When I worked as an IT consultant, I logged a lot of hours: on the road, at the office, and sitting in front of my laptop. Work culture in that environment was heavily influenced by the optics: the client wanted to, quite literally, see where their money was going. The result, predictably, was a whole lot of pretending to look busy.
When I left the world of full-time employment my productive output, also predictably, rivaled that of a toddler. I was motivated and had plenty of freelance web development projects, but I had never cultivated a strong work ethic. On the contrary, I had been rewarded my entire life for my smarts and charm rather than hard work.
Lamenting to more productive folks, I consistently received the counterintuitive advice to spend less time working. This was confusing to me, not to mention a vast departure from the work culture to which I had grown accustomed, and it could easily have been used as an excuse to avoid work altogether. But that wasn’t the point.
The point was that the eight hour work day, just like the forty hour week, is a relic of the industrial age. It served the economy at the time and the needs of a different generation, but it hasn’t translated well to this information age. It’s simply a myth that we need to toil the day away to make a living.
The other point was to understand how to utilize a work day. We all have important projects and high-leverage tasks that comprise them, but many of us also have repetitive administrative tasks that need to get done. If for whatever reason our Important Project muscles need the afternoon off, it makes little sense to power through unproductively when the work isn’t bearing fruit.
The peaks and valleys of our productive output are perfectly acceptable so long as we keep showing up. We needn’t make a career out of learning Richard Branson’s productivity best practices, what’s far more important is learning what works for us over the long haul of our careers.