The Three Hour Workday (The Sobering and Liberating Truth About Your Peak Hours As a Leader)

How many productive hours a day do you have in you?

It’s a more important question than you might think. When I was starting out in leadership, I might have answered that by saying eight, or ten. Or twelve.

What about you? How many productive hours do you think you have in you?

Like many driven leaders, I thought I was superhuman. Pushing the pedal all the way to the floor worked for a while, until it didn’t.

Then—also like a growing number of leaders—I hit the wall. I burned out.

When I rebuilt my leadership in the years that followed, I started to manage my energy, not just my time.

Here’s what I learned.

As driven and determined as I was, I really only had three to five peak hours in me every day during which my energy was high, focus was clear and my mind was sharp.

At first, that observation made me feel like a fraud. If I get paid for full-time work and put in eight or more hours in a day, how can I only have three to five peak hours in a day?

After doing more research and testing this theory with other leaders I’ve trained, guess what? Most leaders have only three to five deeply productive hours in a day when their energy is at its peak. That’s it.

When I was writing my latest book, At Your Best, where I explain how to leverage your peak and non-peak hours, I flirted with the idea of calling the book The Three Hour Workday (with apologies to Tim Ferriss). Obviously, that wasn’t going to fly, but often that’s how I think about my day, and I’d encourage you to think about your day too.

Here are five principles that will help you leverage your energy, especially your peak hours. Once you master this concept, you will get far more done in your peak three hours than you realize.

It starts here, by accepting that not all hours are created equal.

1. Accept that 24 Equal Hours Don’t Feel Equal or Produce Equally

You get 24 equal hours each day, but those hours don’t feel equal or produce equally.

You might bring a ton of energy to a 10 a.m. meeting, but step into the board room at 4:30 p.m. and you might be struggling to stay awake and hyper-caffeinating just to make it through.

Here’s the truth…your energy waxes and wanes over the course of the day. You’re not a robot. You’re human.

Daniel Pink points out that even physicians struggle with this. Anesthesiologists have an ‘adverse event’ about 1% of the time during 9 a.m. surgeries. At 4 p.m., the rate rises to 4.2%.  In other words, you’re 400% more likely to have a problem in an afternoon procedure than you are in a morning procedure. Why? Simple: research shows even doctors have trouble focusing in the afternoon.

Most of you reading this post aren’t doing surgery. Many of you have more control over your schedule than a doctor does. Which means you find yourself in this glorious space: you have a real choice in whether you co-operate with your energy levels, or compete with them.

Co-operating with your energy levels is a much better strategy than competing with them.

Ironically, ignoring your energy levels (as in, pretending they don’t vary) puts you on the fast track to making you less productive.

2. Find Your Green Zone (+ Your Yellow and Red Zones)

The second step in maximizing your peak three to five hours is to divide your day into three zones: Green Yellow and Red.

Think of your peak 3-5 hours as your Green Zone—when your energy, focus, creativity, and great ideas flow easily and sharpest. When you’re in your Green Zone, you have enthusiasm for the tasks ahead. During those 3-5 hours each day, you’re at your best.

Your Red Zone is the opposite—it’s those 1-2 hours when you’re dragging, need caffeine to stay awake and you can’t focus deeply on anything. In your Red Zone, not only do you not produce your best work—sometimes you struggle to produce any meaningful work.

Your Yellow Zone consists of the hours in between—you are neither at your best or at your worst. You’re in the middle. You’re fine in meetings, you can produce content or plan ahead. It’s not your best work, but definitely not your worst.

Your results will differ, but my Green Zone happens between 7-11 a.m. every day, and (on good days) I get an extra hour between 1-2. My Red Zone is from 4-6 p.m. Everything else is Yellow.

Now that you know when you’re at your best, shift your workload accordingingly.

Do your most important work during your Green Zone, your least important work during your Red Zone (or, alternatively, take a break), and do everything else in your Yellow Zone.

If you get your peak hours right, the rest of the hours take care of themselves.

If you don’t get your peak hours right, you almost can’t work enough hours to make up for mismanaging them. Plus your stress level skyrockets.

3. Figure Out What You’re Best At

To maximize your peak hours, you not only need to discover when you’re at your best, but what you’re best at. In other words, you need to figure out what to do in your Green Zone.

Te most strategic Green Zone use is to spend it on activities anchored in your gifting and passion that have a big impact on your organization’s mission.

If you Venn diagram it, it comes together like this:

Your gifting is your sweet spot—what you uniquely do best. Your passion is what you love doing. And impact refers to those things that, when done, will make the biggest difference to your mission.

When those three circles overlap, you find leadership gold. Everything becomes easier, more enjoyable, and ends up having a bigger impact.

In my role as a senior leader, I’ve found I’ve had the most success in my Green Zone when I focus on five things:

  • casting crystal-clear vision
  • creating and delivering great content
  • crafting a healthy organizational culture
  • keep our top staff and clients aligned and relationally connected
  • ensuring we have the financial resources we need for our mission.

There are about eighty-six other things I could spend my time on, but these five produce the greatest results.

The question for you, then, is: what will produce the greatest results for you?

In your Green Zone, do that.

Once you identify your optimal Green Zone focus, you’ll not only enjoy your work more, you’ll see much better results.

4. Stop Reacting To Everything and Everyone

The biggest obstacles to maximizing your peak three to five hours each day can be summarized in two words: everything and everyone.

Knowing you have three to five productive hours in a day and using those three to five hours effectively are two very different things.

Far too many days go down in flames because you have a to-do list that never becomes a ‘done’ list. Meanwhile, all kinds of things that weren’t on your to-do list got done.

If you look at it honestly, the “oh my goodness, what happened to my day?” phenomenon you and I experience is not really a mystery. Nine times out of ten, you simply spent your day reacting to everything that came your way.

If you don’t protect your Green Zone, you’ll accomplish everyone else’s priorities and never accomplish yours.

So, protect those hours. Work in a quiet environment, turn off all notifications on your devices and double down.

5. Let Three to Five Focused Hours Replace Your Normal Ridiculous Hours

The reason you take your stress home, work ridiculous hours and feel like you’re never finished is usually because your most important work didn’t get done when you were working.

When when your most important work never gets done, you never feel done. Which causes you you to work all the time.

Ask any preacher whose sermon is still ‘in development’ Friday afternoon, any CEO who is not clear on strategy for the next quarter, or any manager who hasn’t dealt with their toughest team issues, whether they can relax, and they’ll look at you like you have three heads.

When you realize you’ve basically got three to five hours to accomplish your most significant work, and you focus deeply enough to do it, everything else becomes so much easier. Doing that five days a week means you’ll not only catch up, but you’ll also likely get ahead.

I know when I get my major content done I almost feel like I can call it a day. I don’t–I have meetings and other things that are less important to do. But the big stuff is done.

Which means when I’m in a meeting, I’m focused on the meeting, not thinking about other things. It means when I’m relaxing, I can relax. When I’m home, I’m home.

Having only three to five productive hours in a day might make you feel like you’re losing, but when you leverage them, you’ll start winning in ways you never imagined.

I outline the strategy in detail in At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy and Priorities Working In Your FavorIf you want to learn more, here’s the link.

What Have You Learned About Your Energy Levels?

What are you learning about your energy levels, and how are you managing your energy, not just your time?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

The Three Hour Workday (The Sobering and Liberating Truth About Your Peak Hours As a Leader)

20 Comments

  1. Joe Stillone on September 21, 2021 at 3:12 pm

    Appreciate the wisdom. Thank you.

  2. Bobby Arkills on September 20, 2021 at 4:34 pm

    Hi Carey,
    I’ve gone through The High Impact Leader course and it looks like there’s some overlap with the information you describe found in At Your Best. Would it be beneficial for me to buy the book as well?

    • Randy M on September 21, 2021 at 1:05 pm

      Carey,

      Thanks for your work in this article. I am currently listening to At Your Best and going through your Masterclass. Looking forward to adjusting so I can be healthier and embrace the “adjust now-thrive tomorrow” approach to all of my life, including my work.

      One key takeaway I’m using is having a separate calendar to plot out all of my red, yellow, and green zones. Right now, my gren zone has me doing more of the following—

      *planning and strategy for my monthly career podcast
      *reading about higher education, career development, teaching practices, and video editing / podcast editing (in line with my grad school work of Adult Education and my career podcast)
      *job search applications, preparation, research, and job search follow up

      Thanks for writing and giving us a breath of fresh air, confirming for me some of the things I am doing right, and helping me know I can stay the course and be a better version of me for the long haul.

  3. Mina on September 20, 2021 at 9:46 am

    So what about having enough green zone left for your family, mariage etc? Sometimes it just feels like they get the Red Zone ..

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2021 at 11:58 am

      Couldn’t agree more Mina. I address that at length in the book, At Your Best, but you’re right. Doing what you’re best at in your Green Zone will help you be more focused at home, and then using your Green Zone on weekends and during time off can help you give your family and marriage your best, not just your left overs.

      • Mina on September 22, 2021 at 5:59 pm

        Yeah, left over are never good lol

        My copy of the book just got here so I am excited to read it and join your Master Class 🙂 Blessings!

  4. Ken on September 20, 2021 at 9:42 am

    Love the thinking here and the simplicity of green, yellow, red. Your thoughts compliment what I read in Cal Newport’s book called Deep Work. You are absolutely correct about peak efficiency times that need to be capitalized on for important projects and other critical thinking work… I have been working on this in my life! Thanks for the validation!!! Praying for you and your team!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm

      Thanks Ken. Huge fan of Cal’s work and he’s got some fascinating insights. What I’m trying to do with At Your Best is to give a strategy that’s easy to implement that will protect your deep work zones every day. I see it as a complement to Cal’s work, and the work of other writers and thinkers in this space.

  5. Kevin Denlinger on September 20, 2021 at 9:17 am

    While I agree with just about everything you’ve written here, I think due to the expectations of our culture, we can still accomplish more when we go beyond the 3 or 5 hour mark.

    Perhaps with diminishing returns, but still, 3 or 4 more hours at 60 or 70% capacity still accomplishes more than if we stop while we’re still at our peak.

    1 Corinthians 15:58 comes to mind, as whatever we do “in the Lord” is not in vain. If the main concern is to avoid burnout, there are lots of better ways than simply working less.

    1 Corinthians 15:58 – Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

    • Jason Vargas on September 20, 2021 at 10:36 am

      Kevin,
      This article is about doing more, not less. The point is that you give your peak hours in the most effective way so that you are more productive all around.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2021 at 12:01 pm

        Thanks Jason. That’s exactly it…the title is kind of a joke, but not really. We’ll all naturally do more than 3-5 hours a day, but you’re right….you become more productive all around once you have used your best hours strategically.

  6. Tom Sharpe on September 20, 2021 at 8:14 am

    I am starting to become more sensitive to energy levels. I think the morning might be best for energy because I have been reset by sleep. My sermon just was not coming last Thursday afternoon. I was energized in the morning working on it.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2021 at 9:01 am

      Follow those bread crumbs Tom. I think you’re on to something. 🙂

  7. Ted Martens on September 20, 2021 at 7:39 am

    Try “selling” this article on a professional business site. It is not that there are not peak hours — of course — that is a given as is the case for any human endeavor which obviously involves a finite amount of time and energy. But only in the world of ministry can we talk about 3 or even 5 hours.

    The nuanced arguments open the door for some to “call it a day” at 3-5 hours, while those in the pew are working with far greater focus for far longer, to “feed their family.”

    Perhaps, we should have some Afghani pastors to write these kinds of articles about how hard pastoring in America is — They could write them while awake all night concerned about whether they or their family members will be alive tomorrow, of as they pray about their daughters in the hands of the Taliban!

    Please, stop the posts about “burn-out” and the like when it comes to pastoring in America. We only reflect our ignorance of ministry for most of the pastors around the world who know nothing of the freedom and affluence we enjoy in America!

    • Sunny on September 20, 2021 at 8:30 am

      Ted,
      With all respect to you, I wish to point out that Carey knows his target audience. He’s writing to help Pastors and leaders in a fast-paced, driven, distracted, demanding, Western culture where burn-out is common. Carey didn’t suggest laziness in his article. Rather, he seeks to empower Pastors in this fast Western culture, by helping them prioritize and utilize their strengths in the most effective ways. Ultimately, Carey is expanding upon how to grow a fruit of the Spirit in our lives, namely Self-control.

      • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2021 at 9:02 am

        Thanks Sunny. You understand where I’m coming from well. It’s not about being lazy at all, it’s about maximizing what we can do.

      • Ted Martens on September 20, 2021 at 7:45 pm

        Nice try…as I in essence stated…”.the fast-paced, driven, distracted, demanding culture” is found in countries where pastor lay awake at night praying their daughters are raped over night…and where they are not sure they won’t have to hide to save their lives….Jeremiah 12:5…American pastors need to reflect on how good they have it and forget this self-serving complaining about how hard it is. Mega- smeger….. large or smaller..they all have their advantages and drawbacks.

  8. Larry M. on September 20, 2021 at 6:11 am

    Carey, you drove it home this morning. I saw myself in that situation years ago. Thank God I developed the strategy you speaking on… it works!!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 20, 2021 at 9:02 am

      Thanks Larry. Makes an incredible difference, doesn’t it?

      • Sandra on September 21, 2021 at 1:15 pm

        Thank you for what you do! 😊

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