In an article in Inc. magazine, Jessica Stillman writes about time management and quotes author Oliver Burkeman “You almost certainly can’t consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than three or four hours a day.” This was news to me having spent careers surrounded by colleagues, peers and clients who seem to work a lot more than 4 hours a day. His point is not that we can’t work long hours, it’s that we’re not necessarily effective or at peak performance for more than four hours a day.
I found this theory intriguing. Just the other day in The Washington Post, Keri Wiginton also wrote about this topic and included some strategies to optimize performance.
Ms.Wiginton noted that she tended to do the bulk of her work in four or five 55 minutes periods throughout her day. “Such a schedule is not uncommon among the accomplished, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley writer and consultant who specializes in productivity. . . Rather than working super long hours, they maximized the amount of depth of focus time they had per day and really protected that and organized their day so that they could put in about 4 or 4.5 hours of really intensive deep work.”
Ms. Wiginton gathered some expert opinions and listed some optimization strategies.
Determine when you work best and how long your periods of focus are. Structure your day accordingly. For some, an hour is the focus period and for others, it may only be 40 minutes. Work intensively, without interruption for the period of time that works for you and then take a break. And not a break to do more work but a true break where you can disengage even if just for a few minutes. Studies show that physical activity helps with brain function so perhaps taking a quick walk or doing some yoga or meditation may help.
Figure out your most creative time and protect it. I tend to be a morning person so I try to set aside those earlier hours for the tasks that require the most focus. In today’s world where phones are buzzing, emails are popping up and we all get all kinds of notifications and alerts, it’s best to turn off email and anything that will distract you from that focus. If you are worried that you might miss an important message, set up some system such as an away message that allows for contact if someone has an urgent need. But define urgent for yourself and others. I had a boss once that told us to contact him if something was urgent but followed by saying “but urgent means you probably need to call 911 before calling me.” That set the right tone for us to understand that he really did not want to be interrupted from whatever he was doing.
It’s natural to think that the amount of work we get done increases in lock step with the hours we work without losing productivity or quality. These articles and the studies that support them suggest that this isn’t the case. There are diminishing returns if we overwork. By employing some of these suggestion, we may be able to increase our productivity and the quality of our efforts. Sometimes less is more.
This week’s selection is:
Thirteen Minutes to the Moon
Epic stories of Nasa’s missions to the moon.