If you’re always fighting against distractions to get things done, there’s a better way to work – and no, it doesn’t involve getting up at 4am.
Working on overdrive is working against yourself. With the pressure to be switched on and working 24/7 in the hustle culture way of life, and our busy schedules dictating when we work, we forget the importance of rest in trying to work more productively. Sure, you might have completed a 5-hour marathon of work, but how effective were you? Did you produce your best work?
We’ll show you how you can plug into your most productive hours and get things done when your attention is at its peak. You’ll soon be making the most of your day and utilising your optimum hours to do more in less time by tuning in to your personal rhythm.
The science behind your productivity peaks
Spoiler alert: working longer hours won’t necessarily make you more productive. That’s why ‘work smarter, not harder’ is such a popular saying. Researchers have found that overwork can make interpersonal communication, judgements and managing your emotional reactions far more difficult. And when you’re tired, you’re likely to produce sub-par work and make more mistakes. So, what’s the solution? Tune into your ultradian rhythm.
In his book Sleep and Wakefulness, American psychologist and sleep researcher Nathan Kleitman proposed the idea of a basic rest-activity cycle: the ultradian rhythm. We’re all familiar with our circadian rhythm from biology class – the 24-hour cycle of our day when we usually wake up and go to sleep. But within this is our ultradian rhythm, where we cycle through periods of heightened focus during the day of around 90 minutes. It’s similar to the REM sleep cycle.
The ultradian rhythm is defined as ‘the regular recurrence in cycles of less than 24 hours, as certain biological activities which occur at such intervals, regardless of conditions of illumination or other environmental factors.” In other words, it’s a cycle that is programmed into us that isn’t easily influenced by us deciding to ‘be a morning person and wake up at the crack of dawn. Your brain has a rhythm – some studies suggest that we’re not all predisposed to be early birds.
In our ultradian rhythm, we move from high alert to low alert, resulting in peaks and troughs in our focus of around 90 minutes. The secret is to harness the power of your rhythm and find out when your brain is most focused. Towards the end of one of the 90-minute bursts, you’ll find your ability to focus slowly decreases – this is your brain’s signal that you need to step back and take a break. This downtime might seem counterproductive on the surface, but your brain needs this downtime to be effective.
Finding your rhythm
Rather than falling back onto endless cups of coffee, you should plan to do your most complex tasks during your peak focus times. These are the ones that need the most attention and energy. Keep track of your focus in your daily routine and make sure you’re ready for when your productive peaks arrive so you can maximise them. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done during this time when you’re in the zone.
Mundane, routine tasks – like doing the dishes, for example, should be saved for when you’re resting. You could try a schedule of 90 minutes of work followed by 20 minutes of rest. It’s a similar concept to the Pomodoro technique, where after a block of work we step back, and perhaps that’s why that method works so well for getting things done.
But what about distractions?
Cal Newport’s popular self-help book Deep Work champions ‘rules for focussed success in a distracted world’. The ability to focus without distraction is demanding, but the skill can help you to be more productive. Newport advocates for strict periods of the time you spend working. So, once you know that 8am – 9:30am is one of your high focus times, for example, dedicate that to work and minimise distractions like emails and social media. Give it your full attention. Newport says this will not only keep you on track with your work, but it also limits burnout. He refers to this as ‘fixed-schedule productivity’.
Furthermore, limits will leave you with less time for fussing about something that is unimportant. It’s almost like setting yourself a personal deadline. Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote in a famous essay in The Economist that ‘it is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ Today this is known as Parkinson’s law, where our tasks have a tendency to fill the time available. So, if we have a deadline for the end of the week, it might take us all week, whereas if that deadline was on Wednesday then we would alter the schedule accordingly and get it done more effectively.
It’s all about how we spend our time best and the importance of being strict with your high-focus time in your schedule. Save your problem-solving tasks for when you’ll work best so that you can save more time in your day.
Improve your attention and work smarter
Do you find that whilst you have the best intentions of getting through that mountain of paperwork, or backlog of emails, you’re staring into space much of the day?
In this course, you’ll learn ways of improving your attention, activating to work, coping with mood interference, and managing your working memory. With our expertise and your practice, you’ll learn how to focus your attention and be successful at work.