Update July 2015: We have released a free email course detailing the Hourglass Workday – a method for increasing focus, mindfulness, and productivity. Click here to see the lesson plan and learn more about the Hourglass Workday.
I genuinely enjoy writing. I know, most people roll their eyes when I say that because it often is the last thing many folks want to do. Even though I enjoy my work, I often find myself struggling to get started, stay focused, or even make simple edits to an already written post. Typical scenario: It’s late afternoon. I’m staring at a blank Google doc, typing nonsensical sentences, trying to put together some semblance of a blog post. Why can’t I focus when the words came so easily just hours ago.
As I’ve done more research about how our brains and bodies function most efficiently, I’ve learned how to get more out of both for a more productive day and higher quality work. After all, we can’t increase the number of hours in the day, but we can increase the quality of those hours. Let’s discuss!
Pajama Time is (my) Peak Time:
When you give your mind the opportunity to relax, it can increase your productivity and creativity. But when are we most relaxed?Research has shown that tasks requiring creativity can benefit from asynchrony in your circadian rhythm. This can be attributed to the idea that “reduced inhibitory effects associated with a non-optimal time lead individuals to consider new approaches to a task that ultimately produce better solutions.” Come again? In other words, when working at a non-optimal time, you may be more relaxed and free of other inhibitions. This relaxed state of mind facilitates productivity and solutions. Another study by Marieke showed that when we are sleepy, our creativity is at its peak, also attributed to a more relaxed state of mind. If you are doing creative work, such as writing, try writing during hours you’re more likely to be less aroused (for morning people, at night and for late nighters, in the morning).
I’ve noticed this in my own writing habits. I write most effectively in my pajamas, sprawled out in bed, between the hours of 7 a.m. and noon. For so long, this has been an inexplicable phenomena, seeing as I am by no means a morning person. However, in the morning, my writing comes together so seamlessly, my fingers can hardly keep up with my words. Conversely, writing in the afternoon is torture. Let me rephrase, writing in the afternoon is torture if I’ve spent the entire morning writing, in meetings, reading and responding to emails, and anything else related to multitasking or focused work. For that reason, I try to structure my day so that I accomplish the more demanding work in the morning. This leaves me with my afternoon to respond to email, post to social media, and cross out my to-dos of lower intensity and focus.
Brief Walk + Laundry = Productivity(?)
You may be familiar with the research of William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman regarding sleep cycles. Their research found that we sleep in cycles of approximately 90 minutes, described in their BRAC or Basic-Rest Activity Cycle. Kleitman also went on to discover that this cycle repeats itself during waking hours. During the day, however, “we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes.” This has also been identified in K. Anders Ericsson’s research on elite performers. Elite performers, such as athletes, musicians, and artists, work most effectively in 90 minute intervals, rarely working more than 4.5 hours per day .
You may notice this occasionally throughout the day as you have a difficult time focusing or need to constantly refuel with caffeine. This is your body letting you know it is ready for a break, or often in need of a break. If you’re like many people, you ignore these signals and continue struggling to get through the rest of the work day productively.
I occasionally take a work-from-home day where I wake up, don’t spend 45 minutes getting ready for work, don’t spend an hour commuting to work, and don’t spend time in the office “catching up.” On those days, I can accomplish more writing in the five hours of that morning than I could in four days in the office. While I am “in-the-zone,” I will find myself naturally taking a few breaks to make breakfast, run to grab a coffee, or even do a load of laundry. I try to time these breaks to be aligned with a 90 minute working cycle. The breaks never last more than ten or fifteen minutes, but I return to my laptop with the same energy and focus that I had when I first started tapping away at my keyboard that morning.
Caffeine + “Powering Through” ≠ Accomplishment
You may have a colleague that arrives early, stays late, and you’re still not quite sure what they do all day. Those who put in extra hours doesn’t necessarily mean they are accomplishing more in a day versus someone who has more focused, devoted attention with more energy. Multitasking, intense work, and meetings can be fatiguing. When we give our minds space to relax, even for a short ten minute break, it’s like hitting the mental restart button. Research shows that relaxation is both restorative and can even lead to “enhanced memory and facilitated intellectual understanding.”
For years I tried to just “power through,” drink more coffee, or find a conference room to hide from the distracting open work space environment, all to no avail. I’d then be so wired throughout the day (and over-caffeinated) that I couldn’t unwind when I got home, let alone sleep. Learning to take quality breaks throughout the day, rather than over exhaust myself has improved both the quality of my work and the quality of my life.
Go On, Relax A Little
This may sound counterintuitive, but If you find yourself overly stressed at work or struggling to complete an assignment, take a moment to focus less on your work and focus inward. Shift your attention, take a deep breath. Make observations of your breath and how your body feels as you inhale and exhale. Recent studies show that focusing inward (interoceptive) in this manner uses a different part of the brain than focusing outward (exteroceptive). Interoceptive awareness allows us to calm down and recharge by mentally escaping a stressful situation for a moment.
It’s not so much about how long your breaks are, it’s more about the quality. If you’re taking a break from work to catch up on social media, it’s not going to as effective as if you take a brisk walk or complete a short mind-clearing breathing exercise.
Spire is a wearable device that tracks your breathing, activity and state of mind. It can send you reminders when you’re tense and help you find the best times throughout your day for a moment to relax. Learn more at https://spire.io