One of the central arguments I make in my book REST is that when they have a lot of control over their time, highly accomplished people tend to converge on a style of working that features alternating periods of hard work and play, and that most of the time, four or five hours a day is enough time to do extraordinary things.
REST on display in Waterstones Cambridge

This isn’t something you learn easily. Virtually everyone who’s really smart about how they work was stupid about it when they were young— or more charitably, had to learn the hard way how to design their days and use their time and energy and attention more strategically.

This weekend I was reading GQ’s long profile of Matt Damon in this month’s issue, and came across another example of how youthful early overwork was replaced by a more disciplined approach. The article tells the story of Damon’s collaboration with Ben Affleck on their latest film, The Last Duel. Of course, the pair first became famous for writing and starring in Good Will Hunting, and as the piece explains,

The two of them have remained periodic work colleagues—they share a production company—but after winning their Good Will Hunting Oscar, they had never even attempted to collaborate on another script. To a large extent this was a reflection of just how successful their initial strategy has been—kick-started by that movie’s success, both had long been busy with the kind of opportunities they could once have only dreamed of. But it was also that what they had done back then seemed too cumbersome to ever repeat.

“The process of writing was so time consuming when we did it, when we were 22 and 20,” says Damon.

“We didn’t have jobs, we didn’t have anything else to do,” echoes Affleck. “We had two years to sort of muddle our way through a draft, and then another draft—to spend time sitting around and drinking beer and talking about the themes and playing video games and bullshitting.”

“We really understood the characters, and so we would take them and we would put them in these different scenarios,” Damon explains, “and then at the end, we kind of mashed these disjointed parts together into what could cohere as some kind of narrative. And that’s a really inefficient way to write. And I think both of us just intuitively felt like: Well, we’re never going to have enough time to do that again.”

This time, however, things were different.

But over that dinner, Damon told Affleck about The Last Duel, and at the end of the meal lent Affleck his copy of the book. “He was recently sober,” Damon recalls. “And when he’s on his game, he really sees the matrix. At seven o’clock the next morning, he called me—he had gone home and read it—and said, ‘We should write this.’ ”

Affleck tells me that he had stayed up until three or four in the morning, reading. When Damon had solicited his opinion on material in the past, Affleck hadn’t always “been super-enthusiastic,” he says. This was different. “All of a sudden I had a very clear idea of: Absolutely, this is a movie, this is how we should do it. It just thrilled me. And the story of this woman and what she had experienced and been through and the bravery she’d exhibited and the resilience and strength of character it must have taken to have gone through this—it just became very, very clear to me right away how it could work as a movie.” He became possessed with a great sense of urgency—“we have to do this and get it done now”—that he needed Damon to share. “He’s got a busy life, he’s all over the place,” Affleck explains, “and he frankly requires being marshaled a little bit to focus and zone in.” So Affleck laid out a plan of action: “Okay, and this is how we’re going to do it: We’re going to do four hours a day, I’m going to schedule it, I’m going to come over there….”

As soon as they began, they quickly found a very different rhythm from the last time around. “It really fit in with our lives,” says Damon. “Get up, get the kids out the door, to do everything we needed to do in our personal lives, and then meet in a very relaxed setting, work for four or five hours, then go back and kind of fulfill all of our obligations at home.” He describes these sessions as involving a lot of pacing around, acting out scenes, before one of them consolidated what they had. “He’s a better typist than I am,” says Damon. “But sometimes I’m closer to the laptop.”

So what can we learn from this story?

First, you can see that, since writing Good Will Hunting, both Damon and Affleck have gotten smarter about how they work, and they were able to bring that experience to their latest collaboration. It should be completely self-evident that as you get better at something, you should need less time to do it well; but these days, when we treat overwork as a badge of honor, we default to taking those savings and using them to… just do more stuff. Not necessarily better work— our brains don’t seem to be designed to operate at a high level for very long periods each day— but more work.

Sometimes long hours aren’t a sign of dedication. Sometimes they just signal that you’re inexperienced or lack the discipline to focus and get the job done.

Welcome Home. Oops, We Meant "Welcome to Work."

Second, they show how constraints can work in your favor— under the right conditions. They wrote the draft of the screenplay in between the time in the morning when they had to “get the kids out the door” and “do everything we needed to do in our personal lives,” and the afternoon when they had to “fulfill all of our obligations at home.” Of course, this is a lot easier when you can design your time as you wish: the problem for many of us is that that sort of flexibility really isn’t available to us, even now. But the idea that you have to make huge personal sacrifices to do good work, and that your relationships have to suffer and your children and spouse pay the price for your success, is stupid and selfish.

Finally, it shows how much you can get done in what seem like relatively short periods of work. This isn’t just a good way to organize a project; it’s a good way to organize your life and career. As the great early 20th-century physician William Osler once put it in a talk at Yale,

Control of the mind as a working machine, the adaptation in it of habit, so that its action becomes almost as automatic as walking, the end of education— and yet how rarely reached! It can be accomplished with deliberation and repose, never with hurry and worry. Realize how much time there is, how long the day is. Realize that you have sixteen waking hours, three or four of which at least should be devoted to making a silent conquest of your mental [44] / machinery. Concentration, by which is grown gradually the power to wrestle successfully with any subject, is the secret of successful study. No mind however dull can escape the brightness that comes from steady application….

Four or five hours daily it is not much to ask ; but one day must tell another, one week certify another, one month bear witness to another of the same story, and you will acquire a habit by which the one-talent man will earn a high interest, and by which the ten-talent man may at least save his capital.

We have an opportunity now to design work differently, and we should learn from these kinds of stories, and the science I discuss in REST, to make it better and more sustainable.