All too often, productivity tips are a dime a dozen. Some even conflict with each other. What we need is a system.
What schedule do the pros use? What system does science say allows us to be most productive?
What’s key is feeling in control and making sure your energy levels are matched to the importance of the task at hand.
Let’s assemble the expert ideas and research we’ve covered into a more cohesive schedule you can apply to your day.
How do you do that? You may want to get your calendar out. We’ve got some changes to make.
1) The Morning Ritual
Laura Vanderkam studied the schedules of high-achievers. What did she find? They rise early. Almost all have a morning ritual.
You need to wake up before the insanity starts. Before demands are made on you. Before your goals for the day have competition.
If you want to achieve work-life balance you need to determine what is important and focus on that. (And research shows goals make you happier.)
Having concrete goals was correlated with huge increases in confidence and feelings of control.
Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:
People who construct their goals in concrete terms are 50 percent more likely to feel confident they will attain their goals and 32 percent more likely to feel in control of their lives. – Howatt 1999
As I’ve discussed before, the second part of your morning ritual is about mood. That feeling of control is what produces grit and makes people persist.
Research comparing students of similar ability finds that the distinguishing feature between those who maintain a strong work ethic in their studies and those who give up is a sense of control. Those who express a sense of control receive scores that are a full letter grade higher than those who do not. – Mendoza 1999
You’ve got your goal and you’re in control. Cool. But what about when you get to work? I recommend you find somewhere to hide. Here’s why…
2) Important Work First Thing — With No Distractions
Many people arrive at the office and immediately get busy with email and meetings, leaving real work for later in the day… Rookie error.
Research shows that 2.5 to 4 hours after waking is when your brain is sharpest. You want to waste that on a conference call or a staff meeting?
Studies show that alertness and memory, the ability to think clearly and to learn, can vary by between 15 and 30 percent over the course of a day. Most of us are sharpest some two and a half to four hours after waking.
When I interviewed willpower expert Roy Baumeister, what did he have to say?Early morning is also when you’re most disciplined:
The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.
But does this really work? In studies of geniuses, most did their best work early in the day.
“But why did you say I need to hide somewhere?”
Because distractions make you stupid. These days it’s hard to do much real work at work.
Can’t do the work of your choice when the day starts? Get in early or work from home before you head into the office.
So you’re making progress on the thing that matters. But you can’t sprint for miles. What do you do when your brain gets tired?
3) Regroup When You Slow Down
Afternoon brain fog. We’ve all felt it. Why does this happen? Working too hard? Food coma? Often it’s just our natural circadian rhythm.
First, take a break. Get a snack or a power nap if you can.
What you need next is a mini-version of your morning ritual. Review your goals and the progress you’ve made this morning.
Harvard research shows nothing is more motivating than progress. Appreciating how far they’ve come is what very persistent people do.
Comparing people who tend to give up easily with people who tend to carry on, even through difficult challenges, researchers find that persistent people spend twice as much time thinking, not about what has to be done, but about what they have already accomplished, the fact that the task is doable, and that they are capable of it. – Sparrow 1998
You got a break, reviewed your goals and achievements, and now you’re ready to work again. What do you focus on now?
4) Meetings, Calls and People Stuff In The Afternoon
When energy is high, that’s when you want to focus on creative, challenging work. When energy is low, do busy work.
Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert“, makes comics in the morning. By the afternoon, his brain is fuzzy and he shifts his objectives.
One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task… At 6:00 A.M. I’m a creator, and by 2:00 P.M. I’m a copier… It’s the perfect match of my energy level with a mindless task.
And research shows the afternoon really is the best time for meetings —specifically, 3PM.
Need to power through some busy work but you can’t muster the willpower? This is when distraction can benefit you.
When tasks are dull and you’re feeling distractable, friends can make you more productive — even if they’re not helping.
Just having friends nearby can push you toward productivity. “There’s a concept in ADHD treatment called the ‘body double,’ ” says David Nowell, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist from Worcester, Massachusetts. “Distractable people get more done when there is someone else there, even if he isn’t coaching or assisting them.” If you’re facing a task that is dull or difficult, such as cleaning out your closets or pulling together your receipts for tax time, get a friend to be your body double.
So the work day is over. Is that it? Nope. There’s an optimal way to handle your schedule after the sun goes down too.
5) A Relaxing Evening
Though successful people do work long hours, the greats almost all take the evening off to recharge.
Before dinner, Tim Ferriss recommends writing down your big goal for tomorrow. This will get your mind off work and allow you to relax.
What does research say can help you chill out? Hint: don’t trust your instincts.
The things we frequently choose to reduce stress are often the least effective.
What does work? Seeing friends and active hobbies. What doesn’t? More passive activities like TV, video games and eating.
According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)
Past that, get to bed. Studies of world class performers show they have boundless energy, so get those zzz’s to be one of them.
No, you can’t cheat yourself on sleep and not see negative effects.
What does brain research tell us about cutting corners at bedtime? You’re basically making yourself stupid:
The bottom line is that sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, general math knowledge.
So how do we bring this all together to be more successful?
Here’s what a successful schedule looks like:
Your Morning Ritual
Important Work First Thing — With No Distractions
Regroup When You Slow Down
Meetings, Calls And Little Things In The Afternoon
A Relaxing Evening
Sadly, we can’t all dictate our own schedule. That’s why there are no specific times listed above.
But we can all opt to do some things before or after others. Stop focusing on just getting lots of random things done to pretend you’re making progress.
All moments in your day are not equal, and all tasks are not of equal importance.
Knowing the best time to get the right things done is key.
What will this schedule do for you? Well, when the day ends you’restill going to find that you didn’t get everything done.
But that won’t bother you much because you did the things that mattered, and did them well.
As we discussed in our previous post, our voluntary attention comes in two flavors: broad and narrow. Broad focus attention is great for getting your bearings, understanding the “big picture,” and comprehending complex systems and relationships. Narrow focus attention allows us to be efficient, productive, and meticulous.
To be effective supreme commanders of the mind, we need to know when to use one and when to use the other; sometimes you want to be holed up in your war room, poring over plans and maps, and sometimes you need to go out to the frontlines to see exactly what is going on on the ground.
Knowing when to use a broad or narrow focus attention is more art than science – it’s something you have to learn from experience; however, there’s actually a science to how you shift into those different attentional foci. Below we provide a few researched-backed tips:
Narrow Your Focus
Use lists, outlines, and categories. When we categorize, use lists, or create outlines, our attention narrows in order to pinpoint any missing information. If you’re working on a task in which getting details right is vital, write out all the steps or even use a checklist.
Focus on a goal. The fact that having a clear goal can narrow one’s focus is perfectly displayed in the Invisible Gorilla Experiment. When the experiment’s participants were told to watch a video and given a goal to count how many times a basketball was passed around, they became so narrowly focused on the ball that they failed to see a man dressed in a gorilla suit stroll casually among the players and dance in the middle of the court.
While a goal is an effective attention narrower, there’s a risk of suffering tunnel vision and missing out on more rewarding opportunities. Always employ your practical wisdom.
Take it slow. When you think, read, or observe your surroundings slowly, your attention narrows. You’ll spend more time homing in on and examining the objects in your environment that catch your involuntary attention and use your voluntary attention to ponder and analyze single words and sentences within a large piece of literature.
Broaden Your Focus
Stay optimistic. Research has shown that positive emotions give us a more open attention. When we’re optimistic, we’re relaxed and thus more likely to see new connections and opportunities. This is one reason why it’s so important that leaders remain upbeat; a sense of realistic optimism is essential in crafting and maintaining a strategic big-picture vision.
Focus on others. Another way to broaden your attention is to shift your focus from yourself and onto others. Studies show that being “other directed” or thinking in terms of “we” and not “me” opens up attention. The best way to make that shift is to simply help another person with a problem. You can also try doing some “compassionate meditation.”
Scan. When we quickly scan our environment (or even a book), our attention widens in order to take in as much information as possible, which in turn allows us to get a quick and dirty overview of the situation or text.
Gather contrary evidence. Once we decide that someone has an inherent flaw and we label them with it – they’re stupid, crazy, useless, selfish, immature, bitchy, evil, lazy, etc. – a narrow focus tends to set in. You experience the Velcro/Teflon effect: you notice everything the person does that confirms your conclusion, but overlook any conflicting evidence.
If you find yourself only being able to see a loved one through the lens of a negative label, it can help to actively look for things they do that run contrary to it, and even write those things down. While lists can narrow your focus in some cases, they can also be used to produce a broader, more balanced picture in others. Think for example of keeping a gratitude journal; if you find yourself narrowly attuned to what’s wrong with your life, making a list of the good things can greatly broaden your perspective.
If you want to win the war on distraction and build an empire of personal progress, you need to be a wise supreme commander that knows how to best utilize his units. Sometimes you want to send one type of your attention to the frontlines, and sometimes you want to send another to the rear for rest. By deftly maneuvering your resources and effectively deploying your troops, you can make the most of your invaluable attention.
Of course the pure strength of your fighting force matters greatly too. Single-minded focus may be only one element of your attention, but it’s still vital one. But since this article has been so long and meaty, and your voluntary attention is now all tuckered out, it’s time to let it get a hot meal and a shower. For instructions on how to strengthen your powers of concentration, return to the briefing room tomorrow at 1900 hours.
Sometimes your voluntary and involuntary attentional modes need some R&R, and the cognitive equivalent of the USO is a good old-fashioned mind wandering session.
While mind wandering (or daydreaming) can boost creativity and help us untangle unresolved problems, it can also distract us at inopportune times and lead us to ruminate on negative thoughts and emotions. Thus while daydreaming may seem the ultimate in creative spontaneity, to maximize its benefits and minimize its drawbacks, it’s best to actively manage your mind wandering sessions:
Intentionally set a time to let your mind wander. Instead of limiting your daydreaming to those few abbreviated pockets between when your mind unintentionally drifts away from the task at hand and when you yank it back to work, find times throughout your day where you deliberately give your brain permission to wander at will. Some great thinkers and leaders have made it a habit to block out chunks in their day where they don’t do anything except let their mind freely ramble.
Besides blocking off specific time in your schedule for mind wandering, give your brain permission to wander when you’re doing low-cognition activities like cleaning, whittling, or showering. A bit of habitual stimulation really seems to free the mind up to receive inspiration. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, instead of sitting there trying to force the solution from your cranium, take a break and the answer may very well come to you in the shower.
Decide what kind of mind wandering session you want to have. When we daydream, our mind has a tendency to drift towards negative thoughts and emotions. It does this in order to direct our attention to unresolved problems in our lives. This can be beneficial, so it’s good to intentionally set aside times when you give yourself permission to be a worrywart. Make a list of everything that you’re worried about. Next to each worry, write down a “next step” – something tangible you can do, however small, to begin resolving that issue. If there’s truly nothing you can do about something for the time being, make a conscious note of that and imagine tabling the issue for another session.
Sometimes though, we don’t want our cognitive rambles to drift over to the dark side and be such a downer. Instead, we’re hoping our daydreams can generate a bit of inspiration or creativity. In that case, actively focus on positive thoughts as your mind wanders. If it starts to drift towards more negative things, nudge it back on course. It may help to keep a mental drawer of positive subject file folders you can leaf through – fond childhood memories, things you love about your girlfriend, the last vacation you took, and so on.