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Work better, not longer
Perhaps just 3 hours of focused work per day is enough
Assumed Audience: Knowledge workers, Team Leads, Managers
In July, Quanta Magazine published an article on June Huh, a 39 year-old Mathematics Professor from Princeton University who was recently awarded one of the field’s most coveted awards – the Fields medal. The article does his work more justice than I could ever dream of doing, but fortunately, the focus of our discussion today doesn’t hinge upon my ability to explain complex mathematical concepts.
In an in-depth insight into his personal history and work practices, the professor revealed on any given day, he does about 3 (three) hours of focused work, a revelation that seems to be rather incongruent with the usual unforgiving schedules that many professors and modern knowledge workers have.
We hear often of PhD students practically living in laboratories, hustle culture, ‘996’, Quiet Quitting, Quiet Firing and many other recent labels for burnout flavours of the month, and these terms seem to insert themselves into popular lexicon with worrying regularity. Instead of seeing these oft-unhealthy ideas as a necessary evil towards a successful career, perhaps it’s high time that we took a different approach towards schedules that can result in more productive, healthier, and happier professionals.
The schedule highlighted by Prof Huh is only one example of a recent trend in scheduling that has come up recently. Earlier this year, The New Yorker ran an article by one of my favourite productivity writers, Cal Newport (of Deep Work fame), an associate professor at Georgetown University. The article calls for the embracing of a concept known as Slow Productivity, the idea that we should schedule our work with sustainability in mind, such that over a sufficiently long period, the consistent effort and output afforded by a more judicious application efforts yields work of higher quality and triumphs the constant death sprints into exhaustion that seem to be in vogue.
To do this, we have to begin by recognizing the glorification of long work hours and hustle culture for the unhealthy and unsustainable practices that they are. At this point, it should also come as little surprise to anyone that Cal Newport spent his PhD days at MIT rarely working past 5pm, and adopts the practice of scheduling only 3-4 hours of focused work a day where he works on cognitively intensive pursuits in his professional life. Other essential but not mentally demanding tasks are then fitted around these key periods, which results in productive progress that can be sustained over long periods.
Amidst this background of widespread burnout and overwork, it is time to adopt schedules that acknowledge that the nature of knowledge work is inherently different from the Ford-esque assembly lines of the 1800s, where productivity can be measured primarily by the amount of time we spend sitting at our desks.
With a schedule contending with numerous meetings, administrative work, and emails, it’s really quite possible nowadays to spend an entire day being busy and yet not having tackled the cognitively demanding endeavours that we were hired to do in the first place. This illusion of faux-busyness may make us feel productive in the short run, but over a long period detracts from the work we were brought in to perform and can be incredibly unsatisfying.
The way that we think of our work – and perhaps also what our schedules might be guided by – should be reminiscent of the way world-class artists and craftsmen ply their craft.
Schedule 3-4 hours a day specially dedicated to cognitive pursuits, and plan auxiliary work such as meetings and emails around them. You wouldn’t expect Martha Argerich to reply to your emails in the middle of her practice sessions, so why would you interrupt your own time spent coding, running experiments, or debugging to do so?
Similarly, the focus employed is key – this means no checking your phone, muting Slack, avoiding that one talkative colleague that we all seem to have, and embracing an hour of hunkering down and attacking the mentally strenuous activities you signed up (or applied for I guess) to do in the first place. The minimization of attention residue is critically important, as this can generate significant mental friction that detracts from the goals of your efforts.
Admittedly, being able to limit work to three hours is not an arrangement that is universally adoptable, even amongst knowledge workers. For example, biologists often conduct experiments that are time sensitive due to the fact that things need to be kept alive most of the time, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find some improvement.
The point behind this arrangement goes beyond the production of improved work habits and outcomes. By reducing the amount of hours required to work and minimising auxiliary tasks, we can produce professionals that are happier, healthier, freer, and also more productive than we could by squeezing every last ounce of energy out of them. These time management approaches may feel unconventional or counterproductive at first, and a significant overhaul of our current habits might lead to some uncertainty, the fact remains that our current arrangements are sub-optimal at best, and unhealthy or unsustainable at worst.
It’s time to dispense with the idea that plying your craft necessitates working 12 hours a day, and that people are lazy or lack dedication if they don’t. Burnout and unceasing levels of stress are not badges of honour to be paraded about, especially when people have demonstrated that there is a better way.
Senior Intern features tech articles that are short, informative, and light-hearted.