In just an hour a day, Henry Green achieved a great deal. He’s not very well-known to the general public. Among writers, it’s a different story:
He’s been called not just a “writer’s writer”, but the “writer’s writer’s writer.” V. S Pritchett called him “the most gifted prose writer of his generation.” W. H Auden called him “the best English novelist alive.” His books are considered important works of modernist English literature. How did he come to create such a significant body of work?
Did he dedicate his life to literature and spend his days honing his skills and producing masterpieces? Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Green had a busy life outside his interest in literature. He belonged to a successful business family. He joined the business as a worker on the factory floor and worked his way up to become the Managing Director of the business. So when did he do all his wonderful writing?
It was all done during one hour in the evening of each day.
Just one hour a day? Is that really possible?
Set aside an hour a day
I can build a business, learn a language or a musical instrument, get fit, write a masterpiece, or do whatever it is I want to do—all in just one focussed hour of work a day.
Earl Nightingale said that an hour a day of study in your chosen field could put you at the top of your industry within three years. In five years you could become a national authority; in seven you may be a globally known name.
Making the best use
of my daily hour
Having said that, it’s not the easiest of things to get that hour in. I’ve always had difficulty getting the most out any time I set aside for any activity. One part of me wants something else – for example, the immediate pleasure of sleeping some more, or one more fascinating video, or some more entertaining social media time…
Even if I manage to get past that desire, when I actually sit down to work there are tons of distractions, both internal and external.
So there are two kinds of difficulty I have to deal with:
managing myself and managing my attention.
i. Managing myself
This is the big one, the one that it’s most difficult to get past. But there is a proven way to get better at it each day.
What is it? If I had to express it in two words, they would be:
Delaying gratification is how self-discipline is built up. Learning to postpone pleasure leads to all kinds of things I want: success in academics, career achievements, and deep, meaningful relationships.
It’s a fundamental building block in self-development. And when I’m planning my hour of work each day, it’s an invaluable skill. I can reward myself with the pleasure I’ve put off once I’ve put in that hour of solid work.
ii. Managing my Attention
Once I’ve managed to sit myself down and get a start on my one focussed hour of deep work, the battle is still not over. The phone or the doorbell rings (if you’re working at home) or a family member wants something done, or the TV in the other room is just too loud… External distractions.
Distraction triggers can also be from within: hunger, tiredness, or memories which could trigger off some emotion, or imagination that sends you off into the most pleasant daydreams.
So how do I do get going with my hour-a-day practice?
The first thing is to be able to manage myself and my needs and wants. There are some things that can’t and shouldn’t be postponed. Examples are basic personal needs such as hunger, thirst, hygiene and so on.
Most people have achieved a daily routine to take care of these needs by the time they reach adolescence or even earlier. Some mental conditions such as depression can play havoc with one’s daily routine, so if I need outside help to handle such problems, I should get it.
Physical illness is quite as serious an obstacle. I need to be in the best condition possible for me, physical and mental.
Self-development depends a great deal on being able to
- postpone pleasure
- put up with some pain/discomfort
- quit some pleasures altogether.
This was what Freud, the ‘father of psychoanalysis’ suggested in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Since then, many experiments and practical observations have confirmed the importance of being able to put pleasure away for later: look up the “marshmallow experiment”.
The ability to delay gratification is an important skill to acquire to get anywhere in life. And I can’t do without it if I want really use my daily hour.
If you already have this, you’re way ahead of the field.
Assuming that I’ve got my basic needs – hunger, thirst, sleep, etc. all well under control, what can divert my focus away from what I need to do?
If I’m sitting in a place where interruptions are likely, that’s definitely something that can affect the quality of my focus and of my work during my hour. I have to choose a place where outside disturbances are minimal.
Some tactics that could be useful
- Close the door and the windows. Shut off your phone. Tell everyone you’re not available for that hour.
- Play some soft music through headphones–music that you won’t get involved in, that will recede to the background, but keep other stuff away. I find that the right music actually keeps other mental diversions at bay.
- Work while everyone’s asleep. Early in the morning or late at night, depending on when you’re most productive.
- Meditation helps to gain control over attention. A regular meditation practice will help keep focus.
- Taking short breaks often helps to strengthen concentration. Make sure that your breaks are not so long or distracting that you find it difficult to get your focus back.
As you begin to get more and more into the habit of setting aside the daily hour, you’ll find your own ways and means to increase your ability to focus. That will enable you to put in some really productive time in that hour.
And before long, you could well find yourself among the leaders in whatever you’ve chosen to spend the hour on.