The traditional 9–5 workday is poorly structured for high productivity. Perhaps when most work was physical labor, but not in the knowledge working world we now live in.
Although this may be obvious based on people's mediocre performance, addiction to stimulants, lack of engagement, and the fact that most people hate their jobs — now there's loads of scientific evidence you can't ignore.
The Myth of the 8 Hour Workday
The most productive countries in the world do not work 8 hours per day. Actually, the most productive countries have the shortest workdays.
People in countries like Luxembourg are working approximately 30 hours per week (approximately 6 hours per day, 5 days per week) and making more money on average than people working longer work weeks.
This is the average person in those countries. But what about the super-productive?
Although Gary Vaynerchuck claims to work 20 hours per day, many "highly successful" people I know work between 3–6 hours per day.
It also depends on what you're really trying to accomplish in your life. Gary Vaynerchuck wants to own the New York Jets. He's also fine, apparently, not spending much time with his family.
And that's completely fine. He's clear on his priorities.
However, you must also be clear on yours. If you're like most people, you probably want to make a great income, doing work you love, that also provides lots of flexibility in your schedule.
If that's your goal, this post is for you.
On average, I myself probably work between 3 and 5 hours per day. On days I have class, my workday is closer to 5 hours. On days I don't have class, my workday is between 3–4 hours.
Quality Vs. Quantity
"Wherever you are, make sure you're there." — Dan Sullivan
Most people's "working time" is not done at peak performance levels. When most people are working, they do so in a relaxed fashion. Makes sense, they have plenty of time to get it done.
However, when you are results-oriented, rather than "being busy," you're 100 percent on when you're working and 100 percent off when you're not. Why do anything half-way? If you're going to work, you're going to work.
To get the best results in your fitness, research has found that shorter but more intensive exercise is more effective than longer drawn-out exercise.
The concept is simple: Intensive activity followed by high-quality rest and recovery.
Most of the growth actually comes during the recovery process. However, the only way to truly recover is by actually pushing yourself to exhaustion during the workout.
The same concept applies to work. The best work happens in short intensive spurts. By short, I'm talking 1–3 hours. But this must be "Deep Work," with no distractions, just like an intensive workout is non-stop. Interestingly, your best work — which for most people is thinking — will actually happen while you're away from your work, "recovering."
In one study, only 16 percent of respondents reported getting creative insight while at work. Ideas generally came while the person was at home, in transportation, or during recreational activity. "The most creative ideas aren't going to come while sitting in front of your monitor," says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.
The reason for this is simple. When you're working directly on a task, your mind is tightly focused on the problem at hand (i.e., direct reflection). Conversely, when you're not working, your mind loosely wanders (i.e., indirect reflection).
While driving or doing some other form of recreation, the external stimuli in your environment (like the buildings or other landscapes around you) subconsciously prompt memories and other thoughts. Because your mind is wandering both contextually (on different subjects) and temporally between past, present, and future, your brain will make distant and distinct connections related to the problem you're trying to solve (eureka!).
Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain.
Case in point: when you're working, be at work. When you're not working, stop working. By taking your mind off work and actually recovering, you'll get creative breakthroughs related to your work.
Your First Three Hours Will Make or Break You
According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the first three hours of your day are your most precious for maximized productivity.
"Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we're really, really focused. We're able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well," Friedman told Harvard Business Review.
This makes sense on several levels. Let's start with sleep. Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Your subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while you slept, making contextual and temporal connections.
So, immediately following sleep, your mind is most readily active to do thoughtful work.
On a different level, the science of willpower and self-control confirm that your willpower — or energy levels — are strongest immediately following sleep.
So, your brain is the most attuned first thing in the morning, and so are your energy levels. Consequently, the best time to do your best work is during the first three hours of your day.
I used to exercise first thing in the morning. Not anymore. I've found that exercising first thing in the morning actually sucks my energy, leaving me with less than I started.
Lately, I've been waking up at 5 AM, driving to my school and walking to the library I work in. While walking from my car to the library, I drink a 250 calorie plant-based protein shake (approximately 30 grams of protein).
Donald Layman, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois, recommends consuming at least 30 grams of protein for breakfast. Similarly, Tim Ferriss, in his book, The 4-Hour Body, also recommends 30 grams of protein 30 minutes after waking.
Protein-rich foods keep you full longer than other foods because they take longer to leave the stomach. Also, protein keeps blood-sugar levels steady, which prevent spikes in hunger.
I get to the library and all set-up by around 5:30 AM. I spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation, followed by a 5–10-minute session in my journal.
The purpose of this journal session is to get clarity and focus for my day. I write down my big picture goals and my objectives for that particular day. I then write down anything that comes to my mind. Often, it relates to people I need to contact or ideas related to a project I'm working on. I purposefully keep this journal session short and focused.
By 5:45, I'm set to work on whatever project I'm working on, whether that's writing a book or an article, working on a research paper for my doctoral research, creating an online course, etc.
Starting work this early may seem crazy to you, but I've been shocked by how easy it is to work for 2–5 hours straight without distractions. My mind is laser at this time of day. And I don't rely on any stimulants at all.
Between 9–11AM, my mind is ready for a break, so that's when I do my workout. Research confirms that you work out better with food in your system. Consequently, my workouts are now a lot more productive and powerful than they were when I was exercising immediately following sleep.
After the workout, which is a great mental break, you should be fine to work a few more hours, if needed.
If your 3–5 hours before your workout were focused, you could probably be done for the day.
Protect Your Mornings
I understand that this schedule will not work for everyone. There are single parents with kids who simply can't do something like this.
We all need to work within the constraints of our unique contexts. However, if you work best in the morning, you gotta find a way to make it happen. This may require waking up a few extra hours earlier than you're used to and taking a nap during the afternoon.
Or, it may require you to simply focus hardcore the moment you get to work. A common strategy for this is known as the "90–90–1" rule, where you spend the first 90 minutes of your workday on your #1 priority. I'm certain this isn't checking your email or social media.
Whatever your situation, protect your mornings!
I'm blown away by how many people schedule things like meetings in the mornings. Nothing could be worse for peak performance and creativity.
Schedule all of your meetings for the afternoon, after lunch.
Don't check your social media or email until after your 3 hours of deep work.Your morning time should be spent on output, not input.
If you don't protect your mornings, a million different things will take up your time. Other people will only respect you as much as you respect yourself.
Protecting your mornings means you are literally unreachable during certain hours. Only in case of a serious emergency can you be summoned from your focus-cave.
What you do outside of work is just as significant for your work productivity as what you do while you're working.
A March 2016 study in the online issue of Neurology found that regular exercise can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years. Loads of other research has found that people who regularly exercise are more productive at work. Your brain is, after all, part of your body. If your body is healthier, it makes sense that your brain would operate better.
If you want to operate at your highest level, you need to take a holistic approach to life. You are a system. When you change a part, you simultaneously change the whole. Improve one area of your life, all other areas improve in a virtuous cycle.
Consequently, the types of foods you eat, and when you eat them, determine your ability to focus at work. Your ability to sleep well (by the way, it's easy to sleep well when you get up early and work hard) is also essential to peak performance.
Not only that, but lots of science has found play to be extremely important for productivity and creativity.
Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied the "Play Histories" of over six thousand people and concludes playing can radically improve everything — from personal well-being to relationships to learning to an organization's potential to innovate. As Greg McKeown explains, "Very successful people see play as essential for creativity."
In his TED talk, Brown said, "Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity… Nothing fires up the brain like play." There is a burgeoning body of literature highlighting the extensive cognitive and social benefits of play, including:
- Enhanced memory and focus
- Improved language learning skills
- Creative problem solving
- Improved mathematics skills
- Increased ability to self-regulate, an essential component of motivation and goal achievement
- Conflict resolution
- Leadership skill development
- Control of impulses and aggressive behavior
Having a balanced life is key to peak performance. In the Tao Te Ching, it explains that being too much yin or too much yang leads to extremes and being wasteful with your resources (like time). The goal is to be in the center, balanced.
Listen to Brain Music or Songs on Repeat
In her book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains why listening to music on repeat improves focus. When you're listening to a song on repeat, you tend to dissolve into the song, which blocks out mind wandering (let your mind wander while you're away from work!).
Give it a try.
You can use this website to listen to YouTube videos on repeat.
I generally listen to classical music or electronic music (like video game type music). Here's a few that have worked for me:
- One Moment by Michael Nyman
- Make Love by Daft Punk
- This song from the Disney movie, Mulan
- Tearin' it up by Gramatik
- Terra's theme from Final Fantasy 3
- Club Soda by Ghostland Observatory
- Stop crying your heart out by Oasis
- Give up by Eligah Bossenbroek (so beautiful)
- Heart by Stars
- This cover of Ellie Goulding
- Fragile by Daft Punk
- My Girls by Animal Collective
- Rain by Blackmill
- The Morning Room by Helios
- Dive by Tycho (whole album) — (anything Tycho is good)
- Lick It by Kaskade & Skrillex (ICE Mix)
- Discipleship by Teen Daze (most of Teen Daze is good) — Also really love Morning House
- Modern Driveway by Luke Abbott
- Zoinks by Session Victim
Benjamin Hardy is an author and Ph.D. Student in Clemson South Carolina.