If you want to do your best work, maybe four hours a day is enough
The growing ideal for our economies and societies is a machine-assisted, post-work world, where humans are liberated from routine labours to explore that which the robots can't do - mostly creative and caring activities (see Indra Adnan's Alternative Manifesto earlier this year).
How do we get there, from our work-obsessed present? Well, perhaps we can come at it from the heart of work itself - that is, under what conditions do we do our best labours. Might those be less hours in any case, even before automation replaces our labours?
How much proper brainwork – not zoning out in meetings, or reorganising the stationery cupboard, but work that involves really thinking – should you aim to get done in one day? It sounds like a trick question. We think of creativity as fundamentally mysterious, and of humans as extremely varied. Plus there are so many kinds of white-collar work: why assume the same answer for lawyers, academics, investment bankers and engineers? But the answer isn’t some sophisticated version of: “It depends.” The answer is four hours.
That, anyway, is the persuasive conclusion reached by Alex Pang in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. This column has evangelised before about the truth of that subtitle, what with the nine-to-five being a relic of the industrial revolution with no relevance to modern “knowledge work” – but what’s so striking about Pang’s argument is its specificity.
Ranging across history and creative fields, he keeps encountering the same thing. Charles Darwin workedfor two 90-minute periods in the morning, then an hour later on; the mathematician Henri Poincaré from 10am till noon then 5pm till 7pm; the same approximate stretch features in the daily routines of Thomas Jefferson, Alice Munro, John le Carré and many more.
To avoid charges of confirmation bias (what if he’s only mentioning those who prove his point?) Pang draws on the research of the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, whose studies of violinists – also the basis for the much-debated “10,000-hour rule” – support the same finding. We’re rhythmic creatures, and the part of the cycle that involves not taxing the mind is no less essential to the result.
Note: the graphic above is from the four-hour day campaign of the American Industrial Workers of the World, first begin in the 30s and 40s (see this Vice column for more background).