Why You Should Only Work 4 Hours a Day

When I read, I’ll read a book three times.

First, just to read and enjoy it. Second to take as many notes as possible, and then (after about a month of not looking at it and reading other stuff) I’ll go back and read the book one final time. That third time may seem like overkill, but I found looking through the book after some time off helps me to see new connections and other things I might have missed.

I also do one other thing during that third reading. I’ll ask myself: What’s the most important takeaway here?

There were more than a few takeaways from “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield. This surprised me because, on a superficial level, this is a dumb book.

“The War of Art” is one of those books that looks like it’ll be helpful to creatives, but then it succeeds in not saying anything you don’t already know for 180 pages. “If you want to be great, you have to turn pro! Turning pro means putting in the work every day with no guarantee of success!”

Well … yeah. I think living in the 21st Century has taught all of us there’s no guarantees of anything, especially success in creative fields because we’re mostly playing a rigged game where that’s concerned. (See: literally any example in Hollywood concerning what films get made and what don’t. Oh, here’s one from just yesterday that has Arab Twitter super pissed, and rightfully so.)

We also know, on a fundamentally human level, that you don’t get something from nothing. Not unless we’re talking about quantum mechanics or Buddhism.

However, even if a book like this is superficially stupid, there’s some stuff in there that can still be worth sharing. And as some of you might have heard me say before, common sense isn’t so common. So even if something here may be obvious to you, it is most likely not obvious to others. That means it’s even more important to share what we find. As Pressfield says in “The War of Art”, our obligation to each other as creatives is to be an example for one another to follow. So assuming something is obvious because you know it, is a good place to start with a correction: Nothing is obvious to everyone.

So, if you can get past the superficial goofiness, there’s a lot to like in this book. Today I’ll give you one of those things, and then I’ll be back again soon with another.

There is definitely a tie-in to Cal Newport’s “Deep Work”, in terms of asking you (the reader) to set a schedule, weed out any and all distractions before you get to work — My bedroom is spotless right now, where I’m writing this, as just one example — and then going on that work until your concentration is spent. Usually within four hours or so of dedicated work time. That’s what Pressfield recommends, and I couldn’t agree more. But let’s talk specifically about that four hour thing, since you’ve probably heard about the importance of a decluttered mind, and work space, quite a bit from other people.

Pressfield specifically mentions four hours in his book, which is interesting because that is also the upper limit of what Cal Newport says people can do in terms of good, high-quality work in “Deep Work”. (The four hour upper limit has also been the subject of much discussion in the field of cognitive psychology.)

Most people, Newport says (and I’m one of them) are lucky if they have three good hours of work in them each day. Four? Four is something you have to really work towards when it comes to building and managing your concentration, and that’s easier said than done when distraction is a tap away on your phone. In fact, fucking around on your phone eats your concentration, so even if you do spend the time building that backs up, all it takes is an hour of reacting to stories of someone you have a crush on in Instagram to wipe out any gains in building back concentration.)

Ditto with multitasking. No matter what anyone says, you CANNOT multitask. It’s bullshit. Stop saying it if you say it. Every time you switch tasks, you leave behind some of your concentration on that other task. You only have so much concentration in any given day, up to four hours. So If you want to get something done well, you have to give it your full attention.

A couple of side notes:

First: As it turns out, boredom is good for you. So if you find yourself reaching for your phone and fucking around on YouTube, IG, or any of those other things, don’t. Having time for boredom, and time for not working at all will allow you to build concentration up and help you reach that fourth hour of productivity.

The thing both Pressfield and Newport recommend is setting a schedule for your work and sticking to it. So as one example, I have two work blocks every day. 11am to 1pm, and 4pm to 6pm. That’s when I’ve conditioned my brain to be at work. So every day, no matter what’s going on, I sit down to do my work during that time, writing in the morning and doing marketing and other tasks in the afternoon. (There’s also a nap programmed in there, for what that’s worth. Humans are biphasial, according to Berkeley professor Dr. Matthew Walker, author of “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams”. That means you should be getting your eight hours of sleep each night, but ALSO if at all possible, a thirty minute or one-hour nap during the day as well to achieve peak performance. So, don’t take my word for it when it comes to napping. Take his.)

Second: You might be wondering about what happens after you use up those four hours of concentration for the day? Well, I know this will be controversial, and not always possible, but if you can: You stop doing any sort of work.

The odds are high that any work you produce after those four hours will be sloppy and riddled with mistakes and unclear thought. (Yes. I know. A lot of people are trapped at their desk for pointlessly long periods because the boss thinks that’s how things should be, but your boss is wrong. If there’s one thing we should be fighting for when it comes to labor, it’s a 25-hour workweek. Thanks to automation, there are zero reasons for any of us to be working more than that. Why 25? 4 hours for dedicated work each day, and one hour for any administrative bullshit we haven’t been able to get rid of just yet. For more on that, and the bullshitization of work, which is why we all find ourselves trapped at the office for more than five hours, I recommend reading Dr. David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs”, which is an excellent book.

We confuse quantity for quality way too often. Quantity is bullshit. It doesn’t matter how much you produce. Pressfield himself even says that it’s the QUALITY and not the QUANTITY of the work that’s produced in those four hours that matters most to him. As just one example he gives in “The War of Art”, Pressfield says that he doesn’t count how many pages he writes within that window. All that matters is that he sat down and produced quality work during the time he scheduled for that work to be done.

I don’t want these posts to be super long, so I’m breaking them up into parts. I’ll be back with more soon.

B.J. Mendelson is the author of “Social Media Is Bullshit” from St. Martin’s Press.

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