Going the Distance


You have two hours of peak productivity every day. How do you spend them?

I just returned from 3 weeks without internet or mobile service, which you might have noticed by the lack of updates. I find it harder and harder to turn off the urgent cacophony of the internet so I sometimes take extreme measures to quiet my mind and recenter on what is important.

There was a time when I would never have considered doing that. In the early days of Flurry I worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week (and a few all nighters). Even when family was visiting me from out of town, I worked while they toured the city. I worked as hard as I possibly could because I was gripped by the fear of failure, by the urgency of seeing our money dwindle and dealing with a myriad of problems I didn’t know how to solve.

In short, I was a typical first time entrepreneur.

Ironically, during this period of hyper-work I actually moved more slowly than I ever had before and the company almost failed because of it.

Peak Productivity

One of the things that drives us to want to work harder when under stress is the assumption that our productivity per hour is a constant. If you make that assumption, then you believe working more hours equals more productivity. Unfortunately, that assumption is false. Your productivity is a function of many things including your natural body rhythms, how often you are interrupted while workingwhat you are doing and how long you have been working (fatigue). Improving your productivity requires managing many of these factors before you even consider working more hours.

There is evidence that no matter what you do, you only have two hours of peak performance every day. Two hours. It proves your productivity is a scarce resource and you have even less time than you thought to get things done.

Designing For Productivity

While all of this might seem intimidating, it provides a clarity of focus that you need while building your business. Your productivity suffers from limitations, and just like every other problem you face you need to manage around it. Some common techniques for designing your day for maximum productivity:

  • Avoid interruptions through scheduling. Schedule time for email, social media and messaging instead of constantly suffering interruptions during the day. Instead of keeping a todo list, schedule time for your tasks the same way you schedule time for meetings.
  • Utilize your peak performance. Schedule complex or high priority projects for a few hours in the morning, or whenever you are at your peak. Schedule easier or routine work for times when you are tired such as after lunch or the end of the day.
  • Take breaks. Taking breaks, even if only 10 minutes, can greatly increase your productivity and problem solving skills. If possible, change your environment by getting out of the office. If possible, have meetings while walking around the neighborhood.
  • Balance your life. The more balanced your life, the more effectively you can deal with stress at work. Exercise, friends and family are well proven at helping you decompress and avoid burnout.  

There are tools to help make managing your productivity easier based on recent scientific research, such as Timeful, but none of them will be useful unless you make managing your own productivity a priority. Experiment with your time and see what works the best for you.

The Long Run

In those early days of Flurry, I was working so hard that I lost perspective on what we were doing. Working all of those hours greatly impaired my judgement and I lost the ability to think strategically about where the business was headed. Luckily, fate intervened and saved us from ourselves but it could easily have been the end of the company. I was given a chance to learn from the experience and better manage my productivity for many years to come.

Speaking of many years… It can take, on average, 7-10 years for your company to go public (although it varies wildly). That means that if you are very successful, and everything goes according to plan, you will be working on your business for a very very long time. In that long term, it is much more important not to burn out than to work a few extra hours to try and push something out. Focusing on maintaining your productivity is a great way to keep running for the entire race.

Now, stop reading this blog and get back to work.

Image made available via Creative Commons by Jon Rawlinson.

15 thoughts on “Going the Distance

  1. Vipul Mistry

    I really like the “Avoid interruptions through scheduling” — I try to schedule blocks of time to work on specific projects. It gives me clear guidelines and the time necessary to focus on the job at hand.

  2. Johnny

    It is very true that big amount of hours = more productive. I like it that people realize that as it is always the misconception and perception when someone steps out to take a break.
    Good article.

  3. overcomer27549

    Your article is so true. I’ve always been a workaholic. And many a times at two in the morning I’ve come to the realization that I’d be Breyer off at home.

    I have relaxed some in the latter years.

  4. Sandrian

    Part-time job is the future of this world. It is true that human makes better decision and better analysis in a couple hour. This will lead into world of efficiency and effectiveness.

  5. Mark Samples (@mcsamples)

    This rings true to me. The difficulty is that so often the here-and-now crisis overshadows the long view. That’s why it’s so important to take regular time (such as your 3-week sabbatical from connectivity) to reflect on and restructure work habits. Thanks for the post.

  6. Mark Moore (@monoglotmark)

    Another thoughtful and helpful post- thanks Sean.
    I think you’re in good company… but this ‘industrial’ mindset is still all too prevalent for many of us lucky enough to be able to work in more creative rather than manual fields.


    Henry Ford said of the decision [to reduce the workweek from six to five days]: “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.” At Ford’s own admission, however, the five-day workweek was also instituted in order to increase productivity: Though workers’ time on the job had decreased, they were expected to expend more effort while they were there. Manufacturers all over the country, and the world, soon followed Ford’s lead, and the Monday-to-Friday workweek became standard practice.

    1. Sean Post author

      That’s a good point Mark. I imagine the idea that more hours = more productivity is probably a remnant of manual labor industries where the time to complete a task was fixed.

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  9. lewsauder

    Great article. I’ve also found that setting realistic goals for a day helps to keep the work day in perspective. If I set the goal of 12 hours worth of work, I would work until it was done. Now I reduce the expectation on myself and prioritize the most important things for a more reasonable day.

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