Against and Then for Hyperproductivity

I typically work 4 hours a day, and am generous about taking vacations and weekends off.

Recently, Alexey Guzey challenged me to work 12 hours non-stop. The idea was extremely unappealing to me. So much so that it worried me, and I decided to accept the challenge if only to see what I was so averse to.

Does that sound silly? After all, a 12 hour workday is not that long. People typically work 8 hours 5 days a week, surely a single  12 hour day is reasonable?

The difference is that it’s all “deep work”, or at the very least “focused work”. None of the time was spent in meetings, or at lunch, or making small talk with coworkers. In comparison, when I worked at a company, I once told Alexey that I can only accomplish 12 hours of “real work” per entire week.

Here is a brief summary of my findings.

1. I still don’t believe in hyperproductivity

On the day of, I did chores in the morning, then worked from 10am to 6pm, realized I was no longer doing anything productive, and gave up after 8 hours. The second 4 hour period was less than half as productive as the first, and I felt much more tired at the end of the day.

2. You should quit while you’re ahead

One view is that diminishing returns are okay, and you should just keep working so long as you’re accomplishing anything at all.

The downside is that you just won’t enjoy working as much, and it will be more difficult to return the next day. By definition, you stop once you’ve become useless and are no longer making progress. When you wake up the next day and sit back down, the idea of returning to that point is unattractive.

3. It’s really easy to convince yourself you’re doing important work

So long as you’re sitting in front of a desk and typing words, you can trick yourself into thinking you’re doing work, even when you’re not.

When I look back at the work I did in the second 4 hour period, it seems worse than useless. I wrote several posts, which in retrospect, I do not actually believe. Had I published them at the time, I would be embarrassed and lose credibility.

Having said that, there were some benefits.

1. You’re forced to think about what work is worth doing

Typically, I sit down in the morning, work for 4 hours, and feel pretty happy the whole time. This could lead to accidentally working on things I don’t care about, just because they feel engaging in the moment.

In contrast, by hour 7 I didn’t want to work at all, and was not engaged. This forced me to think about what work I actually wanted to get done, which may be more rewarding in the long term.

2. Clear the mess out of your mind

I always have a lot of posts I want to write, and a bunch of ideas I’d like to spend more time on. This sometimes gets in the way, or makes me feel stressed. Even without a real deadline, there is still a sense of “work that I’m meaning to do”.

By working very hard for a day, I was able to start on drafts of many of these posts, at least enough to realize I didn’t actually want to write them.

3. The next day went very well

Even though I felt tired at the end of the first day, I slept for a long time, then woke up at 6am the next day feeling extremely motivated. It was like I had finished all my chores, and was finally free to work on the project I was most excited about. I woke up at 6am, wrote for 5 hours, and although I haven’t published it yet, feel good about the result.

Then I took 3 days off.


Overall, I am not excited to do this again, but I might anyway. Typically, when I’m feeling exhausted or burnout, I immediately take the day off, and hope to come back refreshed. A better strategy might be: work very hard for a day, attempt to accomplish everything, then take a longer break right afterwards.

A week day, I did another “12 hour day” that ended up being 8 hours again, and had similar results. So there is at least some repeatability.

Some other people have had much better results. This might work better for some domains than others.

See Also
Stephen Malina - Upcoming Maniac Week
Stephen Malina - Manic Week Review