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.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.