Working hours

The four by four

I have a theory. It is based only on anecdote and idealism, not hard evidence, so treat it with caution. When in control of their work, many people would thrive on about four hours of intense and productive work a day. After roughly this point, productivity and quality rapidly decline. We are, of course, as both organisations and individuals rarely fully in control of our own work – so this is a speculative and idealistic theory.

I will call these the ‘creative hours’ although creativity comes in many different forms. I define it here as the application of our uniquely human talents.

Consider Darwin’s typical schedule, provided by his son and presented on Daily Routines website, for example.

  • 7 a.m. Rose and took a short walk.
  • 7:45 a.m. Breakfast alone.
  • 8–9:30 a.m. Worked in his study; he considered this his best working time.
  • 9:30–10:30 a.m. Went to drawing-room and read his letters, followed by reading aloud of family letters.
  • 10:30 a.m.–12 or 12:15 p.m. Returned to study, which period he considered the end of his working day.

The article, Darwin was a Slacker by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang describes this and other surprisingly relaxed schedules of creative people.

There are more than four hours of work to be done for most people (including Darwin). But much of this additional work falls into the categories of administration, correspondence, tidying, preparation, set up, paperwork, finishing touches, integrating, business travel and, vitally, socialising. These are important, but not often sources of original quality output for most. This work may add up to another four hours or more, although it could easily be finished earlier. I will call these the ‘business hours’. Please don’t interpret these as something to be eradicated: the absence of proper attention to business is the downfall of many creative types.

A warning: one person’s creative time may look like another person’s business time and vice versa. An effective line manager may be producing highly creative output in a meeting that others regard as routine business, for example. I think (hope?) every role at every level has the potential for a creative core if designed well. Indeed, some tasks traditionally defined as routine can become absorbing creative work if given focused attention and approached as a craft.

There are, of course, times in people’s lives when they stay focused and produce extraordinary work for much longer periods. There are emergencies and crises that demand it too. I would argue that this is relatively rare and not sustainable in the long term.

There are times in our lives when we can’t and shouldn’t focus on work at all. There are also cases, sadly too frequent, where people are denied their four hours of creativity, or must spend their entire work-life on the routine with the heart cut out of it. These are often the unhappiest of jobs and teams.

For some, the four hours of productive work may be solitary: the writer, the analyst, the joiner. For some, this work will be with another: the therapist, the coach, the salesperson. For a few, it will be with many: the actor, the orator, the teacher.

It may feel like four hours a day isn’t much. I suspect that if you audited the productive time that people spend without interruption or distraction in most organisations, you might find it is rather less than four hours a day on average. How much time do we spend waiting for meetings to begin, nipping to the kitchen, gossiping with colleagues, taking your laptop to IT, answering your boss’s urgent enquiry, gazing out the window, checking Facebook, filing expense claims, working on your side project, looking busy, or glazing over in a presentation? Don’t get me wrong, a lot of this is inevitable or even necessary. I’m not into policing it. That’s the point. Let this happen where it needs to, but let the real work happen too.

Here are some corolaries of this theory.

  1. We should design work so that, as far as possible, everybody gets to spend up to four hours a day at least some days of the week in intense, creative work.
  2. We should protect the creative hours from interruption and distraction and equip them with the resources and facilities needed to excel. The business hours conversely can be full of interaction, interruption, serendipity and drama. We should make a clear distinction between these types of work.
  3. We should aim for the creative hours to be spent in as large a chunk as possible, even a single span, although this isn’t feasible for every role (four-hour lessons seem unreasonable for example, and even Darwin split his morning in two).
  4. The creative hours should be disciplined and inviolable. We turn up, even if we spend four hours staring at the blank page. The business hours should be relaxed. We leave without guilt when we are done.
  5. We should celebrate, support and develop all the different forms of creative output that come together to make the organisation succeed. We should study them and, where there are groups involved in the same task, stimulate dialogue.
  6. The proper role of technology and process design is to minimise the amount of time required to be spent on business (reducing travel, for example) and to both maximise the amount of time available for creative work and to support the effectiveness of that work (for example, by having the necessary information readily to hand when needed).

I have questions. I wonder if these four hours can best be sustained for four days a week rather than five (or pro rata for those on part time schedules). Could the final day be devoted to four hours of professional development, education and training? With perhaps a focus on internal comms for the business hours of the fifth day?

How might this fit with the demands of external stakeholders? They tend to want you when they want you, not at your convenience. And it is an interesting question in its own right whether interactions with stakeholders fall under business or creative category of work.

It requires some thought as to how this model fits in with part-time working, flexible hours and family responsibilities. It should be possible, although it might work more smoothly if people tended to spend roughly the same parts of the day in each category. Can this be made to work for a diverse range of lifestyles? When roles go part-time, too often they have to bear the same weight of routine business and it is the creative time that is cut to cope. Could this help to prevent that?

What would an organisation feel like, if these principles were enacted as fully as possible? It would not be any sort of nirvana. There would still be toil, routine and natural human conflict. But I imagine there would also be pride, engagement and excellence. Steady progress. Regular innovation. Happy customers. The effect of an entire team consistently producing 16-20 hours of high-quality output every workweek would also lead to outstanding organisational performance. You might produce the equivalent of the theory of evolution.

I know that this schedule is not available to many. We do not have full control of our working lives. My plea here is to those who run and design organisations: can we work to make patterns like this possible for more people?

Update 1: we’re now piloting ‘work blocks’ in a few areas, where individuals and teams can set aside uninterrupted focused time – and co-ordinate them with each other. We’ll see if this helps take a step closer to these ideals.

Update2 : this short blog, ‘The three or four hours rule’, by Oliver Burkeman has some similar themes.

A side note on managers

As Paul Graham points out in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, it may be that management roles don’t easily fit into this scheme:

“There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals…

“Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least.”

Paul Graham in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

Interruption is endemic to management. Many roles, however, combine both management and creative aspects. I suggest working hard to split these cleanly into the two components; in Graham’s terminology, into into ‘maker’ and ‘manager’ time.

Equally, as hinted earlier, it is also possible to consider parts of a manager’s work as genuinely creative, deserving of protection and focus: a great one-to-one line manager meeting, for example, properly prepared for and conducted with unstinting attention and focus; time spent thinking deeply about strategy; the production of a great plan.

However, all this being said, it is hard to avoid interruption in management roles. Your time is not fully your own.

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