Good Hours, Not More Hours

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about life over the past several years is that your good hours are the only valuable ones.

You know exactly what I’m talking about. There are a few hours during the day where you’re revved up. Your mind is clicking. You’re efficient at solving problems. You’re able to produce great things.

At other points in the day, though, you’re nowhere near as able to produce good work. You sit there staring at the computer screen or at your desk, not really achieving anything. You feel tired and muddled.

Once upon a time, I believed that a good worker would push through those hours and still accomplish stuff. I’m “on the clock,” so I should be achieving something, right?

Working outside of an office environment, though, I’ve learned that I usually accomplish very little outside of those key productive hours. If I feel that I’m off of the peak and I’m not writing as well, I’m largely wasting my time continuing to make myself write.

Instead, I do something else, usually something mindless. I go for a walk. I file some papers. I clean the house. It could be anything. If I feel an urge to write, I return to writing, but if it’s not there, it’s just not there.

The result of this has been that my life has simply become far more productive than it used to be. Instead of burning eight hours writing (with only, say, three of them involved in effective wordsmithing), I quit after the first two hours of good writing, go do something else for a few hours, then come back and (possibly) ride another burst of writing. I still get those three hours in, but I also get five hours of other tasks in. (These numbers are approximate, of course.)

The amazing part is that I could have easily applied this at almost every job I ever worked at. For example, I used to work on some fairly brain-burning data analysis projects in the office. I’d work on them all day long, but for much of the day, I’d be grinding. I’d stare at the problem and hope a solution would reveal itself – and, often, that solution would pop into my head on the commute or in the shower that night or playing in the yard with my kids that following weekend.

At the same time, there would be five forms that need to be filled out sitting on my desk, a big pile of stuff that needed to be filed, and a bunch of mindless data entry that needed to be handled. Instead of just banging my head against a problem, the best solution would have been to just stop when I felt myself banging my head and then work on the other less-intense tasks I needed to accomplish.

Yes, sometimes there are menial tasks that you just have to grind away at, but thankfully most of those tasks are ones where you can almost shut off your mind and do on autopilot. For me, those menial tasks are the “escape” tasks and I often do shut off my mind while doing them. Amazingly, good ideas often appear when my mind is “shut off.”

This entire post boils down to two principles.

First, if you feel yourself “grinding” against a problem at work, you’re not being very productive with it and would probably be more productive doing something else. If you possibly can, put the problem down for a while, shut off that part of your brain, and do something productive that doesn’t require you to think too much. That way, you’ll get the “boring” stuff out of the way during the hours where your mind isn’t working at top speed.

Second, and this is why I’m mentioning it on The Simple Dollar, the more productive you are at work, the better your job stability, chances of promotion, and potential for recruitment are. This stabilizes and improves your personal income, making your financial life that much easier.

It’s about good hours, not more hours.

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  1. David says:

    A caveat: please do not adopt the advice above if your job happens to be driving a bus. At least, not my bus.

  2. Greg says:

    Yeah, that sounds great. Too bad that as a teacher, I have NO flexibility with hours. The bell rings and I have to begin. 43 minutes later and the bell rings again and I have to do it again 4 minutes later. Yet I’m expected to be sharp and effective during all of those 43 minutes, five times a day. I envy those of you who have freedom to make your own schedule. You get to decide when to do hard tasks, easy tasks, go to the bathroom, etc.

    I’m not meaning to complain. I love my job for the most part, but your post frustrates me. Not only teachers, but many people don’t have the freedom you have, and I think sometimes you forget that and it makes you sound somewhat smug sometimes. It’s great you have a great living that allows you such flexibility, but some of us have to teach classes, meet with clients, run factories, etc.

  3. krantcents says:

    I am a teacher and I also have no flexibility in my hours, but I have tremendous latitude in what I do. I am very effective in my lessons because I have my students do projects. Students just like everyone else learn by doing! The sooner I can have my students work on their projects the more they will learn. These are very hands on kind of projects. They are performed on computers and generally the students like my class because they are kept busy.

  4. chuck says:

    most companies seem to prefer more hours. the more the better, despite what it does to productivity.

  5. Karen says:

    I’m a symphony musician, so a great deal of my schedule is set by others. Rehearsals start at assigned times, regardless of whether I’ve been up with the crying baby or my coffee has kicked in. And most shows have such short turn-around times (deadlines) that it isn’t an option to put work aside until a more constructive time. E.g. I had 24 hours to learn a symphony last month.

    But digging deeper into what Trent is saying, my take-away is that when I’m not on stage, when I do have a choice of tasks, I can do a quick exam of my brain power, and choose what kind of task to work on. Practicing or flexibility work, mindful or mindless. I think that most of us have a few hours each week during which we can choose our tasks, and I appreciate the advice to schedule to brain power.

  6. Evaluise says:

    I disagree. On one hand most jobs don’t allow this much flexibility and some allow almost none at all. On the other hand, very often I find that the tasks I don’t do now because I don’t feel like it won’t get done tomorrow either, whereas if I start the task I usually find that it is not half as bad as I feared it would be. The best way to get a burst of whatever is to just do it. At least try – if after 10 minutes you still feel like brain toast, go and empty the dishwasher.

  7. Kelly says:

    I’m a teacher too, but I still find this post relevant. Of course, while my kids are in my classroom I have to be “on” and teaching. So no matter what from 8:45-3:00 I have to be “productive” even though I wouldn’t necessarily say all of those hours would be productive if I didn’t have 21 kindergartners demanding my attention. My productive time is 2 hours in the morning before the kids arrive. That’s when I get to work and do all my planning, organizing, parent e-mails, etc. I get a LOT done in those two hours, but if I stayed from 3:00-5:00 in the afternoon, I would NEVER get as much done. I’ve tried and I end up casually strolling into a coworkers room to chat, staring at the computer for 20 minutes just trying to write a quick parent e-mail etc. I’ve now realized I can use that time to tutoring children for extra money, run necessary errands, go to the gym and on luckily days, come home and start cooking dinner, clean etc. Sure, it’s not as much flexibility as some people have, but it was important for me to learn when my productive hours are :)

  8. kristine says:

    As a teacher, I can also take this advice, but in the margins. The not even being able to go when nature calls was the hardest thing to get used to.

    When I work at home (I do some commission work and tutor) this advice is terrific. If I can’t do what I have scheduled for myself, then I tell myself….just get something done. A mindless chore. Anything. I’ve no time to spin my wheels fruitlessly, so any step forward is time well spent.

  9. Amy says:

    I think this can apply to lots of things. For example, I am not a morning person. My brain doesn’t activate until a little later in the day. So I have learned to not to work on our budget or try a fix it project in the morning. Instead I’ll clean house or do laundry or whatever early then save my projects that require a little more brain power for the early afternoon.

  10. Rockledge says:

    I agree with Amy that dealing with this is part of understanding your own circadian cycle. For instance, my mind wants to shut down for an hour at 2 p.m. no matter what time I get up or anything else I’ve done and it’s been that way ever since I can remember. Now that I’m semi-retired, I take a nap. When I worked full time, I usually would sit at my desk at 2 p.m. and “read” my professional magazines. I tried to schedule meetings for my productive times.

    When I absolutely couldn’t get a mental break in the afternoon, I’d have to take one when I got home. I would have a mindless game I’d play with the kids for an hour before I’d tackle anything bigger. Accepting my circadian cycle has made me be more productive and less frustrated with myself. Also, knowing this about myself means that a job that requires all day long, uninterrupted attention, such as being an elementary school teacher, would not work for me–
    at least not in the long run.

    To avoid my mental break just being procrastinating, I limit myself to an hour or, at most, 90 minutes of shut down time and then have a strong cup of coffee. In effect, I have a two part work day instead of one long one. Not every one is able to set their work to the circadian cycle, but if you can, it makes a big difference.

  11. tentaculistic says:

    I think in a desk job, Trent’s advice is right on the money. I have a personal goal, kind of like a game, to get all my day’s work done by noon. Obviously that doesn’t always work, because things come up and there are meetings, etc – but by and large I think that attitude really helps me power through work very quickly and just have it done. It also means that I can later take breaks and websurf/chat with coworkers/etc without feeling guilty.

    That said, at jobs where a boss is always at your shoulder and you don’t get a bit of a goof-off break, I have been WAY less productive. I have to stretch the work I can get done in 4 hours into 8, and end up not even getting the work done. I’m a work sprinter, not a long distance runner, so too much oversight makes me lazy.

    Kind of funny since I recently studied about MacGregor’s Theory of X and Y, which says in a nutshell that managers either treat workers according to Theory X (they’re lazy, unmotivated, and have to be micromanaged) or Theory Y (they’re capable, motivated, and can be trusted). And in my own life I’ve been both kinds of workers, and the kind of worker I am is so clearly linked to the kind of manager I have.

    Anyway, I agree with Trent’s post, and with a lot of the sentiments in The Four Hour Workweek.

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