View this post on Instagram
The traditional nine-to-five workday is poorly structured for high productivity.
The most productive countries in the world do not work eight hours per day. Actually, the most productive countries have the shortest workdays.
People in countries like Luxembourg are working approximately 30 hours per week (approximately six hours per day, five days per week) and making more money on average than people working longer.
If we’re like most people, we probably want to make a great income doing work we love, while also having a flexible schedule.
Here are five ways to save time and do more:
Quality versus Quantity
“Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.” ~ Dan Sullivan
If we’re like most people, our workday is a blend of low-velocity work mixed with continual distraction—social media and email.
Most people’s “working time” is not done during peak performance times. When most people are working, they do so in a relaxed fashion. Makes sense, they have plenty of time to get it done.
However, when we are results-oriented, rather than in “busy” mode, we’re 100 percent on when we’re working and 100 percent off when we’re not. Why do anything halfway? If we’re going to work, we’re going to work.
Finding our mental peak performance is a lot like finding our physical performance, working out. To get the best results in your fitness, research has found that shorter, more intensive exercise is more effective than longer, drawn-out exercise.
The concept is simple: intensive activity followed by high-quality rest and recovery gets the best results.
Most of the growth actually comes during the recovery process. However, the only way to truly recover is by actually pushing ourselves to exhaustion during the workout.
The same concept applies to work.
The best work happens in short, intensive spurts. By short, I’m talking one to three hours. But this must be “deep work,” with no distractions—just like an intensive workout is non-stop. Interestingly, our best work—which for most people is thinking—will actually happen while we’re away from our work, “recovering.”
For best results, we should spend 20 percent of our energy on our work and 80 percent of our energy on recovery and self-improvement. When we’re getting high-quality recovery, we’re growing. When we’re continually honing our mental model, the quality and impact of our work continually increase. This is what psychologists call “deliberate practice.” It’s not about doing more, but rather about better training. It’s about being strategic and results-focused, not busyness-focused.
In one study, only 16 percent of respondents reported getting creative insight while at work. Ideas generally came while the person was at home, in transportation, or during recreational activity. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.
The reason for this is simple.
When we’re working directly on a task, our minds are tightly focused on the problem at hand (direct reflection). Conversely, when we’re not working, our mind loosely wanders (indirect reflection).
While driving or doing some other form of recreation, the external stimuli in our environment (like the buildings or other landscapes around us) subconsciously prompt memories and other thoughts. Because our mind is wandering both contextually (on different subjects) and temporally between past, present, and future, our brain will make distant and distinct connections related to the problem we’re trying to solve (eureka!).
Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain. Ideation and inspiration is a process we can perfect.
Case in point: when we’re working, let’s be completely at work. When we’re not working, let’s stop working. By taking our mind off work and actually recovering, we’ll get creative breakthroughs related to our work.
Our First Three Hours Will Make or Break Us
According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the first three hours of our day are our most precious for maximizing productivity.
“Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well,” Friedman told Harvard Business Review.
This makes sense on several levels. Let’s start with sleep. Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Our subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while we slept, making contextual and temporal connections.
So, immediately following sleep, our mind is most readily active to do thoughtful work.
So, our brain is most attuned first thing in the morning, and so are our energy levels. Consequently, the best time to do our best work is during the first three hours of our days.
I used to exercise first thing in the morning. Not anymore. I’ve found that exercising first thing in the morning actually sucks my energy, leaving me with less than I started.
Lately, I’ve been waking up at 6 a.m., driving to my school, and walking to the library I work in. While walking from my car to the library, I drink a 250 calorie plant-based protein shake (approximately 30 grams of protein).
I’m all set up by around 6:30 a.m, and I spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation, followed by a 5–10 minute session in my journal. The purpose of this journal session is to get clarity and focus for the day.
Journaling about our dreams is one of the fastest ways into a peak state.
So I write down my big-picture goals and my objectives for that particular day. I then write down anything that comes to my mind. Often, it relates to people I need to contact or ideas related to a project I’m working on. I purposefully keep this journal session short and focused.
By 6:45 a.m., I’m set to work on whatever project I’m working on, whether that’s writing a book or an article, working on a research paper for my doctoral research, or creating an online course.
Starting work this early may seem crazy, but I’ve been shocked by how easy it is to work for two to five hours straight without distractions. My mind is like a laser at this time of the day. And I don’t rely on any stimulants at all.
By 11 a.m., my mind is ready for a break, so that’s when I do my workout. Research confirms that we work out better with food in our systems. Consequently, my workouts are now a lot more productive and powerful than they were when I was exercising immediately following sleep.
After working out, which is a great mental break, we should be fine to work a few more hours, if needed.
If our three to five hours before our workout were focused, we could probably be done for the day. That’s how important those first few hours are.
Protect Our Mornings
I understand that this schedule will not work for everyone.
We all need to work within the constraints of our unique contexts. However, if we work best in the morning, we’ve got to find a way to make it happen. This may require waking up a few extra hours earlier than we’re used to and taking a nap during the afternoon.
Or, it may require us to simply focus hardcore the moment we get to work. A common strategy for this is known as the “90–90–1” rule, where we spend the first 90 minutes of our workday on our first priority. I’m certain this isn’t checking our email or social media.
Whatever our situation, let’s protect our mornings.
That means scheduling all of our meetings for the afternoon, after lunch, and not checking our social media or email until after our three hours of deep work. Our morning time should be spent on output, not input.
If we don’t protect our mornings, a million different things will take up our time. Protecting our mornings means we are unreachable during certain hours—only in case of serious emergency can we be summoned from our focus-cave.
What we do outside work is just as significant for our work productivity as what we do while we’re working.
A March 2016 study in the online issue of Neurology found that regular exercise can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years. People who regularly exercise are more productive at work. Our brain is, after all, part of our body. If our body is healthier, it makes sense that our brain would operate better.
If we want to operate at our highest level, we need to take a holistic approach to life. We are a system. When we change a part of any system, we simultaneously change the whole. Improve one area of our life, all other areas improve in a virtuous cycle. This is the butterfly effect in action and the basis of the book The Power of Habit. By integrating one “keystone habit,” like exercise or reading, the positivity of that one habits ripples into all other areas of our life, eventually transforming our whole life.
Consequently, the types of foods we eat and when we eat them determine our ability to focus at work. Our ability to sleep well (by the way, it’s easy to sleep well when we get up early and work hard) is also essential to peak-performance.
Rather than managing our time, then, we should really be focused on managing our energy. Our work schedule should be scheduled around when we work best, not around social norms and expectations.
Don’t Forget to Psychologically Detach and Play
Research in several fields has found that recovery from work is a necessity for staying energetic, engaged, and healthy when facing job demands.
“Recovery” is the process of reducing or eliminating physical and psychological strain/stress caused by work.
One particular recovery strategy that is getting lots of attention in recent research is called “psychological detachment from work.” True psychological detachment occurs when we completely refrain from work-related activities and thoughts during non-work time.
Proper detachment/recovery from work is essential for physical and psychological health, in addition to engaged and productive work. Yet, few people do it. Most people are always “available” to their email and work. Millennials are the worst, often wearing the openness to work “whenever” as a badge of honor. It’s not a badge of honor.
Research has found that people who psychologically detach from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue and procrastination
- Far greater engagement at work, which is defined as vigor, dedication, and absorption (“flow”)
- Greater work-life balance, which directly relates to our quality of life
- Greater marital satisfaction
- Greater mental health
If we don’t detach, we’ll never fully be present or engaged at work or at home. We’ll be under constant strain, even if minimally. Our sleep will suffer. Our relationships will be shallow. Our life will not be happy.
Not only that, but lots of science has found play to be extremely important for productivity and creativity. Just like our body needs a reset, we also need to reset from work in order to do our best work. Thus, we need to step away from work and dive into other beautiful areas of our lives. For me, that’s goofing off with my kids.
Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied the “Play Histories” of over 6,000 people and concludes playing can radically improve everything—from personal well-being to relationships to learning to an organization’s potential to innovate. As Greg McKeown explains, “Very successful people see play as essential for creativity.”
In his TED talk, Brown said, “Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity…Nothing fires up the brain like play.” There is a burgeoning body of literature highlighting the extensive cognitive and social benefits of play, including enhanced memory and focus; improved language learning skills; creative problem-solving; improved mathematics skills; increased ability to self-regulate, an essential component of motivation; and goal achievement,
cooperation, teamwork, conflict resolution, leadership skill development, and control of impulses and aggressive behavior.
Having a balanced life is the key to peak performance. In the Tao Te Ching, it explains that being too much yin or too much yang leads to extremes and being wasteful with our resources (like time). The goal is to be in the center, balanced.