This article first appeared on my Medium blog
A lot of research has been done over the last decade into how our brains work, and in particular how the way we work effects our brain. One area of research I have found particularly interesting is why, when we try to push through on a particular task or type of work, we find ourself flagging after a couple of hours and the focus we began with diminishes so that any excuse to check our email, text messages or Facebook is happily accepted?
It is easy to think the way physical exercise effects our bodies - the way we feel physically after running 10K or after spending an hour in the gym doing an intense workout - is completely different from the way we feel sitting down in front of a computer and writing a report for two or three hours. The truth is that while the brain is structurally different from a muscle, remaining completely focused on a task or project has the same effect on your brain as an intense session of shoulder weights in the gym does on your shoulder muscles. Once you really understand this, you realise that to really get a solid days work done as an information worker you need to mix up the tasks you do.
Take for example the other day. I decided that I really needed an intense day of writing to get myself back on track with a number of writing projects I am working on. I made sure I got enough sleep the night before and at 8:30am I turned on my computer, made my coffee and sat down to begin the writing process. I got around 2,500 words written in the first ninety minutes and then I found myself flagging. The words were not spewing out as easily as they were and I found myself being distracted by the noises outside, my phone’s screen and my little dog walking around the room. I wasn’t distracted by these things an hour before, but the temptation to check the news and my Twitter feed became unbearable.
I took a break, made some breakfast and a cup of tea. While doing that I walked around the house, looked outside the window and played with my dog. Anything but look at my computer screen or phone. After thirty minutes and some breakfast I sat down and began writing something else. Something different from what I was writing before. I found my focus was back and I was able to get a solid hour of writing in before the urge to be distracted began again.
What I noticed was I was able to do focussed work for around ninety minutes early in the morning, after taking a break of around thirty minutes I was able to get on and do some more focussed work for about an hour before needing another a break and this went on all day. The amount of time I was able to focus on writing diminished each time to the point where I was able to only focus for around fifteen minutes at a time. It was at that point I went to the gym and spent an hour working out.
After the gym, taking a thirty minute nap and having something to eat, I returned to my writing and again found myself being able to work in a focussed state for ninety minutes. In total, by the time I gave up for the day I had written around 4,500 words and felt completely drained.
What I learned from this was that when we are structuring our day we need to be aware our brains will tire as the day goes on. You may very well be able to get a lot of focussed work done at the beginning of the day, but as the day goes on, that ability diminishes and you are not going to be able to focus as well. Once you understand this, you can structure your day much more efficiently. You also realise why checking your email first thing in the morning or holding a staff meeting is not a very clever idea. Checking email or attending a staff meeting at 9:00am is going to use up valuable focus, a focus you could apply to something much more important.
Instead, use you calendar to block out certain times of the day for focussed work. For example, if you have a very important presentation to create, then work on the presentation between 9:00am and 10:15am. Then, take a break and check and process your email for fifteen minutes or so, before having a little walk around the office and making yourself a coffee. Once you have had a twenty to thirty minute break from focussed work, then get back in to focussed work. You could also use this time to attend to any distractions your co-workers have given you.
Spending a few minutes the evening before to structure out your day in a rough format would greatly help you here as you will know from the moment you sit down at your desk exactly what you will be working on.
Starting your day by checking email is the worst thing you can do. You are wasting valuable creative energy on newsletters, updates and very occasionally something important. If something was really important the sender would have either called you or text messaged you. Nobody uses email these days for urgent requests do they? If they do, then you not seeing it immediately is not your fault.
In photography, there is something called the “golden hour” this is the time just before the sun rises and just before the sun sets. (There are two golden hours each day) when it is the best time to take photos outside. As information workers we could adopt the same idea. Our golden hour (or two) should be dedicated to focussed work on something important that requires a lot for creative energy. During that time we turn off all distractions; phone, email and, if possible, people. If you can do this, and I know it might not be possible for everyone, you will find you get much more creative work done and will free up time where you can allow distractions in without feeling guilty and without it disrupting your important work.
Mixing up your work day with focussed and menial tasks will allow your brain to have a rest and will also enable you to get much more work done, the kind of work that gets you that promotion, book deal or film role. And don’t forget that exercise and nap, they all add up to turning you in to a productivity genius.