The three-or-four-hours rule

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There aren't many hard-and-fast rules of time management that apply to everyone, always, regardless of situation or personality (which is why I tend to emphasise general principles instead). But I think there might be one: you almost certainly can't consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than about three or four hours a day.

As I've written before, it's positively spooky how frequently this three-to-four hour range crops up in accounts of the habits of the famously creative. Charles Darwin, at work on the theory of evolution in his study at Down House, toiled for two 90-minute periods and one one-hour period per day; the mathematical genius Henri Poincaré worked for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman and many more all basically followed suit, as Alex Pang explains in his book Rest (where he also discusses research supporting the idea: this isn't just a matter of cherry-picking examples to prove a point).

Before you jump down my throat, I realise, of course, that many such figures relied on wives and/or servants to keep their lives on track. And in any case they didn't live in an era like ours, where those in high-status jobs feel they have to work as relentlessly as anyone. The moral here isn't that you ought to be in a position to rise from your desk, once your four hours are up, then spend the rest of the day playing tennis and drinking cocktails. (Though if you can, I say go for it.)

The real lesson – or one of them – is that it pays to use whatever freedom you do have over your schedule not to "maximise your time" or "optimise your day", in some vague way, but specifically to ringfence three or four hours of undisturbed focus (ideally when your energy levels are highest). Stop assuming that the way to make progress on your most important projects is to work for longer. And drop the perfectionistic notion that emails, meetings, digital distractions and other interruptions ought ideally to be whittled away to practically nothing. Just focus on protecting four hours – and don't worry if the rest of the day is characterised by the usual scattered chaos.

Pathological productivity

The other, arguably more important lesson isn't so much a time management tactic as an internal psychological move: to give up demanding more of yourself than three or four hours of daily high-quality mental work. That's an emphasis that gets missed, I think, in the current conversation about overwork and post-pandemic burnout. Yes, it's true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours. But it's also true that we're increasingly the kind of people who don't want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don't feel we're being productive. The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run.

How far you can check out of the culture of unproductive busywork depends on your situation, of course. But regardless of your situation, you can choose not to collaborate with it. You can abandon the delusion that if you just managed to squeeze in a bit more work, you'd finally reach the commanding status of feeling "in control" and "on top of everything" at last. The truly valuable skill here isn't the capacity to push yourself harder, but to stop and recuperate despite the discomfort of knowing that work remains unfinished, emails unanswered, other people's demands unfulfilled.

That's the spirit embodied by one monk at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, interviewed by the writer Jonathan Malesic for his forthcoming book The End of Burnout, which I've been enjoying. The monks' daily work period lasts (can you guess?) three hours, ending at 12.40pm. Malesic writes: "I asked Fr Simeon, a monk who spoke with a confidence cultivated through the years he spent as a defence attorney, what you do when the 12:40 bell rings but you feel that your work is undone.

"'You get over it,' he replied."

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Going beyond the how and why of burnout, a former tenured professor combines academic methods and first-person experience to propose new ways for resisting our cultural obsession with work and transforming our vision of human flourishing.

Burnout has become our go-to term for talking about the pressure and dissatisfaction we experience at work. But because we don’t really understand what burnout means, the discourse does little to help workers who are suffering from exhaustion and despair. Jonathan Malesic was one of those workers, and to escape he quit his job as a tenured professor. In The End of Burnout, he dives into the history and psychology of burnout, traces the origin of the high ideals we bring to our dismal jobs, and profiles the individuals and communities who are already resisting our cultural commitment to constant work.

In The End of Burnout, Malesic traces his own history as someone who burned out of a tenured job to frame this rigorous investigation of how and why so many of us feel worn out, alienated, and useless in our work. Through research on the science, culture, and philosophy of burnout, Malesic explores the gap between our vocation and our jobs, and between the ideals we have for work and the reality of what we have to do. He eschews the usual prevailing wisdom in confronting burnout (“Learn to say no!” “Practice mindfulness!”) to examine how our jobs have been constructed as a symbol of our value and our total identity. Beyond looking at what drives burnout—unfairness, a lack of autonomy, a breakdown of community, mismatches of values—this book spotlights groups that are addressing these failures of ethics. We can look to communities of monks, employees of a Dallas nonprofit, intense hobbyists, and artists with disabilities to see the possibilities for resisting a “total work” environment and the paths to recognizing the dignity of workers and nonworkers alike. In this critical yet deeply humane book, Malesic offers the vocabulary we need to recognize burnout, overcome burnout culture, and find moral significance in our lives beyond work.

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About the Book

Going beyond the how and why of burnout, a former tenured professor combines academic methods and first-person experience to propose new ways for resisting our cultural obsession with work and transforming our vision of human flourishing.

Burnout has become our go-to term for talking about the pressure and dissatisfaction we experience at work. But because we don’t really understand what burnout means, the discourse does little to help workers who are suffering from exhaustion and despair. Jonathan Malesic was one of those workers, and to escape he quit his job as a tenured professor. In The End of Burnout, he dives into the history and psychology of burnout, traces the origin of the high ideals we bring to our dismal jobs, and profiles the individuals and communities who are already resisting our cultural commitment to constant work.

In The End of Burnout, Malesic traces his own history as someone who burned out of a tenured job to frame this rigorous investigation of how and why so many of us feel worn out, alienated, and useless in our work. Through research on the science, culture, and philosophy of burnout, Malesic explores the gap between our vocation and our jobs, and between the ideals we have for work and the reality of what we have to do. He eschews the usual prevailing wisdom in confronting burnout (“Learn to say no!” “Practice mindfulness!”) to examine how our jobs have been constructed as a symbol of our value and our total identity. Beyond looking at what drives burnout—unfairness, a lack of autonomy, a breakdown of community, mismatches of values—this book spotlights groups that are addressing these failures of ethics. We can look to communities of monks, employees of a Dallas nonprofit, intense hobbyists, and artists with disabilities to see the possibilities for resisting a “total work” environment and the paths to recognizing the dignity of workers and nonworkers alike. In this critical yet deeply humane book, Malesic offers the vocabulary we need to recognize burnout, overcome burnout culture, and find moral significance in our lives beyond work.

Going beyond the how and why of burnout, a former tenured professor combines academic methods and first-person experience to propose new ways for resisting our cultural obsession with work and transforming our vision of human flourishing.

Burnout has become our go-to term for talking about the pressure and dissatisfaction we experience at work. But because we don’t really understand what burnout means, the discourse does little to help workers who are suffering from exhaustion and despair. Jonathan Malesic was one of those workers, and to escape he quit his job as a tenured professor. In The End of Burnout, he dives into the history and psychology of burnout, traces the origin of the high ideals we bring to our dismal jobs, and profiles the individuals and communities who are already resisting our cultural commitment to constant work.

In The End of Burnout, Malesic traces his own history as someone who burned out of a tenured job to frame this rigorous investigation of how and why so many of us feel worn out, alienated, and useless in our work. Through research on the science, culture, and philosophy of burnout, Malesic explores the gap between our vocation and our jobs, and between the ideals we have for work and the reality of what we have to do. He eschews the usual prevailing wisdom in confronting burnout (“Learn to say no!” “Practice mindfulness!”) to examine how our jobs have been constructed as a symbol of our value and our total identity. Beyond looking at what drives burnout—unfairness, a lack of autonomy, a breakdown of community, mismatches of values—this book spotlights groups that are addressing these failures of ethics. We can look to communities of monks, employees of a Dallas nonprofit, intense hobbyists, and artists with disabilities to see the possibilities for resisting a “total work” environment and the paths to recognizing the dignity of workers and nonworkers alike. In this critical yet deeply humane book, Malesic offers the vocabulary we need to recognize burnout, overcome burnout culture, and find moral significance in our lives beyond work.