Humans can only work efficiently four hours a day. Here’s how to make the most of your time

Working long hours doesn’t mean you’ll get everything done. Daydreaming, poor planning, and boredom can leave you with a lot of time wasted and nothing to show for it.

It’s vital to develop techniques to work more efficiently so you can spend less time at your job and more time enjoying your life.

The science behind work efficiency

In an ideal world, you would be able to spend the entire workday producing top quality work without taking longer than needed. But as we know, we don’t live in an ideal world.

In reality, we simply do not have the capacity to work to a high level for the whole day. Research shows that humans can only focus fully for four to five hours a day. And not all at once either, but split into more palatable chunks.

It’s the reason many “new-age” entrepreneurs push for shorter workdays, as anything beyond this timeframe might be considered a waste of time. And whether you agree or not, there is certainly a lot to be learnt from this idea when considering your own work efficiency.

Knowing that you only have four to five hours of productivity in you to dedicate to your job, you’ll be able to better prepare for your day and get the most out of your work. 

Eight ways to improve work efficiency 

  1. Stop trying to multitask

Multitasking is the art of doing two or more things at once. So it sounds like the perfect solution to getting more done and working efficiently, right?

In reality, when you multitask, you end up paying less attention to each task and taking longer to complete them all than you would if you approached each task individually.

That’s because your brain is trying to use multiple areas at once, leading to easy confusion and losing your place. For example, have you ever tried to count something and then start a conversation with someone as you’re counting? You end up losing what number you were on and having to start again.

The only exception where multitasking might be ok is if you are trying to do extremely similar tasks. For example, if you need to research a topic for two similar work papers, you can make two separate lists of information at the same time, as this will not take away from your concentration.

Overall, if you want to maximise your output, commit to focusing on one task at a time.


  1. Learn your natural focus rhythm

Despite the traditional 9-5 work pattern, we all have a natural rhythm that our energy works in. And no matter how much you try, there is little you can do to change it.

Studies by Michael Breus and Putilov et. al have found that most people fall into one of six body rhythm categories:

-   Lion (early bird)

-   Bear (the average – energy reflects the typical 9-5 day)

-   Wolves (Night owls)

-   Dolphins (Insomniacs)

-   Afternoon (energy peaks in the middle of the day)

-   Nappers (most energy in the late morning and early evening) 

Knowing where your energy levels fit in will help you work more efficiently in numerous ways. 

Firstly, knowing your most energetic hours means you know when the best time to do your most intense or focus-heavy work is.

Secondly, when you realise that your body isn’t necessarily made for the 9-5 timetable, you’ll regain much-needed confidence that your energy deficiency at work isn’t necessarily a “you problem.” And so instead of worrying about why you aren’t able to perform energetically at the same rate as your co-workers, you’ll be more sympathetic to yourself and find ways that work with your rhythm.

Finally, if you are in charge of your schedule, you can completely change your hours to get the best work out of your day.

And if you find working 9-5 is impossible but your job demands it, it might be time to start thinking about looking for a new job.

  1. Plan your day

As the age-old saying goes: 

“Failing to plan is planning to fail." 

And this is especially true when you are trying to improve your work efficiency. 

As we’ve seen above, we have specific windows of energy depending on our body clock, and a finite number of hours our brain can fully focus. Which means we need to be strategic about how we use our time.

Not only that, but we typically waste a lot of time trying to decide what we should do next. Planning in advance will drastically reduce this time.

The best way to do this is to use a work planner. Whether you choose to use a notebook or an online calendar, scheduling your work will help you get more done in less time. 

Consider scheduling complicated tasks when you have more energy and more administrative tasks (such as replying to emails) when your energy starts to fall a bit.

Make sure to keep your plan near you throughout the day so you don’t have to waste time or energy deciding, but be flexible and feel free to adjust your plan as needed until you find the schedule that works best for you. 

  1. Break up with perfectionism

Perfectionism is the enemy of progress. It will make you second guess every single choice you make, leaving each piece of work to take much longer than necessary and your self-confidence will take a nosedive.

So instead of believing every piece of work needs to be perfect, manage your expectations and aim for finished as opposed to perfect. Remember, you can always come back and edit your work later.

  1. Create a system 

If you tend to work based on your motivation, you’re not working to your full potential. The unfortunate truth is that motivation is fleeting and cannot be easily manufactured. And when we feel demotivated, we start to second guess what we are doing.

Instead, the best thing to do is to create a routine or system you can fall back on when you don’t feel like working. 

For example, if you have an accountancy task you have to do often, come up with a system you can use repeatedly to get through the task. That means following the same steps, having pre-made spreadsheets and calculations ready, and maybe even having a sequence checklist in place.

When you do things systematically, it’s much easier to make them second nature, helping you work more efficiently. 


  1. Take regular breaks

Contrary to the belief of some irresponsible managers, breaks are not just an excuse to not do work. Quite the opposite, in fact. They serve the important purpose of giving your brain a break and refreshing your energy. 

There are different ideas of how long each break should be and how often, so the best thing you can do is to experiment with what works best for you.

One popular method to try is the Pomodoro technique where you concentrate fully for 25 minutes and then take a break for five minutes. After two hours, you take a longer 15–20-minute break. 

And if you can, try and get an afternoon nap in – it’ll do you wonders!

  1. Tailor your environment to your needs

Where you work is just as important as the work you do. For example, someone that writes all day but is stuck in a freezing cold room is going to struggle to type, making their life much harder. Equally, someone that enjoys silence while concentrating that is forced to listen to the radio in their office may find it frustrating and see their productivity decrease.

So it is important to create a work environment that feels supportive of your needs. That means, to the best of your ability, controlling noise, temperature, and distractions. It also means setting up your desk in an intuitive way so you have the equipment you need positioned where it will benefit you most.

And it helps to anticipate your needs. You know you need stationery, tech, and maybe books to do your work. But think about the other things that will help you work such as having a bottle of water at your desk, a snack to keep you going, and small “just in case” items like hand cream, painkillers, and lip balm. It sounds like a lot but not worrying about those extras will be a load of your mind and allow you to focus on what matters.

  1. Limit your devices

Technology is pretty unavoidable at work these days. But, unless you specifically work in social media, there is no need to be on Twitter all day.

Exercise some self-restraint and limit your device use to necessity only throughout the day, and only respond to important texts and calls.

If it feels impossible to go a whole day without social media, make dedicated 5-10 minute social media breaks where you can scroll to your heart's content. 

Work smarter, not harder

Working more efficiently doesn’t have to mean working harder or using up all your energy.

By implementing these helpful tips above, you’ll be able to make the most of your time working, so you can spend the rest of your time doing things that make you happy.

For more productivity tips, follow us on Instagram @malpaper

Humans can only work efficiently four hours a day. Here’s how to make the most of your time - Pinterest

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Mål Paper also takes inspiration from the Scandinavian minimalist and clutter-free way of living.

As a result, we create simplistic and effective productivity tools that help you to focus on your wellness, fulfilment and potential.