I’ve never been particularly good at maths. But there’s one particular area which I got wrong most of my working life. The attention equation.
Here’s how it works.
If pushed, I can produce around 750 words of readable prose in two hours. If I already know the subject, and know what I think, I can sometimes produce double that.
This is something I’ve proven many times, over my career as a freelance journalist. Working under tight constraints can be fun, and I enjoy getting the job done under pressure. (Especially as it’s something I no longer have to do often.)
No matter what your creative field, you probably have some sense of what you can achieve, when you have a tight deadline, or when you’re most in flow.
Now for the bad maths.
For years, I worked on the assumption that if I can write 750 words in two hours, I can also write 1500 words in four hours. A 3000-word article should therefore take me eight hours.
So, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, I believed that it was completely realistic for me to consistently produce readable 3000-word features in a day. As a result I took on far too much, and usually grossly underestimated how long the work would take. I often ended up writing at the weekend, late into the night, during family holidays. And I pushed myself into total burnout. Twice.
I’m not alone in this. We all tend to measure ourselves against our peak output. That time when you wrote five songs in five hours, made a whole body of new work in a frenzied few weeks in the studio, came up with a creative solution to a difficult problem in hours. And then we expect to be able to do this all the time.
Here’s what actually happens, when I write.
In the first two hours, if I push through distractions and I’m fully focussed (much more difficult when there isn’t a real, looming deadline at the end of that time, but not impossible), I might produce 750 words on a good day.
Even if I manage to be totally disciplined and not check my email, take a break or give in to other distractions, in the next two hours I’ll write about 500 words.
After that, even if I take a break before pushing on again, within an hour I can guarantee you I’ll be scrolling on my phone, doing an online quiz or playing a pointless game on my iMac. Or I’ll standing in the kitchen gazing at the contents of the fridge – with no idea how I got there.
I can hack this attention deficit if I have to, by changing locations and taking myself off to work in the library or to a cafe without wi-fi. Or by downing an espresso, a chocolate bar or Lion’s Mane mushroom supplements to give me a temporary energy boost and an extra burst of focus.
But even so, the most I’ll write in the third two-hour sprint is 500 finished words.
Then it falls apart.
By the fourth and final two-hour block, I’m doubting everything I’ve already written that day. I’m labouring over long, meandering and clumsy sentences. I often feel completely unable to wrangle words into a shape, to have them convey what I’m trying to say.
I’ll spend a lot of time staring slack-jawed at my screen, the cursor blinking at me accusingly. By then, I’m usually also beating myself up and asking draining, disempowering questions like, “What is wrong with me?”
At most, I’ll produce 300 words.
In the past, I’d often choose to push on further, at this point. To work all night, even. And if I was on a real, urgent deadline, I’d probably get the job done. Eventually.
But after eight hours of writing, the most I’d realistically produce was 100 words an hour.
So where did my calculation go wrong?
My mistake was only counting time in my equation. I’d forgotten the other important variables: energy and focus.
We understand time. We know that no matter how well we manage it, we all get the same 24 hours every day. But we often forget that energy is also finite. It runs out. To replenish it we need sleep, rest, exercise, connection, and a whole lot of other things that differ from person to person.
Here’s a story I often hear my clients tell themselves: “As soon as I’ve finished this album/film/book/job, I’m going to rest, and look after myself better.”
When you’re in the middle of a project, it can be hard to see that everything would be easier if you rest and take better care of yourself while you’re doing it, rather than postponing that until afterwards. Especially if you already feel behind.
The thing we leave out most often is the final piece of the equation: attention. There is only so long we can focus, before our minds start to wander.
Of course, there are times when you’re totally in flow, when hours fly by like minutes and you don’t want to stop making your work. And why should you? Savour these days when they come, enjoy them because they’re precious.
They’re also elusive, and have a tendency to vanish altogether under pressure. So don’t ever rely on them being there when you need them.
We all have times when the only way to hit an important deadline is to push on through. But even then, it helps to know your rhythms and work with them.
I’ve learned that after 10pm, I’m better going to bed for a few hours and setting my alarm for early in the morning. At 6am, I’ll get more done in an hour than I would have done in four without sleep.
I can still do enormous amounts of writing in a short time, if I really have to. But I’m much more realistic about what that will cost me, over the following days and weeks. So I’m more interested now in working sustainably, over time, instead of in short, exhausting bursts.
I’m at my best if I write every day.
After some experimenting, and keeping logs of my output, I’ve found that four hours of creative work is now the maximum I can expect to do in a day. I rarely try to do more than that if I can avoid it.
Instead, I write for at least an hour, every morning. And if put in two fully focussed hours, I consider that a good, productive day.
Just to be clear, this doesn’t mean I only work for two hours. I have in-depth conversations with coaching clients. I read, and research. I do admin, marketing and all the other maintenance tasks a business needs to work smoothly. I just don’t push myself to write for hours on end.
As a result, I’m writing more words, more consistently, than ever before. It’s also far easier to know exactly how long a job will take to complete. (My last 3000-word feature took nine focussed hours, split over four days. My next book will be finished by January 2024.)
Finally, I’ve mastered the maths.
When I sit down to write now, I know that it’s for a limited time. So I procrastinate less. I don’t give into distractions as often. And I usually write first thing in the morning, when I have plenty of energy.
The attention equation will be different for you. Our energy peaks at different times. Some of us can stay focussed for hours (meditation can help with this), while others prefer to work in shorter bursts.
The four-hour daily limit on focussed, creative work before the law of diminishing returns kicks in seems fairly universal. But you might find you can work a little longer – or that you need to build up to that, if you’re out of the habit of concentrating.
Experiment, see what works best for you. But I’m pretty certain you’ll find you get more done, if you actually try to do less.
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and a coach helping creatives to get the success they want, making work they love. Want my free 10-day course, Freelance Foundations: the secrets of successful creatives? Click here.