

    If only I/we had that kind of focus… but it shouldn’t be THAT hard to cultivate!



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