Being productive both at work and in your personal projects implies knowing yourself. It means that you know when and how you work best, and that you milk every second of your productive moments.
Of course, getting to know yourself and when your productivity peaks is easier said than done. For many of us, the responsibilities of life can be so constricting that we can’t afford to experiment with different styles of working. Many are caught in a 9-5 routine that doesn’t allow much room for creativity and time for self-improvement.
So how can you find your daily rhythm and take advantage of your peaks in productivity?
Work in time increments
Research has showed that intense work for 90 minute increments followed by a short break can really boost your the productivity and quality of your work. That’s how cream of the crop young violinists were found to practice, and there’s a reason behind it: ultradian rhythms.
Ultradian rhythms are recurring periods that are repeated throughout the 24-hour circadian cycle. Basically, they are cycles within our body that are longer than an hour but shorter than a day, and include blood circulation, heart rate, thermoregulation, appetite, etc.
Research by Peretz Lavie shows that productive sessions of 90 minutes followed by 15-20 minute breaks sync more closely with our own energy cycles. This in turn allows us to focus better and maintain higher energy levels throughout the day.
The thing is, different people will need different time increments. It might be that 90 minute increments are too little or too much for you. Play around with 75-120 minute time intervals to find out what works best for you. Either way, don’t try to maintain high energy levels throughout the day, but focus with intensity for predetermined amounts of time.
Find out when you work best
Most people have some sense of what time of the day they work best by the time they graduate and enter the workforce. But the thing is, most of the working world is not too accommodating to people who work best at ‘extreme’ hours, for example night owls. So you need to find ways to function at your best even outside of your most productive hours.
Even if your workplace does not have flexible working hours, you will still find yourself to work best at a specific time of the working day. Even more so, you’ll find you’re better at performing some tasks at specific hours - for example, you might write best in the morning, be more creative in meetings in the afternoon, and so on. The small, less mindful tasks, such as email, should be left for ‘down’ times.
Minimize distractions during your work time
Whenever you work best, you should schedule blocks of time to fully focus on the task at hand. Minimize distraction at all costs. It can take up to 25 minutes to return to the original task once you are interrupted, according to Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Minimizing distractions doesn’t only include turning off your phone and closing down your email app. It also means having an uncluttered desk and desktop.
Generally, whatever you can do to shut down the world around you, you should do. Find out what kind of music helps you get into a state of flow and listen to it during your focused work time. Do anything it takes to turn your attention away from the outside world and focus it on your task.
Do not disturb time
This sort of falls under removing distractions, but it’s worth a mention on its own. Removing outside distractions includes letting others know that you are deeply focused on a task and you shouldn’t be disturbed.
Don’t be afraid to close your office door, turn your IM status to ‘Do not disturb’, or plug in your earphones and not interact with co-workers for a few hours.
Let people know through different cues that you are taking a block of time to focus on your work, distraction-free.
Keep yourself accountable
It’s true that some interruptions come from the outside world. Others come from within. In fact, 44% of the time we interrupt ourselves. Learn to keep yourself accountable. Be honest with yourself about when you are actually being productive or when you are simply procrastinating with busywork.
Usually, intrinsic motivation will help us stay focused - you want to continue working simply because you are enjoying the work you do and want to do a good job. But when intrinsic motivation is lacking, you might want to put in place a reward system that will keep you motivated. No one and nothing but yourself can prevent you from checking your Twitter feed 25 times a day.
Be mindful of how you take breaks
If your breaks drain your energy and leave you even more unfocused than you were before, then it’s time to rethink how you take breaks.
Notice when your breaks cause you to lose energy and motivation. Is it when you end up chatting with your team members? Or when you eat your lunch at your desk? Perhaps the 5 minutes you took to check your Facebook feed turned into 15 and now you don’t even know what you were working on to begin with.
Experiment with the breaks you take, and mindfully notice the impact they have on your productivity. Sometimes, a quite 10 minute walk around the block is all you need to boost your productivity for the next few hours.
Don’t even dare to multitask
“Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” ~ Ron Swanson
Multitasking is dead. Single tasking is in. By now, you’ve probably heard of the perils of multitasking. It causes us to be scattered and to lose the joy for the work we’re doing. It keeps us wired in a vicious circle of busy work. And it causes us to make more errors than we would by focusing on single tasks. What’s more, when our brain takes time to adjust between tasks, it results in a 40% increase in the time it takes to complete tasks. Don’t even dare to multitask.
Apply what works for you outside of work
After you find what works for you best, you will face the difficult task of making it a habit. Of course, building a habit means that you should stick with the right practices for a certain amount of time. Keep doing what you do at work to make you more productive in your personal life. Whether you’re working on a personal project or helping your kids with homework, keep doing what you’ve discovered makes you productive at work.
Have you found your daily rhythm yet? Share your tips and best practices with us and other readers!