Some people work at a steady pace, below their Epic Maximum Work Capacity. Others try to keep up their Maximum Capacity, sometimes(?) burning out, but getting more done in the short bursts.

Over a time of, say, 6-18 months, which practice will lead to more work in the long run? Are there data or basic facts that lead us to one or the other? Are they both situationally useful, if so in which situations? And what about people's individual neurochemistry? (dopamine, "spoons", discipline, motivation, etc.)

Which is more true, more often? "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast", or "work in focused bursts"? Blue Origin or SpaceX?

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I'm going off the top of my head here since I don't have a copy in front of me, but I remember some very persuasive arguments and citations in the (terribly titled but otherwise quite good) book Extreme Productivity by Bob Pozen.

Basically, Pozen's cited studies found the steady approach pays off on basically every dimension you'd care about (including quality and quantity of the work, efficiency, and decreased various badness). I found it pretty persuasive and switched from working in intense bursts to a more methodical way when writing, for the next few years, and it worked well for me. I got the time it took me to write a 6000 word essay down from ~40 hours to the 12-18 hour range, quality was better, and it was less stressful.

Doesn't necessarily generalize, and I'd speculate it maybe generalizes least for things that benefit from being at some critical mass threshold for a short period of time (say, like, an auction). That part is just speculation thought.

Thanks! And there's theoretical reasons my prior would be on steady work (including some HN or SO or book comment I saw (maybe related to personal slack?) claiming that 40% was the optimal capacity to work ourselves at in general, due to task throughput concerns)

I think this depends a very great deal on what your personal definition of a 'short burst' is. I know some people who will overwork themselves for weeks, then burn out and be unable to leave bed for weeks; this seems bad. 

On the other hand, when I hyperfocus on something for several hours and then take the rest of the day off, I know I get significantly more and better work done than when I sort of idle away for sixteen hours, half-working and half-scrolling-Twitter.

I'm not sure why cycles on the scale of weeks seem much worse to me than cycles on the scale of hours, but one hypothesis I have is that it's about avoiding the lows going below a certain threshold. If I work very hard and am tired and hungry afterwards, that's fine; I'll rest and recover. If I ever reach a state where I'm too tired and hungry to be able to cook a good meal and go through some bedtime rituals, then I'll stop eating/sleeping properly. Once you hit a local minimum, you can be trapped there in a vicious cycle where you don't have the energy to take care of yourself properly, and you don't have any energy because you aren't taking care of yourself properly. Big highs & big lows are fine so long as you can recover from the big low and get another big high, but above a certain threshold you can't dig yourself out of certain holes without help. 

If longer stretches of peak productivity produce worse burnout, then perhaps the key is keeping those stretches short enough that the burnout doesn't cross that threshold?

I like this point. 

One important nuance, though, is that some of your intense work can be investing in things that decrease the likelihood of getting stuck in a bad attractor. 

That way, you have shot at jumping to high-output equilibria that you can actually sustain. 

From personal experience, I needed at least 4 different things to go right at the same time before I could start doing 60-80h weeks that didn't burn me out: 

  1. using a Freewrite
  2. building a custom GTD system in Roam that used the API to tailor it very heavily to my preferences
  3. us
... (read more)
Agreed! Burst work can be most effective when done on things that amplify or aid steady work (e.g. setting up new software, process automation, learning a skill).

This might help me think through some health things, thank you

I tend toward the short burst category, but see huge gains in productivity when I manage to slow myself down. So that's a data point.

Then there are certain situations when you have to act in a short window of time to not let the opportunity slip - say, Xerox PARC burning up with creativity during three years when the stars aligned to make deep research on computers possible, which probably accelerated the development of the PC substantially. One could argue that SpaceX is in a similar position now, where its worth burning out to advance before the window closes on a society capable of going multiplanetary.

Good point, yeah. Burst work may or may not help, but it becomes necessary in such situations

Definitely depends on the type of work for me.  I can do 8-12 hours of repetitive manual labor vs 1-2 hours max of something cognitively intense (like computer programming).   

FWIW I sometimes do steady work averaging 4-5 hours solid, focussed work per weekday (excluding breaks and semi-work like admin), which I think is the most many people achieve, as so much of their 'work' time is spent on chatting, breaks, pottering about, admin etc.

And sometimes I do intense bursts of many more hours per day for a few days or weeks, which tend in practice to be followed by recuperation periods in which I do much less than normal.

As it happens I've been recording complete data on my work & other hours for the last 9 years, so should do an analysis of which of the above methods works out more productive. That said it's affected by the fact that the intense bursts will be on more motivating projects.

Also FWIW, in case others find this useful: there are various ideas about the optimum length of time to work before taking a break, e.g. the so-called 'Pomodoro technique' (a silly grandiose name for a small idea) which recommends 25 mins plus a short break.

In my experience 1 hour is just right. The kind of work I do is relatively intense intellectual stuff (e.g. programming, spreadsheets), and once I've got going I'm in a flow state which is inefficient to interrupt (as I'd just continue thinking about it during the break). So if I work until I notice I'm... (read more)

In my experience, I don't usually get to choose. I am ineffective and distractable when I am unmotivated, so the vast majority of worthwhile work occurs when I am motivated. Over time this has led me to "ride the tide" of motivation when it is present, and not to force it when it is not. For externally imposed work, pushing work off to deadlines has caused much less frustration than attempting to start early and work steadily. If you are not constrained by motivation, it seems like working slowly and steadily would be preferable for large projects, because it would not be as likely to burn you out. It would also be preferable for jobs, because employers and customers prefer steady, predictable progress. For small projects, and projects that benefit more from "inspiration", it is possible that short bursts would be preferable instead, because there is less risk of losing the "spark" before finishing.

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What are the external rewards and punishments?

If I work on my own project, in my free time, I prefer to binge on work. It is easier for me to continue than to start, so if I have already started, I better continue working for as long as possible.

(Note than "working as long as possible" includes breaks, if my brain keeps thinking about the work in background. Like, I may leave the computer and take a walk outside, looking at trees and thinking about nothing. Suddenly an idea "I should do X" pops in my head. Later, "I should do Y" and "I should do Z". Then I return to the computer, and do the X, Y, Z. The important thing is that I didn't start working on a different topic. Such breaks actually often increase productivity; the right moment to take the walk is the moment when I run out of ideas.)

This way, unless I am interrupted, I can do a lot. Then at the end of the day (or a weekend) I feel satisfied with my achievement. And then I take a long break, until I feel like starting again.

When I am at work, we have daily "agile" meetings, and bi-weekly "sprints". No matter what I did in the past, it is not an excuse to take a break today. Knowing that I can't take a break when I need (vacations need to be negotiated in advance), it makes sense to make sure that I never get too tired, so I aim for a sustainable speed... and my bosses try to increase this speed by imposing artificial deadlines, or removing members from the team if everything goes too well. When I burn out, I quit; starting at a new job typically resets the pace.

It is difficult to compare which approach actually gets more done. I often procrastinate at my projects, and the job projects typically get done, so seems like an argument if favor of the job. On the other hand, I spend 8 hours a day at job, and my free time is split between family, taking rest, socialization, and my projects... so maybe the productivity per hour is actually higher in my projects, dunno. (Also, I don't know the perspective of the employer; how much productivity is gained by squeezing out your employees, versus how much is lost by employee turnover.)

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