Photo: Flickr/Thomas Abbs
For nearly a decade now, I’ve begun my workdays by focusing for 90 minutes, uninterrupted, on the task I decide the night before is the most important one I’ll face the following day. After 90 minutes, I take a break.To make this possible, I turn off my e-mail while I’m working, close all windows on my computer, and let the phone go to voicemail if it rings.
I typically get more work done during those 90 minutes, and feel more satisfied with my output, than I do for any comparable period of time the rest of the day. It can be tough on some days to fully focus for 90 minutes, but I always have a clear stopping time, which makes it easier.
I launched this practice because I long ago discovered that my energy, my will, and my capacity for intense focus diminish as the day wears on. Anything really challenging that I put off tends not to get done, and it’s the most difficult work that tends to generate the greatest enduring value.
I first made this discovery while writing a book. At the time, I’d written three previous books. For each one, I’d dutifully sit down at my desk at 7 a.m., and I’d often stay there until 7 p.m.
Looking back, I probably spent more time avoiding writing than I did actually writing. Instead, I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy making lists, responding to email, answering the phone, and keeping my desk clean and my files incredibly well organised.
There were days I never got to writing at all. It was incredibly frustrating.
At the heart of our work at The Energy Project is helping clients to build highly precise, deliberate practices, done at specific times, so they eventually become automatic and don’t require much expenditure of energy or self-discipline, akin to brushing your teeth at night.
It was this approach that I applied to the book I was writing, and at other times to whatever I happen to be working on. The effect on my efficiency has been staggering. I wrote my fourth book in less than half the time I had invested in any of the three previous ones.
When I’m not working on a book, I choose the next day’s work the night before because I don’t want to squander energy thinking about what to do during the time I’ve set aside to actually do the work.
I define “important” as whatever it is I believe will add the most enduring the value if I get it done. More often than not, that means a challenge that is “important but not urgent,” to use Steven Covey’s language. These are precisely the activities we most often put off — in favour of those that are more urgent, and easier to accomplish, and provide more immediate gratification.
I start at a very specific time, because I discovered early on that when I didn’t hold myself to an exact time, it became a licence to procrastinate. “Oh wait,” I’d tell myself, “I’m just going to answer this email,” Before I knew it, I’d have answered a dozen emails, and a half dozen more had arrived, calling out for my attention.
Finding an excuse to avoid hard work isn’t hard to do.
I work for 90 minutes because that’s what the research suggests is the optimal human limit for focusing intensely on any given task. This “ultradian rhythm,” the researcher Peretz Lavie and others have found, governs our energy levels (see page 51 for details).
Over the course of 90 minutes, especially when we’re maximally focused, we move from a relatively high state of energy down into a physiological trough.
Many of us unwittingly train ourselves to ignore signals from our body that we need a rest — difficulty concentrating, physical restlessness, irritability. Instead, we find ways to override this need with caffeine, sugar, and our own stress hormones — adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol — all of which provide short bursts of energy but leave us overaroused.
By intentionally aligning with my body’s natural rhythms, I’ve learned to listen to its signals. When I notice them, it usually means I’ve hit the 90-minute mark. At that point, I take a break, even if I feel I’m on a roll, because I’ve learned that if I don’t, I’ll pay the price later in the day.
I don’t get it right every day, but this single practice has been life-changing for me.
Try it for one week. Come back and report here on what you discover. I think you’ll be amazed.
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