Reading time: About 3 minutes
Do you often give yourself unreasonable writing goals? Instead, start by asking yourself: how many hours do writers work a day?
I’ve recently returned to work after a terrible flu. Of course I’d had my annual flu jab — I’m a big believer in science and public health — but the immunization doesn’t protect you against every strain.
In any case, there I was, flat on my back for about 12 full days. I did attend the occasional meeting via Zoom — and I struggled to do my mandatory work on my laptop from my bed. I couldn’t even read, on account of headaches. All I could do was sleep or watch Netflix.
Even once the worst symptoms had passed, I still wrestled with a tiresome cough and exhaustion.
I haven’t worked a full eight-hour day in two weeks.
And guess what? The world didn’t end.
If the Covid pandemic can be said to have had any small benefit, perhaps it’s that more of us are willing to take time off when we’re sick. Back in my newspaper days, many decades ago, I remember dragging myself into the office when I really wasn’t well, with no thought to the other people I might be infecting in our open-area office. Now I hope we’re all smart enough to stay home when we’re sick.
But my recent illness has made me think about something else: How many hours do writers work a day?
The eight-hour work day is a North American standard. In fact, it’s so standard that most of us act as if it’s a commandment that’s been chiseled in stone. But in other parts of the world, there is variation — at both ends of the spectrum.
In Chirala, India, for example, saree makers might work 12 to 14 hours a day (even though their labour laws say the limit is nine hours a day, six days a week). Overall, workers in poorer countries tend to work more — sometimes a lot more — than those in richer countries.
But then, take a look at the Netherlands and at Canada, my own country. In these places, the average weekly working hours are 31 and 32, respectively, or 6.2 and 6.4 hours per day. Yes, of course this is an average including all sorts of part-time workers. But still.
Many countries are now testing a four-day workweek. Although many are doing it based on a 40-hour timeframe, we could argue that having the week compressed will be beneficial to workers. Countries making this effort include Australia, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and the US.
In fact, the evidence suggests that people become better workers when they work fewer hours. A study from Stanford University in 2014 shows that productivity takes a deep dive after anyone has worked a 50-hour week. Indeed, people who study how much time gets wasted at work argue we should all work six-hour days.
One of my favourite productivity experts, Chris Bailey, did a delightful experiment about 10 years ago. He alternated between working 90 hours one week, and then 20 hours the next — for a full month — to see how working extreme hours would affect his productivity. His conclusion?
“I got a lot done, but only during the first few days of the week,” he wrote. “After that I didn’t have the time or mental space to recharge, so my productivity practically fell off a cliff.” You can read his full report here. Bailey tends to support the 40-hour workweek, but I think he’s been a little bit blinded by tradition.
Cal Newport, professor, blogger and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, says that “three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.”
But now let’s pause to consider the needs of creative workers. How many hours do writers work a day? In his book, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Pang presents ample evidence that creative thinkers across the centuries have always spent less time working. Charles Darwin worked for two 90-minute periods in the morning, then an hour later on. The mathematician Henri Poincaré worked from 10 a.m. until noon then from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. Alice Munro, the late John Le Carré and writer Karen Russell, the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, all fall more or less on the same spectrum. Even the legendary workaholic writer Charles Dickens spent as much time walking as he did writing.
People are often telling me how little time they have to write, and I always say, you don’t need a lot of time. In fact, until you become a professional author, you don’t even need three hours. Start with just five minutes. That’s enough to begin.
Yes, I know it’s December and you’re going to have a lot of parties to go to and a lot of gifts to buy and cooking to do. And the lure of postponing until January 1 seems almost irresistible. But can’t you spare just five minutes today?
As long as you don’t have the flu, that is.
Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. There is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours.
If someone asked you, how many hours do writers work a day, how would YOU answer? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Stephanie, the winner of this month’s book prize, for a comment on my Nov. 21/23 blog post about the best books of 2023. (Please send me your email address, Stephanie!) If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by Dec. 31/23, I’ll put you in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To leave your own comment, please scroll down to the section directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!