Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

You Probably (Really) Work Way Less Than You Assume

August 23rd, 2012 · 36 comments

The 6-Hour Work Week

Last weekend, I decided it would be an interesting experiment to start tracking the hours I spent in a state of hard focus. I only counted hours where I was mastering new material (e.g., with the textbook method), engaging in a serious research discussion, or trying to formally write up new results.

I have done such tracking before, but not recently. I figured it would provide a helpful metric for my craftsman in the cubicle project. Here’s my tally for the four days I’ve tracked so far:

It’s depressing.

I have caveats — I was traveling through late Monday night and I was at a retreat most of the day yesterday — but still. I’m embarrassed by how few hours I managed to spend on work that really matters.

I have a general and a specific conclusion to make here…

The general conclusion: I think most knowledge workers probably way overestimate how much time they actually spend improving and applying the core skills that make them valuable. Keep a similar tally for a week, you’ll be surprised by what you find. This underscores the importance of the type of project I’m running here: if we don’t apply deliberate efforts in our quest to become craftsmen, our progress will be glacial. On the flip side, if we do apply these efforts, we have an opportunity to jump far ahead in our value.

The specific conclusion: As the summer gives way to the school year, I have my work cut out for me. I’m going to continue to track these hours for the near future, and let this tally drive me toward the hard decisions necessary to continue my quest to become “so good they can’t ignore you.”

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This post is part of my Craftsman in the Cubicle series which explores strategies for building a remarkable working life by mastering a small number of rare and valuable skills. Previous posts include:

#craftsmanincubicle

36 thoughts on “You Probably (Really) Work Way Less Than You Assume

  1. Euripides says:

    So these are discrete “hours”? That is, do you count 30 minutes as one-half a mark?
    In the previous linked post, you refered to “core tasks.” For academics like us, teaching is also a core task, IMO. So would that be excluded from this count?

  2. Kate says:

    Hey Cal,
    Thanks for your honesty here! It may be depressing for you, but for me I have to say I’m relieved to see that I’m not the only one finding my work week taken over by non-hard-focus tasks. Not that I want my week to stay that way. So, I will continue to work and learn to work, right along with you! But it made me feel better to see that it is a struggle for all of us, even the author of Study Hacks! ;P So, thanks again for your honesty and forth-rightness. I draw so much encouragement from your blog!

  3. Carey says:

    Interesting results… but I wonder if you are not taking into account other “work” things you are doing that aren’t as obvious? During drive time, are you thinking about projects, brainstorming ideas, pondering conversations, etc.? To me… and I’ve had to learn this… that is work too – and a kind many of us don’t make enough room for in our schedules. The “thinking” time is just as vital as the actual “hard focus” time.

  4. Erik says:

    Reading Ericson you shouldn’t be surprised. Remember the part where top performers seem to be unable to get more than 4 hours of deliberate practice a day? Doing more usually burns you out or tells you that you’re not really doing hard work.

  5. This post is really interesting to me because it’s almost the exact opposite of the type of advice you’d find written for those who are self employed.

    Members of the freelance world (which i am) are notorious for only billing hours spent actually working directly on a project and not inflating their rates enough to cover all of the “little things” that are necessary to make that project happen (ie. emails, phone calls, and other “not hard work” things). That, in the long run, kills them for two reasons. First, because it’s hard to correctly calculate what you should be charging if you don’t realize that you’ll spend a serious portion of your “work” time doing work that you don’t bill for (the emails and such). Second, because it’s easy to overbook yourself, when you don’t take in consideration how much time those tasks take.

    I’m sure at least some of the time you spent NOT working on “hard focus” projects was still work-related and essential, even if not a core task (answer email, phone conversations and the like) — right?

  6. yora says:

    Cal thanks. I do exactly the same. Set the clock and tally hours. Initially (about 4-5mts ago) I decided to make it 6hrs/d on the days I wasnt working and 4hrs on days I was. But it is extremely difficult to completely focus for 6hrs, and this is with breaks, watching a movie in between etc. So instead I softened the 4-6-hr rule and made it that as long as I could focus absolutely for 2hrs on the important work it mattered. What I do with tallies is I take the mean for each day and plot them on SAS or excel to see my progress. The plots are not uniform and so far there is a very mild trend toward improvement (with the number of tallies being distractions). I apply the same to meditating in quiet. Wish there were ways to improve the will power at this point…

  7. Luke Murray says:

    Hey Cal – I use an Iphone app called Eternity (there are plenty more) to make track this data. For example, here’s yesterday (as you can see I only track the core things that matter to me: writing, studying, IronMan training, sleeping – everything else goes in the “not studying” category, as that should be my primary objective). http://luke-today.posterous.com/day-221

  8. Kerry says:

    I read somewhere the statement (from Scott Ginsberg I think): “you always overestimate what you can do in a week and underestimate what you can do in a year.”

    You might only have 6 hours in 4 days, but that’s a small sample. I’m betting there will be weeks where you do more like 40 hours of concentrated effort, but that’s not a pace you can keep up forever. I also think that you shouldn’t aim for a steady workrate – you will do better on a cycle of intense bursts followed by easing off (I think of it as an absorption period).

  9. Eric Ma says:

    Cal, have you considered using RescueTime to help track your time? I have kept a record of the things I do while awake during the week (168 hrs – unrecorded time = ~70-80 hrs recorded), and I find myself doing thesis work about 64% of the time. How is it that you are clocking in only 6 hours of hard focus?

  10. Ironically I found this post heartening. My PhD is in clinical psychology and so I need to balance the demands of coursework, placement and research. Your post reminded me that even when we do have solid days to focus on any one task we can still end up working on the tasks that don’t really matter. To me this means that if I can identify what tasks are going to have the most value for each domain of my degree and make sure that I prioritise these, I can make the most of my time, regardless of how much of it I have. Thanks for the ‘a-ha’ moment your post inspired.

  11. rainingmusic says:

    I have been doing this for years, since high school. I don’t often tell people the numbers, because they sound very low, but for myself I _know_ that getting 6 hours of real work in (research or studying) a day is excellent, and am happy with 4. 2-3 hours a day is not unusual. The most I ever logged was 12.5 hours one day studying for an undergrad exam.

  12. rainingmusic says:

    Oh and it’s worth saying that when I stop keeping track and then start again, my productivity drops by this measure. It then increases slowly to the same level as before.

  13. Estara says:

    It really is true though. It really does happen. What matters is hard focus, not little tasks or even pondering the subject. Tallying hours (and for me,hanging them on the wall) is a brutal way of getting oneself to buckle down, sweep aside unnecessary tasks, and work.
    This summer I had a sheet for each project I was working on and wrote down every time I worked on that project, the date, and what I accomplished. The papers were hung on my bedroom/office wall.
    It was equally depressing, but now I’m motivated.
    Need will power? Hang this stuff where you see every day how productive you’ve been.

  14. Since I’m constantly analyzing people’s schedules, I’m actually not surprised at your result. For many people, their most important work gets pushed aside by other more urgent tasks, especially when circumstances like travel is involved.

    That’s why it’s so important–like you advocate–to be incredibly intentional about blocking out time to honestly focus on the most important tasks. In general, this work isn’t really important to anyone but you so you need to be “selfish” and put yourself first.

    If your a knowledge worker who works in an office, this will also require be ruthless about cutting meetings out of your schedule and possibly removing yourself from your desk area so you can truly focus without guilt.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  15. J. says:

    I dunno… Saying you only work 1.5 hours a day because you were only in a state of hard focus six hours over four days is like saying a baseball game is really only 5 minutes long because that’s the amount of time the ball is in fly. Or that a cop is only working during the few minutes a week that they’re apprehending bad guys. I understand why it’s a useful metric, but is it correct to be “depressed” or even surprised about it? And might this be the wrong lens through which to view the concept of work, which is the addition of value to the world? After all, networking with other academics may not take hard focus, but in the long run it leads to innovation and the creation of synergies whose potential may dwarf those of a highly honed skillset.

  16. Study Hacks says:
    So these are discrete “hours”? That is, do you count 30 minutes as one-half a mark?

    That’s right. Notice the sixth hour has a horizontal dash. That was originally a 30 minute block that I later extended.

    During drive time, are you thinking about projects, brainstorming ideas, pondering conversations, etc.?

    I sometimes explicitly put aside walking/drive time to tackle a problem, in which case it gets all my focus, and I do count such hours. But this is hard work (I trained myself to be able to maintain focus while walking — harder than most think).

    emember the part where top performers seem to be unable to get more than 4 hours of deliberate practice a day?

    Right. But those six hours were spread over four days. So I was accomplishing about 25% of the theoretical maximum for true hard focus over that period.

    I also think that you shouldn’t aim for a steady workrate – you will do better on a cycle of intense bursts followed by easing off (I think of it as an absorption period).

    A thought-provoking idea…

    If your a knowledge worker who works in an office, this will also require be ruthless about cutting meetings out of your schedule and possibly removing yourself from your desk area so you can truly focus without guilt.

    There’s definitely a sense of “ruthlessness” required to intentionally keep these numbers high.

    After all, networking with other academics may not take hard focus, but in the long run it leads to innovation and the creation of synergies whose potential may dwarf those of a highly honed skillset.

    The soft stuff is fine. And I want to do lots of it. But I also want to do lots of the hard focus that produces valuable new results.

  17. Alejandro says:

    Hi Cal,
    I’ve taken a somewhat similar approach with my work. I started using the pomodoro technique to track how many hours of straight up, uninterrupted development I was doing at work. The first week I averaged 3-4 half hour blocks a day (so 2 hours on a good day). Pretty freaking horrible given I’m paid to develop software.

    About 8 months have passed and now I’m at 8 pomodoro (4 hours) consistently and about 12 on a very good day. And this is not just hours that don’t translate to much; I literally get twice as much business valued delivered than I used to (as measured by story count).

    As you said, it’s a simple technique. And a very efficient one.

    PS I first heard of the technique through a comment in your blog a while back, so I just had to report and thank you :)

  18. Jayde says:

    Hi Cal,
    I tracked my work hours like this over the 2nd year of my masters program. I’d do work in timed 15 minute distraction-free blocks. After awhile I figured out that I could do about 2.5 hours of quality work (thesis research or class work) per day. After I set that limit, I was able to just study until I reached the daily quota, then do whatever I wanted for the rest of the day. In this way I was able to keep straight As while being far less stressed than my classmates.

  19. Cal, you’re right – it’s depressing when you see how little time actually goes into things that move the bar. I recently started tracking pomodoros as Alejandro mentioned. I started out with a goal of 8 half hour blocks per day, and quickly failed. 6 is still a stretch at this point. Glad to know that I’m in the ballpark with that target.

  20. Erik says:

    Right. But those six hours were spread over four days. So I was accomplishing about 25% of the theoretical maximum for true hard focus over that period.

    Ah, sorry, a bit of sloppy reading on my part. I though you had gotten 6 h in one day. :-) That would have been impressive.

  21. Scary thoughts! It really is easy to be distracted by the “tasks that need doing”. Time to knuckle down, it seems :)

  22. Peter says:

    I’ve had a similar experience tracking my time using http://www.supernifty.com.au/hourly_tracker.php – I have found that simply the act of tracking has resulted in a significant improvement. I discovered that mornings were my problem and just being aware of this has helped.

  23. Sam says:

    Did Ericsson really conclude that 4 hours per day is the maximum amount of deliberate practice one can get in a single day, or did he conclude that the top performers he studied got 4 hours in a single day at most? Given that deliberate practice didn’t have a name when he started his research there might still be plenty of room for systematic improvement.

    I’m a bit split about your results. I agree that honing your skills is absolutely crucial, but the way you count your time means that figuring out what problems to solve/where to apply your force is not counted. Looking at your posts about the impact that Erez had makes that seem at least as important as actually solving the problem. We should definitely strive to improve the amount of hard focus we do every week, but to paraphrase Hamming: the one who keeps their office door shut accomplishes more in the short term, but risk end up being irrelevant in 10 years because the field has moved in the ‘wrong’ direction.

    I think “J” is saying a lot of what I’m saying. One part that I disagree about is the networking with other academics — it’s definitely valuable, but the reason you are useful to others is either that you have interesting skills, interesting equipment, or interesting funding. Be nice, but remember that people rarely fly across the world to just have a beer with a nice guy.

  24. Amr says:

    May I suggest a great new app for tracking behavior and habits? Go to Lift.do and try it out. It only launched a couple of days ago, and it’s already encouraged me to work harder.

  25. Kaleberg says:

    Actually, that’s a pretty good ratio. An Olympic sprinter might spend the better part of a minute every four years actually focusing on their enterprise.

  26. Lyndon says:

    Now this is an eye-opener;
    On especially busy days, I ‘work’ about 8 hours a day (i’m a college student, so ‘work’ means ‘study’) but now that I think about it, I realize that I only stare into books 8 hours a day…not to mention my addiction to facebook and whatsapp. Thanks for this article, it’s boosted my self-consciousness immensely. I should be able to achieve twice as much as Poincare! (hey, aim for the moon right? lol) Thanks a billion, Cal

  27. Mister says:

    I feel homework doesn’t help me become a better physicist.
    My goal is to be a physicist. I only count things that add to my value as a physicist as ‘actually useful work’.

    Thinking this way, I do ‘actually useful work’ so very little.

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