The Three and a Half Hour Rule

After a few months of tracking my own work habits and having conversations with other freelancers and business owners, I’ve formed a strong belief about the working habits of knowledge workers and creatives.

In any 24 hour period, you only have 3.5 hours of really productive work in you.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can only work 3.5 hours per day; but anything outside of this 3-4 hour window is non-optimal. I define “non-optimal” as work performed at a lower level of utilisation. For example, 1 hour of work at 100% utilisation will take 2 hours at a level of 50%.

Operating in “Zones”

I would say on the average day I get around 3 hours of AWESOME work. I call this the green zone.

When I’m working in the green zone, I’m efficient (~100% utilisation), have loads of motivation and am generally satisfied with life and work. It also means I have plenty of time to exercise, do yoga, plan and apply strategic vision to how I spend my time. Life is “easy.”

But often, I need to work more than this.

I can get another 1-2 hours at around 75% utilisation. I’m still pretty productive, but noticeably less efficient and creative than I was during the first hours of work. I call this the orange zone.

In the orange zone, I’m not completely useless, but the work I produce is not particularly good. My ability to solve problems creatively diminishes, and I can only really work on problems that I’ve solved before.

Redlining

lately I’ve been overbooking myself, so I’ve had to move into the 7, 8, and 8+ hours per day range. I call this the red zone. In the red zone, I’m a zombie. I often make stupid mistakes and can’t think creatively. Strategic thought ceases: I can only work on things that are right in-front of me and clearly defined. Utilisation drops below 50%, so everything I do takes longer and is of a lower quality than my normal work.

This is bad enough, but working in the red zone for longer than a couple of days also causes  problems with other areas of your life. Redlining is dangerous, because it often forms a feedback loop. you work a lot, so your life quality drops, which causes your motivation and efficiency to take a dive. Because you’re getting less work done, you need to work more to pick up the slack, which reduces your efficiency and life satisfaction further.

Implications

My observation is that it’s much better for me AND my clients when I work less. That’s right. Work less.

Around 4 hours seems to be the sweet-spot: I get a load of work done, solve problems creatively and have plenty of time to have a great life-style and take care of myself. When this creeps up, I start skipping important things like exercise, relaxation time and personal and professional development.

Staying in the green zone also means I have the creativity and mental “breathing room” to think strategically about how I should be spending my time, which prevents me from wasting time working on the wrong things.

I haven’t measured this, but I’d say 1 hour of my time in the green zone is worth at least 3 (maybe more) in the red zone.

The moral of the story? Work less, get more done.

  • http://www.adventurous-soul.com/ Shayna

    This is so true! I call them “the golden hours” (for me they also tend to be in the morning, when my energy is naturally high) and I’ve got to use them to do the hardcore creative work (I’m a teacher / course creator). If I waste those hours with mindless tasks like design tweaks, audio editing or responding to e-mails, it’s very hard to get myself into gear later in the day.

    Also, fully utilizing my golden hours also enables me to log off with the satisfaction of “my work is done for the day” (even though there’s always more to do, it doesn’t feel like it’s hanging over my head).

    • http://www.coreymcmahon.com/ Corey McMahon

      Agree 100% Shayna!

      I’m the same, I always do my best (creative) work in the morning. It’s also hard to beat that feeling when it’s time to eat lunch and you’ve already got 3-4 hours of QUALITY work under your belt.

  • Derek W

    I can relate to this. 3-4 hours of good work until I start to burn out for the day. Probably sounds little compared to the average 40 hour workweek, but that schedule was originally created for repetitive jobs following simple instructions. If you’re a secretary, telemarketer or factory worker, then it’s probably sustainable. But if your work requires doing new things every day and creating the instructions, then it’s different.