Plan “focus work,” stuff requiring concentration, for your best-thinking hours
You’ve heard it before: To be more productive, schedule your work. Actually put it in your calendar. Carve out the time. But have you heard that scheduling your work makes it more enjoyable too? It does.
Let’s consider the alternatives. It’s late afternoon, and you’re low-energy. You have a report due in the morning. “If you try and force your ‘A’ game in those moments, it’s just a very frustrating experience,” says Kelly Nolan, a time management strategist who works mostly with high-achieving women. “You dread it more because you’re not in the right frame of mind, and the creative juices aren’t there.”
Or, say, it’s 9 a.m., and your deadline is tomorrow. You try to squeeze in writing paragraphs between the emails and calls and web surfing (let's be real). Now you’re overly busy and overwhelmed, and you guiltily cancel your afternoon meetings and a dinner date with a friend. Cue your “I hate myself” inner monologue.
But! Let’s imagine that you clear out 90 minutes, turn off your internet and phone, and just barrel through as many paragraphs as you can. Yes, they will be bad awful paragraphs, which is nearly always the case on first drafts (voice of experience here), “but you’ll feel more in control of your day, and feel more accomplishment because you are actually moving the ball forward on a big project, which makes you feel more sane,” Nolan says.
Sanity is invaluable. As we all move into a new routine of work from home and back-to-office, where distractions will be aplenty, discipline and scheduling are all the more important.
A few pointers:
Set start and finish times. Not doing so means that you’re waiting for the universe to magically birth a project time for you, which is delusional. The universe births asteroids and viruses, not personalized time.
Avoid a last-minute surge. Many office workers let emails and busywork fill the day, and then try to churn out focus work from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. —or worse yet, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., the prime-time misery hours of lawyers and writers and coders. Of course those hours are wretched. “You’ll feel like you’re banging your head against a wall,” Nolan says.
Plan focus work when you’re energetic. It’ll feel easier when you’re most alert. The time will vary based on activity. For example, you might opt for writing from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., or practicing a speech from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., or writing a song at 9 p.m.
Shut the door. “Distractions are the number one killer of getting into flow state,” says keynote speaker Diane Allen, of that blissful work state where time moves quickly, and you forget yourself and your worries. Flow is incited by work that engages your skills while simultaneously providing a challenge. Not all work assignments fit that description, but distractions end any chance of flow entering the experience.
Attempt flow when you can. When you can aim for a pleasurable flow state, Allen suggests a shortcut: Think about your most compelling internal motivator and external motivator. For example, perhaps you dig the problem solving or strategizing or creativity a task requires (internal motivator), and you’re excited to share your findings or help others or entertain (external motivator). Channel those.
Nearly everyone struggles to block off time for work, and Nolan has a winning theory about why. “A huge part of being a junior employee is responding to emails quickly, going to meetings, and just being super accommodating,” she says. “But years later, after you’ve advanced, no one ever tells you that your value is now your skills that you bring to the table, such as strategizing or client work or content creation. So you stay in that reactive mode, in these fragmented days of email and meetings, and all your focus work gets pushed to evenings and weekends.” Great careers are built on doing superior work on important projects.
A related hint to all students: Great grades and actual education also depend on you giving your time and best energy to the most important projects.
So, I’m telling you now: Turn off your damn email, and carve out time for focus work. You can thank me later. You’ll quickly discover that by doing so, you’re also freeing up the rest of your time. You can now leave at 4:30 p.m. without guilt, and not need to think about work on evenings or weekends.
“You can actually do things you enjoy,” Nolan says. “It can add a lot of positive momentum to your life by letting you go to bed feeling accomplished about what you got done today, rather than feel defeated about what you didn’t get done. I’ve had clients who say, ‘I’m not beating myself up as much, so I’m drinking less. And I have more emotional bandwidth to give to my kids.’”
See, magic. And most importantly, you’ll kill off your antagonistic relationship with your deep work and start enjoying it.
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