Posts Tagged ‘Creativity’

The three-or-four-hours rule

August 22, 2021

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.


Sir Ken Robinson on the trouble with education

April 30, 2013