How Long Can You Focus Every Day?
Focus and the Internet: Part 1
In his book “The Shallows”, Nicholas Carr claims that the net is “the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use”.
Repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive - these are the exact stimuli that create the strongest and fastest changes in our brain circuitry.
There’s instant gratification - click a link and get new interesting information, send a tweet and get likes - or sensory overstimulation - colorful text and bold headlines grabbing your attention.
The book is over 10 years old, but the stories inside are more relevant than ever. Take this one:
“We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.”
There’s more: we read differently online - instead of going line-by-line, we skip down a webpage in a pattern that looks more like the letter “F”. Statistically, only 18% of the text I write here will actually be read by you.
Is this a problem?
I love the internet - and spend most of my waking day on it - but it’s obvious that we’re trading away skills like deep understanding and critical thinking for the fast-paced problem solving and scanning that works best online.
Regular multitaskers are more easily distracted, have less control over their working memory, and can’t focus as well: they seem to trade performance on their main task for the ability to let in outside information.
Some tasks require deep thought and creativity: if you do something that needs it, a natural response is to find solutions to balance out the effect of the internet on our brains.
This series will be an attempt to summarize the problems and practical solutions to focus in the internet age.
What better way to start than with defining how much focused work you’re actually capable of?
The internet lets us do something productive 24/7, which has led to movements like “hustle culture” where 12-14 hours a day are the norm.
At the same time, there’s been a backlash through the idea that you can only really work 4-5 hours a day. If you don’t waste lots of time multitasking on social media or emails you’re supposed to be able to get much more done in a short block of focused work, after which you “use up” your ability to be productive.
There’s a vague intuitive idea that the harder the work, the less “focus time” you are capable of each day. Let’s try to draw a clearer framework around this.
What’s new about what I’m saying here?
Many articles on this topic have said that there isn’t much hard science: everyone seems to tell the same stories about how Einstein, Darwin, or some other genius you name did long stretches of undistracted work.
This isn’t a bad thing, because the point of stories is to inspire us to do something rather than deliver anything new (for example, self-help hasn’t published a single original idea since religion started).
Even so, I’m going to try to add in whatever evidence we have to existing theories about focus.
This is the only way we can tell what actually makes a difference. The very nature of self-improvement is hard because it’s so personal, but at least we can gain some confidence that there’s solid backing behind what we do.
Let me give you an example of why reading research articles is important. A Washington Post article on this topic claimed that as our focus goes down, we’re less motivated.
That’s true, but the main point of the study was that adding incentives actually improved focus.
“People can maintain their performance in a particular task as long as they are motivated to do the task (when the expected trade-off between cost and reward is favorable) by investing more effort in or by allocating more resources to the task.”
This suggests that under suitable conditions (i.e. deadline fighting or competitions), you can still squeeze out good work - even though it becomes harder the longer you go. This is often skipped over in many articles that want to push the idea that you can’t get anything done outside of your “focus hours”.
By industry standards, it’s already great that they linked to the original study. An article with the title “How many hours a day can a human actually work - what science recommends” links to another news article, which links to another news article, which… you get the point.
Breaks make work better
There are actually two problems here: how long can you work for continuously, and how long can you work in total.
The answer to both questions are that it depends, but there are some good guidelines to finding what works for you. I can’t give an exact time because there simply aren’t enough studies, and even the famous “15-minute lecture attention span” has been criticized for a lack of evidence and good methodology.
The more stressful the work, the harder it is to stay focused. The same thing applies if something is too boring, with a 15% performance decrease in half an hour. A systematic review in 2022 on breaks shorter than 10 minutes found that they work great in boosting energy, preventing fatigue, and helping perceived performance.
The longer the break, the better performance was afterwards. In particular, both routine and creative tasks benefit a lot from taking breaks. The studies looked at anything from 2 minutes to 4 hours before taking a break, with the majority being around 20-30 minutes.
This gives us a good starting point at around the half hour mark: anecdotally, anything up to around an hour should be perfectly fine, at which point things like your health or back pain might encourage you to move around.
You can only really work for around 5 hours?
Answering the second question puts us in more shaky territory because there are so many more variables: for example, if you take breaks you’ll probably be able to work productively for longer. One simple change like this requires a whole new set of studies to investigate, but let’s see what we can find so far.
The majority of studies finds evidence of diminishing returns as hours increase. But output is also proportional to hours worked, especially if there’s a fixed time cost to getting set up.
One popular finding going around is a survey of 2000 office workers, which found they were only productive for 2 hours 53 minutes a day.
RescueTime, a productivity software company, quotes 12.5 hours a week of productive time on average.
A poll on HackerNews shows that most people feel they can only get 2-4 hours of productive work done per day.
Is this because people are getting distracted, or they are physically unable to do more?
We don’t have an exact answer from peer-reviewed literature, but I would argue it doesn’t matter.
As long as you can judge your own output and maintain focus during your work time, setting any arbitrary limit is pointless: you must have had a few days where the hours just melted away when working on an interesting problem.
Let’s look at a great example of why situation matters: Academia is a notoriously stressful and mentally taxing field, but researchers found “significant and positive relationships between working additional hours and job and career satisfaction, working conditions, control at work, commitment to the organization and general well-being”.
Academics who worked 10 hours of unpaid and optional overtime were the most satisfied with their job and had more control over decision-making at work. They were doing better than both their colleagues who worked less, and those who worked more.
It’s great to say that we can only optimally work for a certain number of hours, but working for longer can have benefits: for example, you’re less stressed at work, and the sheer number of hours can make up for being inefficient. That doesn’t mean you can keep focused indefinitely: the peak at 10 hours means that our original idea of a limit still applies.
We get conflicting results about short working days, but a review noted that control over time, flexibility, and pace of work were the factors most related to productivity.
Here’s what to do
Block out 2-6 hours of focused, undistracted work as the benchmark for a regular day (depending on how hard the task is). Take regular breaks when you stop making progress. This avoids the problems of multitasking, which we will discuss in an upcoming article, and also gives you time to get stuck into a problem.
Build your day around this core of focus, padding it with important but less “productive” work: admin, emails, cleaning up previous work. This gives you the flexibility and productivity of deeply focused work, but also reduces the pressure to accomplish everything in a rush.
If you do focused work, you’re probably going to have more time to relax as well. We’ll look at the evidence behind rest and recovery another day, but I hope you don’t need to be told to enjoy life while you can.
Create a structured framework, and break it sensibly: half the fun is in spontaneity.
Part 2 will look at social media and focus: If you want to read more, subscribe here!
Thanks for reading! Here are some sources that I found particularly useful when researching:
2022, Journal Impact Factor - 3.8
2018, Journal Impact Factor - 3.5
2019, Journal Impact Factor - 3.4
2019, Journal Impact Factor - 3.3
1999, Journal Impact Factor - 3.7
If you’ve made it down here, you win a bonus fact: the bulk of this article was written in 6 focused hours on a day when I was supposed to focus on my dissertation.