The Optimal Amount of Work for Any Person, Explained

Last Friday, Tyler Cowen posted a debate between David Heinemeier Hansson and Keith Rabois.[1]

DHH argues that working well means living within a sustainable, healthy context of work and non-work culture. Rabois says that winning in life is about pursuing a relentless, fierce and vicious work culture, where only the strongest survive.

In summarizing the debate, Cowen labels DHH the “Prince of Complacency.”[2]

If you read the DHH article, he details the work habits of eminently successful people, from Darwin to Dickens, who maintained a modest work schedule. People whose accomplishments were among the best in their fields, but who still had lives outside of work.[3] Rabois basically said it is false that you can work smarter than other smart people. To beat the best of the best, you have to outhustle them.

I would argue that it’s facile to say that working more or working less is always a recipe for success. The right answer is more nuanced than that. It depends on the endeavor. It depends on the person. Neurodiversity is a thing and talent differences are real.

I.

I’m a runner, and so I’m inclined to make runner analogies.

Runners often debate, “how many miles should I run a week?”

The correct answer is almost certainly, “the most miles you can run in a week without getting injured or sick, while maintaining high-quality workouts.”

Probably 95% of elite distance athletes run between 80-140 miles a week. To get really great at running, you basically have to run the better part of a marathon, every day, 48 weeks a year. If you don’t run this amount, there is no chance that you will be competitive with those who do. The odds of a Division I cross-country team showing up on the scene running 40 miles a week and then competing with all the other teams that run 80-140 a week are zero. It’s just not going to happen.[4]

There are lots of talented, hard-working people. It’s false to think you can beat the most talented, hard-working people by working less than them.

I think this is Rabois’ point.

II.

This isn’t the problem for most people, though. Most runners’ failure in developing their potential isn’t a debate over whether to run 80 or 140 or 200 miles a week.

Most competitive runners never run more than a fraction of what the elites do. The average competitive runner only does about 35 miles a week. And so most runners top out at a small fraction of their running potential. Most people just aren’t willing to consider the commitment that it takes to be great.

III.

Still, pushing the other end of the range is not a recipe for success, either.

For most human beings, running more than a marathon every day will lead to immediate physical breakdown, either in the short term, for most (citation needed), or in the long term, for others. For the few that it doesn’t have this effect on, most cannot adapt and recover from their hard workouts. This means that running this much volume, for nearly everyone, starts to become counterproductive. Running this much makes you slower, not faster. I have a number of friends who have run across the United States, basically running 50-mile days for 60 days in a row. But for all of this extra running, universally, they were slower after the effort, even after they had fully recovered.[5]

The runners winning Olympic gold are running 80-140 miles a week, not 200 or 300 miles a week.

I think this is essentially DHH’s point.

IV.

Within the range of what elite athletes do is where all the science and nuance can be found. It’s not enough to say that more is better. Volume is correlated with performance, but there is a point at which that correlation breaks down. It’s not enough to say that less is more. The best athletes do workouts that would destroy most mortal athletes. And the best coaches are constantly tweaking to maximize performance of their best athletes. And if you want to know more, go read every book and paper about performance of elite distance athletes. And then you still can’t be certain. That’s the hard thing about trying to be the best in the world at something.

V.

And, in that same vein, I suspect that the optimal amount of work for any given person is, “the most work you can do without burning out or losing interest in what you’re doing, while maintaining high productivity and efficiency.” But, of course, that’s also a totally unhelpful as a maxim for guiding anyone’s behavior.

The idea that you could prescribe the same work schedule for a person with ADHD as a person with OCD and Jeff Bezos and DHH is silly.

But, as with running, maximizing total potential isn’t the problem for most of us. As with runners and training, most of us never come anywhere close to reaching our potential with work. Most of us are running the professional equivalent of 25 miles a week. Checking Facebook at work, taking long breaks—just doing the minimum to get by or slightly above it. And, just as a weekend duffer running 25 miles a week will never outperform the best athletes in the world running 120 miles a week, in the same way, the odds of most people reaching the pinnacle of their profession is zero.

VI.

There is so much slack in most people’s schedules, that the question of what is the optimal amount of work isn’t really the relevant question. The average person over the age of 50 watches in the range of 50 hours a week of television. That’s pretty close to half of their waking hours. Younger people tend to gravitate more toward YouTube and internet-based entertainment, but total screen time numbers aren’t all that different from the old folks.

So yeah, so perhaps I am overstating it when I say that most people are doing the professional equivalent of 25-mile weeks. Most people are probably doing a fraction of a fraction of that.

VII.

A lot of younger, very accomplished knowledge professionals emphasize that extraordinary achievement is possible while working reasonable hours, as long you are militant in purging the distractions. Silicon Valley culture is heavy on instant messaging, co-working, and distraction-based work ambiance. I worked at one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, where people worked very long hours. I wouldn’t have said that the culture there was biased toward efficiency. But people certainly thought that they were working hard.

So on the one hand, you have DHH, Cal Newport, and Adam Grant that think extraordinary accomplishments can happen with a reasonable schedule. But these people are all notorious about their ruthlessness in eliminating distractions. And then on the other you have Jeff Bezos, Tyler Cowen, and Keith Rabois that have different expectations—that only by working the longest hours you can reach the pinnacle.

Who has the right answer?

I’m a genuine believer that most knowledge workers can earn enough money to live well simply by engaging in deep work and focus for three to four hours a day, consistently, over the course of their careers. There is evidence that after about four hours of deliberate practice a day, most people cannot maintain the focus necessary to perform at the highest level. But most knowledge workers fail to come even close to that number consistently.

And so, again, I think that 99% of the population is so far from working at peak levels, that the question of what is the optimal amount of work for top performance is easy: Most of us would perform much better if we did more deep, uninterrupted, efficient work.

And for those that are truly close to the pinnacle of their profession, I think the answer is more nuanced. The best running coaches don’t just make a schedule at the beginning of the season and stick to it unwaveringly for every athlete. They adjust to the person and to the circumstances. And so too the best and the brightest must leverage their unique talents and work habits in a way suited to their strengths.

There’s no simple formula for maximizing the potential of outliers among outliers across all disciplines. 

VIII.

Of course, winning a gold medal in distance running at the Olympics is different from writing a best seller, which is different from starting a successful tech company, and which is different from being a happy and well-adjusted human being.

I would guess that the amount of total work volume required to start a billion-dollar business > to become a physics professor > to become a modestly successful entrepreneur > write a decent novel. But there are probably counter-examples for these and other fields.

IX.

What I think DHH is emphasizing is that sustainability of work ethic matters far more than short-term volume. A founder that kills himself for three years with a startup will not outperform someone who has the energy and focus to continue the momentum for a lifetime. And that you only live once.

Rabois’ point is that all things being equal, if two people with equal talent are competing in the same industry, the one who works harder will win.

X.

I think that the debate over whether deep, concentrated work for less time can outperform long, hard work for more time can only be answered in a field and industry specific way. Deep work for modest total hour-figures might work for writing a novel but not for an aspiring billion-dollar startup. Reasonable amounts of deep work may enough to get you tenure, but will it get you a Nobel Prize or to IPO?

I suspect that it’s the total, efficient work hours over a lifetime that matter most. Life is an ultramarathon, not a sprint. And consistency over time matters. How you allocate those hours matters less than getting in the hours.

My emphasis, in terms of work ethic, is to try to eliminate waste. Also, to never retire. Get rid of the garbage time staring at your phone and surfing online. Get rid of the garbage time watching Game of Thrones reruns. Get rid of the garbage time being drunk or high for hours on end. If you get rid of the garbage, your life will be better off. Exactly how you allocate that extra time between working and resting I think matters less than getting rid of the pure, unadulterated waste.

[1] Keith Rabois, who initially rose to fame for yelling, “Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” outside a lecturer’s home as a first-year law student at Stanford, is a well-known venture capitalist for Khosla Ventures.

[2] DHH has invented a computer language; has built a hugely successful company; has written a New York Times bestseller, and has finished top ten at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all before the age of 37. He’s also married with two kids. Alas, may I be so fortunate to be among such a Complacent Class.

[3] For those of you who think this was the luxury of those who live 150 years ago, check out the work schedule of John Grisham, proponent of a 15-hour workweek.[3] There are many more examples in this book, if you’re interested.

[4] Also, 99.9% of athletes do not have the talent to compete with elite athletes, even if they do put in consistent 80-140 mile weeks. For a few good examples of this, read The Sports Gene, by David Epstein.

[5] To the extent that one’s body ever recovers from such an endeavor.