— January 31, 2018
How many times have you answered “How are you?” with “I’ve been really busy”? American culture prizes busyness. We associate activity with success — regardless of whether that activity is actually productive. Curiously, we also associate stress with success. When someone drops a significant stressor and experiences the freedom that comes as a result, often the person will feel that something’s amiss. The stress is replaced with anxiety that “I must not be doing enough.” But it’s an illusion. Long work hours and the stress that accompanies it don’t bring success. They trap you in a hamster wheel that takes you nowhere.
One of the main reasons that we work long hours is that we can’t focus, so we’re unproductive. If we could overcome distractions and optimize our minds for productivity, we’d get more done by doing less. And we’d free up time to introduce other, meaningful things into our lives.
I realized this truth firsthand after enduring burnout that produced physical illness and feelings of hopelessness. I set out on a quest to take back control of how I defined success and how I operate day-to-day. Here’s what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced as a result of putting it into practice.
Start With a Calm Mind
What happens in the couple of hours before you head to work reverberates throughout your day. Starting with a calm mind will give you a solid platform to launch your workday for better effectiveness. But everyone knows how elusive a calm mind can be!
Mornings are notoriously difficult because we pack a lot into them, and we’re typically tired from not going to bed early enough the night before. But making even small changes can improve your mindset.
The ideal morning routine will look different for everyone. What works for me may not work for you. But if you’re looking for ideas, here’s how I run my mornings now:
I use a special clock to wake up. Thirty minutes before the alarm is set to go off, the lamp gradually lights up to mimic the rising of the sun. About half of the time, I wake up before the alarm goes off at 6:00, just due to the gradually-brightening light. When the alarm does go off, it’s not an annoying “waah, waah, waah” — I have the clock set to wake me up with chirping birds. I’m usually in a great frame of mind now when I become fully conscious. (I should add that I’m anything but a morning person, so this is a big deal!)
I immediately drink some water and settle down with my journal and some inspirational reading material. I read a few paragraphs and then write down any thoughts that were triggered. Then I spend 10-15 minutes doing centering prayer and/or meditation. At this point, I’m usually feeling peaceful and grateful, having been reminded of what I have to be thankful for. I’m now ready for breakfast, which I recommend for everyone — your body needs that fuel! Before I head to my desk, I do some stretches or yoga. I’m starting work by 8:30 am, and if I’ve followed this routine, I’m almost guaranteed to crush the projects I’ve scheduled for that morning.
Experiment to see what works for you. Make a list of the activities that bring you peace and clarity, and then try working a few of those activities into your morning routine and see what happens. Just as important, don’t do the things that create stress — like checking your email or looking at Facebook. There will be plenty of time for those things later in the day.
Insulate Yourself From Interruptions
Between email, our project management tools, and messaging apps, our computers alone are enough to derail our productivity. When you add coworkers dropping in and phone calls, no wonder we aren’t getting anything done.
Multitasking is a myth. It’s been proven countless times that the human brain is incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time. This is especially true with tasks that require a lot of cognition. So if you’re multitasking, you’re missing things. And once your mind has been distracted from a task, it takes 25 minutes to get back on track again. If your brain is constantly being interrupted to read email, check your notifications, or answer your phone, it’s going to take you a lot longer to get your tasks completed. Worse, our capacity to produce quality work is diminished when we’re being interrupted. So when we’re distracted, we’re taking longer to produce lower-quality work.
My solution has been to close email, turn off notifications, and put my phone on Do Not Disturb while I need to focus on activities that require concentration (which is about 80% of my work!). I check and respond to emails and voicemails three times a day, which seems to be often enough to keep my clients and contacts happy. If you’re in sales or customer service, obviously you’ll have to increase that amount, but find what works to communicate as frequently as you need to while allowing you to focus on important work at some point during your day.
I’ll warn you that if you haven’t tried this before, you’ll probably have a bit of a freakout moment because your brain has been conditioned to expect these interruptions. You’ll experience anxiety that you’re missing something. But hold firm, and you’ll find that eventually your brain will release that anxiety and you’ll settle into a calm focus that enables you to work at peak performance.
Map Your Work to Your Personal Productivity Clock
Your body has its own natural rhythms. At certain points in the day, you’re alert and capable of deep work. At other points, your brain lags and you feel lethargic. After a certain amount of time in your chair, your body will cry out for a stretch or a walk. Some people may need a power nap to recharge.
To get the most work done in the least amount of time, it’s essential that you know your body’s peak times as well as your ideal increments for focused work. If you’re most capable of deep work between 9:00 and 11:00, block out that time on your calendar and guard it for that work alone. If you’re alert but easily distracted from tasks that require full concentration between 1:00 and 3:00, schedule your phone calls during that time. If you’re only able to focus on one task productively for an hour, divide up your day into hour-long increments with 15-minute breaks in between. Some people find that their best creative work happens later in the day, when they wouldn’t be able to do other focused work.
Take advantage of whatever rhythms your body is naturally programmed around, and work with them. Not only is it counterproductive to fight your natural rhythms, it can also be unhealthy.
Take Breaks Away From Your Desk
Breaks are essential to productivity. Our hyperdrive culture admires those who eat at their desks or skip lunch altogether to work, but your body isn’t designed to function that way. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that constantly working without a break diminishes concentration.
The brain is wired to automate as much as possible, going on autopilot. This ability is why, on the drive home from work, you sometimes “wake up” when you arrive, not remembering the actual details of the journey. You’ve driven that path myriad times before, so your brain didn’t need to focus on it. When you stay at a task too long, your brain starts to zone out and look for other things it should be aware of. Breaks interrupt that automation process and force your mind back to the task you need to complete.
The Pomodoro Technique suggests working for 25 minutes and resting for five. I find that I’m just getting into my groove at 25 minutes, and I need more than five minutes to refresh my brain — so for me, an hour on and 15 minutes off works well.
For maximum effectiveness, your breaks should involve your body, out of your desk chair. Checking social media isn’t an effective break because it’s too much like work. Go make yourself a cup of tea, stretch, take a walk, whatever gets your body moving. Being outdoors has special benefits for clearing the mind — if you can step outside, I highly recommend it!
Eat for Fuel
What you put into your body directly impacts its performance. Athletes live by this principle, but it’s true for everyone. A significant amount of brain fog can be blamed on poor eating choices (or not eating at all!).
While you probably know the broad guidelines for how to eat to fuel productivity — low carbs, high protein, lots of veggies — the specifics will vary person to person. For a few weeks, I kept a food log of what I ate and how I felt afterward. I made some surprising discoveries. Peanuts make me feel lethargic. Sodium completely drains me of energy. Sugar gives me headaches. A blueberry smoothie with flax milk powers me through my late morning slump. Salads with quinoa make me feel invincible after lunchtime. Green tea is my best mood booster.
Try a variety of healthy foods to see what gives you the most energy and good vibes, and use them to power your productivity. Of course, this doesn’t mean you’re never going to eat pasta or enjoy a chocolate chip cookie. But save those foods for times when you don’t need to be at your peak!
The basic principles I’ve shared in this article form the foundation of effective, productive work — but the individual tactics that work for one person will be different from the tactics that work for someone else. You really need to learn your own body and brain and experiment with different strategies to see what works for you. The results are more than worth it!