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How Many Hours Do You Have to Work to Feel Productive?

August 21st, 2008 · 20 comments

Time Wasters

The Academic Productivity blog recently asked the following question: What are your one or two biggest wastes of time? The question was aimed at graduate students and professors — a group who loves to obssess over these issues. The initial responses were what you might expect:

  • Web-surfing
  • E-mail
  • Blog reading
  • Etc.

The commenters’ suggestions for solving these problems centered on tools like RescueTime — a fancy timer for figuring out how you spend your time — and LeechBlock — a Firefox plug-in that prevents you from visiting time-wasting web sites.

An important assumption, however, lurks behind this self-flaggelation: you should be working most of the day, so anything that eats up a significant amount of time without producing useful results is therefore a “waste.”

But is this true?

Tipped by the excellent Casting Out Nines blog, I recently explored the web site of UCLA professor Terrence Tao, a Fields Medal winner and arguably the world’s most talented mathematician. Terrence recently wrote an article about his time management habits. Here’s what caught my attention:

Another thing is that my ability to do any serious mathematics fluctuates greatly from day to day; sometimes I can think hard on a problem for an hour, other times I feel ready to type up the full details of a sketch that I or my coauthors already wrote, and other times I only feel qualified to respond to email and do errands, or just to take a walk or even a nap.

Terrence’s view on being productive differs from the junior academics responding on Academic Productivity. Terrence is happy if some days he gets in an hour or two of hard thinking, or, as he specifies later, a few hours working on a paper write-up. He also expects that some days he’ll do nothing.

And he has a freaking Fields Medal…

Last week, writer Matt Wood addressed this same topic in a guest post on 43 Folders. Matt recalled how recently “[I] stripped my daily routine down to the bare bones. I wasn’t happy with my word count, and I blamed it on the internet. ”

Here’s the rub: after a week or two, Matt’s ideas ran out.

He finally concluded:

My creative beast is restless and hungry, and I’ve learned that if I starve it by arbitrarily limiting its routine, it’s not happy.

In other words, for Matt, being a good writer did not mean working in monastic silence for 8 hours a day. “Wasting” a few hours surfing blogs was a key part of his routine. This is similar to Terrence Tao and his need to do his math his short, intense blasts, seperated by hours, if not days, of what we might call goofing off.

Did I mention that he won a Fields Medal?

Now let’s reconsider the responses on Academic Productivy in light of these two anecdotes. The responders to the AP post were upset by the time they spent not “working.” They were willing to resort to elaborate software that would force them to work. But this all rests on the assumption that a productive person is one who works for many hours every day.

Certainly this is required in some situations — such as a grad student running an experiment. But is it always true? As demonstrated by Matt and Terrence, there is no reason to expect this to be so. Perhaps an hour or two of focused work on some days — ignoring, for now, the normal administrative sludge — would prove sufficient. Perhaps not. But the key is that the answer is not obvious.

Everyone’s situation is quite different. But I guess the conclusion I’m stumbling toward here is the following: before trying to improve your productivity, first ask yourself how many hours of work do you need to spend to be good at what you do? When we avoid seriously contemplating this question, we end up acting as if the answer is: “every hour that’s available.” This can lead to self-loathing and frustation.

So ask yourself this question. Think very carefully about the answer. Then the next time you feel guilty about spending a morning blog surfing, imagine Terrence Tao, lounging lazily in his chair, closing his eyes for a nap, a relaxed smile on his face and a Fields Medal glowing brightly in the background.

20 thoughts on “How Many Hours Do You Have to Work to Feel Productive?

  1. Grad Hacker says:

    Certainly you have a point here, but I’m wondering whether this guy Terence Tao is really the best example. He seems super human: (from Wikipedia) “Tao taught himself arithmetic by the age of two.” I mean, if I were a child prodigy, I could probably also get away with working whenever I wanted, but alas, I was born a mere mortal. Nonetheless trudging on when you’ve hit a brick wall, for example, is certainly not the best idea.

    Lastly, I would tag this under Dangerous Ideas as well. I can see this being rather dangerous advice for a lot of folks. “Terence told me I can sleep instead…”

  2. David says:

    @Grad Hacker

    Calling this guy super human should count as a dangerous idea. I read Terence’s article and didn’t come away thinking that he worked for so little time, only that he was completely fine with allowing “unproductive” days to exist in his schedule. While I’d agree with you that he certainly is gifted (RSI, IMO in high school, the Fields Medal which is the equivalent of a Nobel prize in Math) and might be able to get away with working less.

    @Cal

    I’d think it’s also important to think about what being good at what one does means, as well as how one measures this. For a student, it might mean getting his/her target grades, for a professor it might simply mean publishing enough papers to keep tenure. Judgments on how productive one is/isn’t being do follow from how much one desires to be “good” at what he does and how much time/effort he perceives is necessary to help him achieve this end. As you’re assuming the desire is there, it’s the perception part you’re dealing with in this article and really in your blog in general. But really the it’s the mental metrics we create and the price we put on success we all create that are behind the productivity guilt traps we set up. I like how you’ve used this blog to challenge people to shift their paradigms and see that hard work is not the only way to results.

    As a student, it’s easier for me to forgive myself for “time-wasting” if I have a proven time-saving, habit-based system for doing what I’m doing. That’s really what I think you’re getting at: encouraging people to evaluate what parts of their routine lead to results despite however “unproductive” they might feel.

  3. Johann says:

    Being one of the commenters on academicproductivity.com I feel the need to comment to your post as well.
    I see your point that the wording of the ap article (“waste of time”) is questionable. Just because I’m surfing the net, reading blogs or whatever doesn’t mean that this time is a waste, that I could “throw it away”.

    But from the perspective of achieving my goals as a PhD student, I must admit to myself that these activities don’t get me where I want to be, either. And on some days it is a lot of time that I spend with these not-getting-me-where-I-want-to things. And thus my wish to reduce them – simply to get quicker to what I really want.

    And regarding leechblock, I really don’t have the feeling of being forced not use certain websites while using it. After all, I could simply turn it off – so it’s rather a gentle reminder to myself not to spend to much time on facebook etc. and think about what else I wanted to get accomplished today.

    Notice also that Terrence Tao does not talk about web surfing as a thing he does on less productive days, but rather running errands (i.e. getting things out of the way for what you really want to accomplish), taking a walk or a nap (i.e. taking a real “deep” break to get your mind off of things and relax – I find web surfing is not necessarily relaxing, rather a way of disctraction like watching TV, only a bit more intellectually challenging).

  4. Study Hacks says:

    Lastly, I would tag this under Dangerous Ideas as well. I can see this being rather dangerous advice for a lot of folks.

    Good point. It’s a dangerous idea for me! I still feel guilty on days I spend writing or reading.

    I’d think it’s also important to think about what being good at what one does means, as well as how one measures this.

    This is a really good observation. As a graduate student I think lack of real understanding of what being a “good grad student” means, leads to the idea that if you feel overworked, then you must be doing something right.

    But from the perspective of achieving my goals as a PhD student, I must admit to myself that these activities don’t get me where I want to be, either. And on some days it is a lot of time that I spend with these not-getting-me-where-I-want-to things. And thus my wish to reduce them – simply to get quicker to what I really want.

    True enough. Making that distinction between needed relaxation and just plain avoiding work is something I need to grow more confident about.

  5. Thai Nguyen says:

    I agree with Terrance. On my best days, I will study for an hour straight, and that’s it. Whatever I learn past that hour doesn’t stick as well.

    Cal, thanks for sharing your ideas on this blog. You have helped me in my academic life as well as my normal life.

    I took it to heart to study for tests by taking practice tests. It takes less time, and I notice definite improvement each day. I’ve taken one practice MCAT each day at noon for 5 days to get used to my real MCAT on Friday at noon. Now taking the MCAT has become routine, and something I almost do for fun.

    When I get into medical school, part of it will be because of you. Thanks Cal.

  6. gwinne says:

    I really appreciate this post, as this is an issue that I think about a lot. I’m an assistant professor (and a single mom!) and I find that I can accomplish quite a bit (that is, enough to publish more than most my colleagues) without being chained to my desk for eight hours at a stretch. Sure, I might be able to get even more done if I stopped reading blogs, but for what purpose and at what cost? I’m meeting my personal goals and winning the respect of my department chair and insitution as is.

  7. Nate says:

    Assuming that I reach my goals, I believe I am not wasting any of my time at all. Each person has different goals to attend to, and as an undergraduate college student, my top one is to excel in academics until I graduate.

    If I put time towards one extracurricular that I care about, or spend some time surfing the internet, for example, and am still attributing time where it is needed for my classes, time is essentially not wasted. Instead, these activities serve to relieve the stress from classes and also provide insight for my life.

    When I’m at the driving range, one could argue that I’m “wasting time.” However, what one fails to realize is that by using this activity to keep myself temporarily free from deadlines and studying, I am able to keep my mind open to thoughts that may not arise while sitting down with a task to do. These thoughts then become the “road map” to my goals.

  8. john says:

    Doesn’t Terence’s way of studying contradict your idea of consistency, of working on something for a few hours consistently even if you don’t feel like it?

  9. first ask yourself how many hours of work do you need to spend to be good at what you do?

    I’d be curious to know how people go about answering this question. For example, do you look at people who are where you want to be and ask them how much time they spend doing stuff and then take the median of the number of hours they’ve told you? How do you account for lying? You know some people wear “working long-hours” as a badge of honor–and some people that may only work 4 hours/day may be scared to tell you that for fear of appearing to be a slacker.

    Using time as a productivity metric keeps us in an Industrial Age mindset. And to be frank, in my experience, this mindset usually produces inferior results.

  10. Matt says:

    I have to say that I haven’t really thought about it this way but your point is incredibly valid. How can you possibly maintain your level of creativity without additional input. We all encounter the days that we’re just not productive but this ‘down’ time can mean that our overall productivity is much higher. Unfortunately its also a license to waste time. I guess it would be unique for each individual as to how much time was needed but I would have to say that without some overarching goals regardless of how much time you need you might end up just frittering away the days.

    Very interesting post.

  11. patrick says:

    As long as you can still accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, I think the more time you have to ‘waste’ doing random things the better. Again, as long as you are on target to achieving your goal withing whatever timeframe you set out, the amount of time you have to ‘waste’ could actually be considered a measure of your efficiency. If you accomplish your goal with the least amount of time and effort, then it follows you will have more time for web surfing or whatever it is you choose to do than someone who works more hours, less efficiently.

  12. Jason says:

    The great mathematician Henri Poincare worked 4 hours a day.
    10 -2 and 5 -7 I believe. And, in the late evening he read some articles. Another mathematician J.E. Littlewood said
    that once he began taking Sundays off the quality or abundance of his work (can’t remember which at this moment) improved. I suspect all highly creative work reaches a point of diminishing if not negative returns. It may come from fatigue, stress, or the need to see your work afresh every so often.

  13. M. says:

    But I think that a lot of people spend time “surfing the net” to avoid work when they would really rather be doing something else to relax. For example, I prefer to read books to relax and take a break, but if I’m avoiding work, I’ll just fritter time away on forums. I don’t genuinely enjoy forums the way I do books, and I only reason I use them is because I can fool myself into thinking that it’s just a “quick break” I’m taking.

    Likewise, I think people should look for “high quality” relaxation time. If for you that means reading blogs, great. But if you just surf the web because you think you’re going to get right back to work, that’s not high quality relaxation. You would be better served just shutting off the internet and picking up your book.

  14. Study Hacks says:

    I’d be curious to know how people go about answering this question. For example, do you look at people who are where you want to be and ask them how much time they spend doing stuff and then take the median of the number of hours they’ve told you?

    This is a really good question. My thought: find out what you need to accomplish to be really good at what you do. Then figure out the number of hours those accomplishments really require. The key is being specific. Though I am going to think about this some more…

    Again, as long as you are on target to achieving your goal withing whatever timeframe you set out, the amount of time you have to ‘waste’ could actually be considered a measure of your efficiency

    I agree. I think, as mentioned above, that identifying what you need to do to be good is the key. This has nothing to do with time. So long as you accomplish this, then you’re golden to spend the rest of your hours doing whatever.

  15. Study Hacks says:

    The great mathematician Henri Poincare worked 4 hours a day.
    10 -2 and 5 -7 I believe. And, in the late evening he read some articles

    Great example. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I also agree with that diminishing returns bit. It’s a big challenge for math-type grad students like me to figure out when staring at a proof longer is a waste…

    Likewise, I think people should look for “high quality” relaxation time.

    This makes sense to me. A lot of people do pseudo-relaxing because — surfing on the computer where they do real work — because it somehow seems better than real relaxing — cracking a beer and a new book.

  16. Joe says:

    Nice post. However, I can’t help feeling like Terry Tao’s model is a great model to follow AFTER YOU HAVE A FIELD’S MEDAL (or: after you have tenure). But it sounds like a pipe dream for junior faculty/graduate students, who are under much greater pressure to produce *quickly.*

    That said, of course you should listen to your body (/brain) and not push yourself too hard; in my experience, that’s when I hit burnout and lose weeks at a time, rather than the few hours I would have lost if I had known when to quit.

    It’s no accident that the term “burnout” has its roots in burning out an engine, and I think the analogy holds: you can only keep things in the red for so long before your body quits completely.

  17. Study Hacks says:

    But it sounds like a pipe dream for junior faculty/graduate students, who are under much greater pressure to produce *quickly.*

    Maybe it depends on the field. In theoretical computer science, for example, publishing 3 or 4 good papers a year — which would qualify you as a very productive student — doesn’t come close to eating up all of your time. Each paper, from my experience, is months of random thinking and conversations and shower eureka moments followed, at some point, by a week or so of frenzied writing. Add it up and there’s like one month worth of writing and the rest of time just random thinking. Somehow, I end up a lot more busy then this…but I’m not quite sure why?

  18. fahad says:

    This definitely works for me,

    When starting my PhD, my aim was to wake start working at 8 in the morning till 12 midnight. My goal was to sleep for only 6 hours. Sadly this didn’t work and all the initial motivation vanished due to this extreme schedule. Shortly after i completely crashed and didn’t feel like working anymore. I started hating my PhD.

    Stress is extremely dangerous. Reading you blog and a few other books like the 4 hour week and some of naseem taleb’s aphorisms i realized what was wrong. Although i was pretending to work from 8 to 12, but i wasn’t being effective. Most of the time i would stare blankly at my computer screen which definitely wasn’t work.

    Working in short intense bursts is definitely very effective, manageable and keeps you sane. I have now started working in intense 1 hour (or 2 hour) bursts with zero distraction (no internet or phone). I make sure that every second of that time is spent on doing some work. I stop working as soon as i start to blank out and unable to focus. Carol Dweck in her book “motivation and self-regulation across the lifespan” describes how to reach a state of flow. After my brain reaches the breaking point for intense work i close everything and do some random stuff that i feel like doing at the time. Mostly i roam around, or browse books in the library which have nothing to do with my work. It helps you to think over and plan your next burst of productivity.

    4 hours of intense work for me spread through out the day is enough for me. I am now accomplishing more work than i used to with my 8-12 schedule. I love cooking and reading fiction. This gives me ample time to pursue these two passions. Looking back, one of the reasons for hating my work was that i didn’t have the time to pursue these interest. Wasting time is fun, hence we should do away with all the guilt. Even talking to my family members of telephone seemed like wasting time a few years back. Learn to live a more natural life style.

  19. Natasha says:

    seperated should be separated I just noticed a typo..

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