Four Hours of Knowledge Work

For the last few months I’ve been organizing my days—but more importantly setting my expectations of a day—differently. It’s based on a few articles I’ve read over the years and since I keep having to pull the articles out of my notes to send them to people, I thought I’d collect them here and have one link to use.

Since a lot (most) of my work is reading, thinking, and writing, it’s pretty hard to be focused deeply on those kinds of activities for a full eight hours. For a few years I worked 90 minute “sprints” with breaks in between. It was usually one block in a café somewhere, a break to walk back to the home office, sometimes running an errand or two. So on average a 30 minute break. Then another 90 minute block before breaking for lunch. Then block, break, block; about an hour of buffer or extended work; end of day. It was largely built on this article by Mikael Cho, the research he refers to, and observing my own energy and ability to concentrate.

Work no more than four 90-minute sprints per day. Your mind was not meant to run for 8, 10, or 12 hours straight. Break your day into chunks and in between your work, eat, go for a walk, workout, or just sit and do nothing.

To set priorities, around the same time I started using (and still do) the Ivy Lee method. Which is basically that at the end of the day you pick the few most important tasks you’ll do the next day. I usually pick 3-4 and list them in a file independent of my task manager.

Last spring I re-read Doug Belshaw’s post, My daily routine. He covers a lot more but this is the part which stuck with me:

I work for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. By ‘work’, I mean write, think, plan, and make. I don’t count meetings and replying to email as work. While it’s important for me to meet people online, especially as I live up in Northumberland, I limit these conversations to 30 minutes wherever possible.

My time is precious. Four hours of solid knowledge work is what I aim for each day as research backs up my theory that this is optimal.

Check out the two links in the quote and there’s also this one by Oliver Burkeman with multiple examples of writers who used some variation of the four hour work day.

Granted, as a consultant you can’t really “just” work four hours, which is why Doug’s emphasis on solid knowledge work resonated with me. You can do additional lighter work, like email and meetings, at other times in the day.

Right now I usually do one hour in a café plowing through newsletters, feeds, and some automated stuff. Then two hours in the home office with a quick break midway and the same after lunch.

Except for the breaks (like some meditation), it varies quite a bit so the four hours is definitely not a rule, it’s what I aim for and it ends up serving the purpose of setting expectations for how many billable hours (most going in the solid “bucket”) I can fit in a week and what a good day looks like. If you track your hours and aim for eight hours a day, you’ll either include a lot of things basically as filler, or you’ll go mad.

I end up being concentrated on work most of the time between 8h30 and 17h but aim / accept there will be something like four hours of valuable work in there. It might not sound like it but it’s excellent for the mind space and stress stemming from productivity habits and ingrained expectations. Setting expectations correctly with clients has been an important rule for many years, it turns out setting my own expectations for myself is also very valuable.

Last note: I should probably try to organize that some other way but since I invoice various clients on a daily rate, one “invoice day” is usually almost two “work days,” since I keep the other reading and break habits out of the calculation.