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Real Working Hours

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Railway Station Clock

We live in an hour-centric society. Everything is measured in units of time – children go to school to learn for a certain number of hours. Millions of people are employed on a per-hour basis. Professionals show up for work for a set number of hours. And when asked how to produce results, the default is to “put in more hours”.

No one is immune to this – it’s the default mindset that modern-day society has instilled in us. Working professionals stuck in a 9-5 are the obvious example. Less obvious, are the freelancers who charge per-hour for their services. Even amongst the lifestyle designers and work-from-home crowd, it’s usually all about the number of hours they put into their business. For some reason, people feel obligated to put in the maximum number of hours possible – even if it’s to their detriment.

Hours are a Bad Measure of Results

Truth time: the number of hours we put into something has no correlation to the amount of work actually done, or the amount of “value” produced by that work. It is entirely possible to spend 40 hours on something and not produce anything that achieves your outcomes (email comes to mind here), or spend an inspired 5 minutes and produce a work of brilliance.

One of the most important productivity concepts is the idea of separating outcomes from output. You want to mentally decouple output (hours) from outcomes (things actually done).

If you work 9-5 in an office, it doesn’t mean that you’re sitting there working for 8 hours straight. You have your lunch break, meetings to attend, time on the phone, time on email, time discussing things with your team… and all the other things that magically turn what should be 8 hours of work into maybe 1-2 “real” hours of work.

This equally applies to those of us who work from home. We have gym time, picking up the kids from school, breaks for lunch, breaks to run personal errands and social activities to attend. And because of the “flexibility” we give ourselves as a result of working from home, these distractions are more common than in an office.

The question is – what can we do to minimize the impact of all this on our productivity?

Get the Most For Your Time

The solution is to focus instead on our outcomes, and to maximize the results of actual work time.

For example, it is better to work at 100% for 4 hours than at 10% for 8.

The way to achieve this 100% is to create a segment of hours where you are able to work uninterrupted, with all the tools and resources you need, and completely focussed on the task at hand. Basically, you want an intense work session where things get done without excuse or unnecessary delay.

Here are two techniques for achieving this.

1. The Silent Cockpit

Silent Cockpit

We’ve talked about this concept before. The Silent Cockpit is a concept from aviation where the takeoff sequence below 10,000ft in an airplane is done in silence – nothing is permitted to interrupt the pilots during this time.

In the context of knowledge work, this means setting aside 1-3 hours for yourself either very early in the morning or very late at night (when the possibility of external distractions and interruptions drops drastically) and working on your most important task(s). The key is to do this when no one else is up and about and you aren’t going to be interrupted.

A lot of writers and bloggers use this technique to write for an hour as the first thing they do every day – ideas are freshest in their mind, and they haven’t started to accumulate other thoughts yet, so creativity comes easily.

2. Better Energy Management

Physical Energy Yoga

Physical energy is the foundation of everything we do (read The Power of Full Engagement for why or watch this video). Simply put, the more energy we have, the “harder” we can work when we need to. In the context of knowledge work, it is more important to be able to sprint than to run a marathon. This is because of schedules and interruptions – no one today can go through an 8-hour marathon of work without at least one interruption, so it is better to be able to sprint for the 20 minutes, 40 minutes or an hour before we are inevitably interrupted.

How do we optimize our physical energy for work? By simply getting our general health in order. This means sorting out your nutrition, your exercise regimen, and getting enough sleep. Thanh and I actually fall on different ends of the spectrum when it comes to nutrition and exercise philosophies – he loves eating raw, vegetarian foods and doing cross-functional training. I love eating red meat, minimizing grains and lifting barbells. Both approaches work for us in terms of optimizing physical energy for work. Instead of debating the (theoretical) merits of a given diet, nutritional or exercise philosophy, the best thing to do is to pick an approach that you are comfortable with and test it out – then you can re-evaluate based on results.

Focus on Outcomes

The number of hours you put into a task or activity don’t really matter. Instead of tracking your day by hours, track it by outcomes instead. Concepts like Agile Result’s Rule of 3 really do work. Simply put, pick the things that you want to get done and focus in on them intensely until they are done. If you find that it takes you less time than you thought, congratulate yourself, take a break, and then if you have the energy left, pick some more outcomes to work on.

This is a huge inner game shift that most people have trouble implementing. The key is to really let go of the need to measure things by hours – in terms of real world results, it really doesn’t matter.

If you’re an OmniFocus Premium Posts customer, have another read of the bonus PDF on Organizing Principles – that goes into this concept much, much deeper.

Next Action

  • Recognize that 8 hours in an office isn’t necessarily as productive as 4 or 14 hours at home.
  • Make the most of the hours you put in: silent cockpit and energy management.
  • Make the inner game distinction of outcomes over output.
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Posted by durgaga  | July 18, 2013 at 8:28PM | Reply

that sure seems like a hit. I shall try and see what I can get done. Frankly, Once I accomplish the so called outcome, i slack and laze around the whole day rather than picking up on a newer one. :-s . May be that is why few of us still need to motivate ourselves with a given number of hours

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 24, 2013 at 7:23AM

It’s just a habit – keep doing it and you’ll have it down in no time!

Posted by Juan Alonso  | July 21, 2013 at 6:15PM | Reply

This is a huge inner game shift that most people have trouble implementing. The key is to really let go of the need to measure things by hours – in terms of real world results, it really doesn’t matter.

Let’s say I am given 8h and a choice of 3 tasks that I can do, A, B and C. All 3 have the same outcome X but tasks A and B take 1h each and task C takes 100h. Following your strategy it wouldn’t matter in which order I do the tasks, but if I ignore time and happen to choose C I will be minimizing my outcome (benefit).

I agree that worrying about time all the time is not productive, but ignoring it can lead to decisions that you later regret.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | August 24, 2013 at 7:27AM

Hey Juan, of course order and priority matter.

If you have a 8 hours to complete an outcome and it realistically takes 102 hours to complete it, then that’s a physical impossibility that no mindset shift or productivity hack can overcome.

What we’re talking about here is a mindset shift to tell you how productive you are. Lots of people work 8 hours every day and have no idea why they do it and can’t track their outcomes as a result of this. They just assume that they put in the 8 hours and things are getting done. If you track by outcome, this changes dramatically. You know you’ve been productive when the outcome is done.

Doing outcomes that take a long period of time (weeks to months) is more about discipline and patience – having an outcome orientation will just help motivate you even more!

Posted by Kate  | July 22, 2013 at 8:52PM | Reply

Fascinating about the Silent Cockpit. Great post; enlightening and useful ideas and energy to go forward with. Thank you!

Posted by Thanh Pham  | July 22, 2013 at 9:52PM

Thanks Kate!

Posted by Himanshu Vyas  | October 17, 2014 at 1:08AM | Reply

An eye opening article for any worker. I am freelancer who always try to work 8 hours but still not satisfied.
As this article says I should keep track of Outcomes than How much I spent. It’s really eye opening for me.

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