Distracted work is ruining the productivity of millions of people.
If you’re a knowledge worker, you can probably relate.
Think about it: How much time do you spend working in an uninterrupted and focused manner?
You probably have constant distractions and interruptions that eat up more time than necessary throughout your workday.
So how do you get more done in less time?
With focused work, you can get more done in four hours than you would in a typical eight-hour workday.
And if you practiced the four-hour workday every day for months at a time, you’d dramatically outpace your peers.
For an eight-hour job, you can try to structure your first four for maximum productivity.
If you’re a freelancer or an entrepreneur, you can use the four-hour workday to achieve the freedom you sought when you started.
Before we dive into harnessing the power of the four-hour workday, let’s talk about the concept of focused work (and how to get more done by mastering it).
What is focused work?
If you’re a productivity nerd like me, you might have heard of these concepts:
- Deep work
- Flow states
To properly structure your work and life, understanding these concepts is essential.
Deep work: get more done by pushing your brain to the limit
Uninterrupted work where you’re focusing on challenging tasks that serve an important purpose—that’s deep work.
- Creating a marketing strategy
- Organizing logistics for a supply chain
Here’s the definition of deep work from the author of the book Deep Work, Cal Newport:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.
In the book, Cal argues that a long attention span is one of the most valuable skills you can have in the modern world. The jobs that pay the most usually have the highest demands on your brain. Starting a business requires you to stay focused for long periods of time.
If you can’t focus, you can’t profit.
Even if you remove money from the equation, an inability to focus on the present moment causes constant mental tension.
I’m reminded of another quote:
In the book, Cal even suggests an exercise where you sit alone in a room for an hour and allow yourself to be bored. It seems doable, but when you actually try it, you realize just how uncomfortable you are with your own mind.
I see this regularly because I coach people on becoming writers.
I give them two rules for their writing sessions:
- Work on your writing. Or…
- Sit there, do nothing, and stare at the wall.
This forces them to get in the habit of doing deep work with zero distractions, which leads to the next item on the list.
Flow states: tap into creative power to get more done in less time
The more you practice deep work, the easier you can slip into flow states.
A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the person who coined the term “flow”)
You can also call this “getting into the zone.”
When you enter a flow state, your conscious and unconscious minds start working together. This happens to me often when I’m writing. When I get into a flow state, it’s no longer me doing the writing. The creativity comes from a source that’s bigger than me.
You can dive deep into metaphysics, vibrations, and the power of the universe if you want a deeper explanation, but there’s something remarkable about a real source you can draw from for creativity.
Some people call it a daemon. Artists talk about having these crazy flashes of inspiration where they get more work done in less time because they’re just feeling it.
Just feeling it is the process of being in a flow state.
Instead of waiting for inspiration, though, find a way to put yourself into this trance more often:
- Create a favorable environment: Work at the same time, for the same duration, in the same place, with as few distractions in your environment as possible.
- Some say this induces a trance: Many creatives say that playing the same song over and over on a loop or listening to movie soundtrack music (Hans Zimmer is a favorite among many) can help you enter a flow state and focus faster.
- Remove pre-work distractions: Avoid starting your day with distracting activities before sitting down to do deep work. I don’t check my phone at all in the morning and only do so after deep work is done.
The bottom line: If you do more deep work, you’ll get into flow states more often, which increases your overall productivity. That’s how to get more done in less time.
Task-switching: the worst approach to productivity
Task-switching kills flow states and makes you less productive. At best, it’s counterproductive; at worst, it’s dangerous to your mental health.
We live in a world where task-switching isn’t just common but celebrated.
You’ve heard people proudly proclaim themselves as “multitaskers.” There’s just one problem with that, though: there’s no such thing as multitasking. There’s only switching from one task to another. Even if you feel like you’re doing many things at once, you’re just switching quickly between tasks.
Each time you switch between tasks, your brain has to reset itself to focus. If you switch between tasks all day without ever making time for focused work, your brain will never quite feel at ease.
Think of an average day for the typical knowledge worker. Wake up, check phone, check social media, check emails, go to work, work a little bit, check email, check browser tab, work a little bit more, check email, check phone, work a little bit more, check email.
Did I mention checking emails?
In an attempt to protect their time, some people create email auto-responders that say they only check their email between certain hours of the day. Some people don’t check their email at all. Cal Newport famously has zero social media accounts and rarely checks his email.
You have to switch tasks from time to time; there’s no way around it. But here are some tips you can follow to do it less:
- Set time windows for checking emails: If possible, avoid checking email at all for the first few hours of your day.
- Batch tasks: Do one type of task several times during a time window instead of doing it in a scattered way (e.g., run all your errands on a Sunday instead of running errands every day or getting all your social media content done and scheduled in a single day).
- Get a handle on your screen time: Put your phone on “do not disturb” while you’re working, or just turn it off and keep it in the other room.
- Use apps: There’s an app called Cold Turkey that will block you from using browser tabs altogether so you can focus.
- Communicate and set boundaries: If possible, let your supervisors and co-workers know about your deep work strategy so they interrupt you less often. If you work with clients, let them know about your time windows for communication and why it’s in their interest to let you focus so you can provide better results.
How to get more done with a four-hour workday
Customize your workday based on the needs and demands of your job or business.
Some good rules of thumb are:
- Do the most cognitively demanding work first.
- Eat the frog: This is where you focus on a task that you know needs to get done, but you’re dreading because it’s unpleasant or difficult to do.
- Progressively work on less demanding tasks as time goes on.
You can go a step further and structure your routine to help you get more done during that four-hour time window.
Four hours of undistracted work is taxing on your brain.
When you start practicing deep work, you’ll realize just how little of it you were doing all along. To stay focused for longer, you can try different methods to stretch your ability to focus:
- Pomodoros: Work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break to stretch. A mentor of mine likes to use his 5 minutes to close his eyes and do a quick meditation.
- 90/30: Work for 90 minutes straight and take 30 minutes off to do whatever you want. I work out of coffee shops, so I like to work for 90 minutes and then take a 30-minute walk.
- Start small: Odds are you won’t hit a four-hour interrupted session right away. It could take months to reach that point. Instead, start with a time window you can tackle uninterrupted, hit the mark, and increase once it feels easy. You could start with as little as 20 minutes.
Cycle through important tasks
Let’s say you have many different tasks and projects you have to do as part of your career or business. You can use your four-hour workday to cycle through different important aspects of your job or business.
I’m a writer who also started an e-learning business teaching others to become writers.
In my case, I might devote entire work blocks to tasks like these:
- Written content
- Video content
- Creating training and SOPs for my virtual assistants
- Long-range planning
- Product improvement
- Partnership and collaboration outreach
Just to name a few.
Some smart entrepreneurs I know devote entire days to different areas of their business—a “CEO” day to focus on operations, a content day, an employee/contractor training day, and more.
If you’re a knowledge worker with several different demands, try to separate your tasks as best you can into different buckets like this.
Contrast this with how most people work, where they try to do all of the different tasks for their work or business at the same time, constantly switching back and forth between them.
Which way do you think is more effective?
The “house money” framework
I work more than four hours per day.
But I only refer to the first four hours as work because it’s the work that matters and moves the needle. I still have several things I need to do for my business, but they’re less cognitively demanding, so I can breeze through them without much thought (e.g., checking emails).
Regardless of what else is on my plate, I operate by the “House Money Rule.”
House money is the money you win in gambling that you’re not afraid to gamble because it’s profit.
I like to think of time this way. Anything beyond my four-hour window is house money. I can use as much of it as I want, but if I want to stop working, I’ll do so guilt-free.
If you have to work an eight-hour job, you have to be there for eight hours. But try to structure your days to be most productive in the first half of your day; then work for the rest of the day without as much pressure to be on. Do this and you’ll become a star employee because your co-workers are more distracted than you.
There’s a better way to work and live
It makes zero sense that so many jobs across disparate industries require eight hours of work per day. There is no way that such a large number of industries fit into such an arbitrary pattern.
Many people are embracing this new method of work where you sprint and rest.
We were never meant to be these sedentary drone-like workers following these made-up time frames, made-up rules for work, and following these wildly inefficient routines.
Get your important work done in less time so you have more time to enjoy your life.