Your focus is finite

So why am I putting in all this effort to write faster, anyway? If I want to be more productive, shouldn’t I just focus on carving out more time to write? After all, I can write just as many words per day just by increasing the amount of time I spend at the keyboard, can’t I? Is it really worth the effort to increase my writing speed when I could just grit my teeth and put in more time?

That argument makes sense, but it’s dead wrong. Because it treats work as a predictable equation and assumes you can just manipulate variables to achieve the same result. It leaves out a crucial variable: focus.

I firmly believe that human beings have a finite amount of focus available on a daily basis, and once we’ve spent that time, our ability to produce drops off quickly.

You’ll see hints at this in the working habits of many highly productive writers. In On Writing, Stephen King describes how he sets a daily quota of 2,000 words for himself. But he usually only spends about four hours a day writing between breakfast and lunch. After he hits his word count, he quits and spends the rest of the afternoon reading.

Another hero of mine, Steven Pressfield, describes a similar routine in The War of Art. He starts work after his morning rituals and writes until he starts to notice that he’s making typos, which usually starts to occur after about four hours.

In observations of myself, I’ve found that I seem to max out after four to six hours of intense focus. I can continue to work past that, but my productivity declines sharply. I find myself staring at the screen a lot more, puzzling over simple problems.

I’ve been observing my own limits for the past few months by practicing the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is a useful tool for beating distraction and procrastination. The basic concept is that you alternate periods of intense work with short breaks. During a work period, or “pomodoro,” you’re not allowed to engage in off-task activities like checking your email or casually chatting with a colleague. You set a timer for the proscribed period, which is usually 25 minutes, and you focus on it intensely. When the timer rings, you take a five-minute break before diving back into your work.

The Pomodoro Technique works as advertised. I find the ticking timer helps me stay focused, and the scheduled downtime helps me defer distractions that would normally pull my attention away from what I’m doing.

But another major benefit of this approach is that it provides a systematic way to measure your focused work time. Every time I complete an uninterrupted pomodoro, I make an X in my journal next to the task I’m working on.

In theory, an 8-hour workday has enough space in it for 16 pomodoros. I usually put in about 10 hours per day—two hours of writing time, followed by 8 hours of work at my day job. So that’s like 20 pomodoros, right?

Not exactly. I find that I hit the wall after about 12 to 14 pomodoros. I’m toast. Crispy. Done.

Most days I’m not able to come close to hitting that limit. Maybe I’ll have meetings, or QA will find a problem code I wrote last week and I’ll have to spend time troubleshooting with them.

This is fortunate, though. Because there’s a cumulative effect if I hit my limit three or four days in a row. The next day tends to be bad—sometimes really bad. I’m fuzzy-headed and tired, and my count of completed pomodoros drops dramatically.

There seems to be a hard limit to the number of pomodoros I can complete in a given week—somewhere in the 50 to 60 range. That’s a total of 25 focused hours per week, including some work on the weekends.

Doesn’t seem like much, does it? That’s all the time I really have. So I have to make it count.

That’s why I’m not trying to squeeze in more hours of writing. Between my existing writing schedule and my day job, I’m already maxing out my weekly focus quota. If I try to put in more hours, I’ll be draining my tank further and setting myself up for burnout.

So what’s your personal limit? Read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated and give it a shot for a few weeks to find out. You’ll probably be surprised, both by how much you’re able to accomplish in a given timeframe and by how finite your mental resources really are.