Why You’re Probably Not Working as Much as You Think You Are

People who’ve never done a timelog before often grossly overestimate the amount of time they are actually working.

Years ago I had a friend who was launching a software company and earnestly told me that he was putting in 12-hour work days to achieve this. Despite that, I could see him making dozens of online forum posts throughout the day. Writing on a forum loosely related to running your business may be considered work, but it’s hard to see how chiming in on old topics stacked against his urgent goal to ship his product on time.

Doing a timelog, meticulously recording when you start and stop work activities, is often discouraging because the illusion of productivity gets shattered. You may feel you’re putting in heroic hours on a particular goal, but the actual logs show only a fraction of your time was spent on important work.

You Can’t Actually Work That Much

Most people, upon realizing their dismal productivity, resolve to do better. They’ll cut out the distractions and get back to task. They’ll continue putting in the long hours, but this time, they won’t waste time.

Unfortunately I think this is exactly the wrong realization to make from the information. The realization should be that getting even small amounts of deep work done is incredibly hard. Therefore, a schedule that prioritizes low-hours, but hard work, is better than one which pushes you all day long.

Part-Time Hours in a Full-Time Job

I first wrote about this idea several years ago, in my book about self-employed productivity. The idea was that the 40-hour standard for workweeks is almost certainly too high a bar for 95% of workers, if that time is spent mostly on deep work. And the 80-hour marathons that entrepreneurs and students grind themselves through are likely impossible without the benefit of pharmaceuticals.

What if, in your 40-60 hour stated workweek, you set aside 20 hours per week that was exclusively focused on the work that was of critical importance? No emails, meetings, calls, internet surfing or chatting. Just the hard, important work.

I imagine that, in these part-time hours, you’d get more done than you do trying to do the same work in unrestricted full-time hours throughout the week. I’d also guess that the amount of low-value activities would decrease as well, now that they are not being used as a crutch to help you avoid the work that truly matters.

My Recent Experiment With Part-Time in Full-Time Hours

I’ve used this strategy many times before, but I often fall into the same trap most people do. I either start expanding my hours or I become less rigid about the scheduling of my focused work. These two effects combine and I end up working more and more with less and less focus, until I’m back where I started. It takes discipline not to work, rather than to work too much.

Recently I wrote about using this strategy for Korean, in comparison with Chinese. I restricted all my studying time to two, 2-hour chunks every weekday. Although a fair assessment of my actual time spent studying in Chinese was probably more like 6-7 hours/day, the lack of rigidity in the schedule meant it felt more like 9-10 hour days, over twice the perceived effort for only 50% more actual work accomplished.

How to Take Advantage of This For Your Work

Whether you’re an office worker or a high-school student, you can use the same system to get more done of the things that really matter to your results. Just follow these steps:

  1. Pick an amount of hours of deep work that makes your deep work a scarce opportunity rather than a burden. The mistake is picking a schedule which you could potentially do, but doesn’t worry you that you won’t get everything done. That worry will ignite a greater focus in you and a certain seriousness that prevents you from procrastinating when that time comes up in your schedule. I personally recommend four hours per day, but 2-6 may be more appropriate depending on the nature of the deep work and how large a percentage it makes up of your total tasks.
  2. Schedule those hours first in your schedule, the same time every day. This tip goes to Cal Newport. Previously, in my Weekly/Daily Goals system, I left the act of scheduling more haphazard, and that makes the system weaker. Pick out the exact times you’ll be doing this, and it’s a plus if they’re the same every day for habit-building reasons.
  3. All of your deep, important work, must fit into those chunks. You aren’t allowed to bump them, extend them, swap them or reassign them from different days. If the nature of what is your deep work and what are your distractions aren’t already clear, make sure you define exactly what kind of work must fit into that box.
  4. Schedule all your other work, emails, calls, meetings, etc. outside of those chunks. Make those chunks the cornerstones of your day and move things around to accommodate it. If you have a job where you can’t be picky about when meetings and the like are scheduled, try picking times where rescheduling these chunks is less likely.

My schedule is Monday to Friday 8:30am-11:30am and 12:30pm-2:30pm. Currently, with my language learning project, I’m using this time for Korean, and scheduling the lower-priority tasks around it. When I finish, I plan to use the same structure for my writing and business development work.

Every time I’ve used this approach, I’ve seen a boost in my focus and productivity. If there are too many hours in the system, I’ll know I miscalculated because the productivity and focus will wear off once the initial motivation dies. You want to design a schedule which encourages you to treat your deep focus hours like a scarce opportunity, not an unfortunate chore to delay.

By cleanly separating the deep work and the lighter work which doesn’t demand the same mental resources, you also end up reducing your hours, since you stop using lighter work as an excuse to procrastinate on the things that actually matter.

HT to Cal Newport, who first introduced me to the concept of deep work, and whose writing informed a lot of the ideas in this post.

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  • Austin Walters

    The maximum most of the top performers (aka top musicians, athletes, mathematicians, etc.) spend per day working is six hours. We have a kind of “hard limit” on how much we can learn, our brains need time to “grok” and relax (read this in The Talent Code, as well as some other places I cannot recall).

    I tried implementing this in my current job, after learning this. I would block out four hours every day (8 – noon), decline all meeting, etc. I then would have two hours allocated towards meetings and I would leave work within six hours. At first my boss tried to stop me, but I just kept doing it and told him to wait until the performance review to make a decision (my boss was pretty awesome to let me get away with it).

    At my current job, I receive mini-performance reviews every two months, I also have to present my work. After only four weeks of only working six hours a day my performance nearly doubled. I’m a computer programmer and the added relaxation and “grokking” time reduced my mistakes dramatically. Making my debug time drop and my ability to code well skyrocket, to be honest it kind of surprised me, and it’s not enough statistical analysis to “prove” it’s better.

    It did however seem to work well for me, I produced more high quality work, while working 25% less. I really suggest everyone taking the time to map out your day and try to optimize various portions of your life, it helped me a lot.

  • Ben

    While I’ve read posts on this subject before, this one is really crystal clear and is giving me a much needed kick up the backside to rethink my scheduling. Cheers Scott!

  • The Self Learner

    Scott, thanks for sharing this much needed post. The subject of “deep work” sounds very similar to the term, “woodshedding”. Jazz musicians would often use this word when they secluded themselves from all distractions to master their instrument. Purposeful practice paves the way for accelerated growth!

  • imron

    Just a quick note to say the link to your ‘self-employed productivity’ is broken (contains a repeated domain).

  • Cathy Hasty

    Thank you for these wonderful reminders and counter cultural messages. Perhaps over scheduling and being busy can be seen as a form of malpractice for any profession that intends to improve the human condition; i.e. counseling, ministry, coaching. The desire, pressure, force to be busy seems to me to be driven by a lack of differentiation from the expectations of others and from the fear that. if we are quiet and unscheduled, the demons of depression or our own fears will overwhelm us. In counseling there is a phrase that captures this: “a manic defense against depression.” A person propels themselves constantly from one high stress and pressure activity to the next with breakneck speed to prevent themselves from carefully examining themselves, their life and decisions. I enjoy your reflections, Scott, and look forward to more.

  • Vince

    It could get really tricky without actually tracking the time, but knowing what hours work best without actually tracking the time and knowing the amount of deep work is accomplished.
    Even though I have made commitments to work from 10 to early evening, most of the high-productive hours take place in afternoons. I noticed that I even hardly take breaks then. Frankly, these hours felt less like burden and felt more like I’m in the zone. So knowledge workers would need to make the most of their work in these (relatively) short hours.

  • Daniel

    Thanks, Scott. Great blog post. I too have found I’m for more productive with shorter work hours and intense focus than with long aimless hours. Seeing it written down clearly motivates me to actually intentionally orient my schedule that way and justify it to workaholics who are easily distracted or exhaust themselves unnecessarily, and also to that “conformist in my mind,” that tells me I should work long and empty like everyone else.

  • jhwitz

    I’ve been reading this and Cal’s blog for several years. I’m employed as a salesperson, which historically doesn’t lend itself to deep work or a compressed schedule. I’m starting soon at a new company in a new industry, and was wondering what insight you could offer? How do you apply deep work, deliberate practice, and productivity strategies to an role that at the end of the day, really comes down to how much you “hustle”?

  • Scott Young

    jhwitz,

    I think you need to think in terms of (a) what is the high-value work you perform every day and (b) what is the work that you procrastinate on or deliberately delay.

    Then again, it may simply not be as relevant to your field. Working conditions can vary substantially, so it would be surprising if there was a single, simple philosophy that could raise productivity across the board.

    -Scott

  • Shilpa Reddy

    Good idea to schedule when in the day deep work will be accomplished. It’s interesting that you went from Weekly/Daily goals to a more defined schedule. I wonder if that’s the nature of developing a deep work schedule. When I attempted to put in place a deep productivity system similar to Cal Newport’s — I failed very rapidly. Building up to that kind of fixed schedule only seems possible through small changes to productivity processes. Right now, I’ve started seeing the value in time logging, so I’ve started that and found it useful in tracking productive hours. (Also — it is just fun carrying around a timer that isn’t on my phone :D).

    I’m always very curious as to how deep work plays a role in professional education. People claim to study 8+ hours a day, but how much of that time is spent in deep uninterrupted work? I’ll find out soon enough! I wonder if the answer will be similar to the differences between your approaches to Korean and Chinese.

    Thanks for this post, Scott! Additionally – I’m attempting to learn my mother tongue in one week and your info on foreign languages provides useful ideas.

  • Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    Thanks for the tips. I definitely agree with you that people often are not working as much as they think they are or they are wasting time doing things that could easily be more efficient. It is difficult to work long hours at full producitivity and attention span, at least without pharmaceuticals as you said. I find that three to for hours a day is best for me in order to get stuff done. I tend to spread it out over the course of the day. I then spend the rest of the day doing more physical work that brings more pleasure in some regards. I will have to try the setting a perfect time when I get back to learning French. Routine definitely is beneficial.

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