Have you gotten through all the important tasks you need or hope to get done today? Neither have I. Yet with ever-more-loaded schedules, tight deadlines, and the constant flow of new opportunities, most of us are working longer, trying to fit it all in.
That’s the wrong approach. There’s plenty of research to show that working more and more hours simply drains our productivity, so that the net amount of work accomplished is the same, but the person doing the work is a whole lot more exhausted and cranky. So does that mean we’re just stuck, able to accomplish only so much no matter how much more productive we might wish to be?
Not necessarily. Help has arrived in the form of Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, a new book by Josh Davis, PhD, Director of Research and lead professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute. Davis, who gives new meaning to the phrase “work smarter, not harder,” recommends that, instead of trying to cram more hours into our workdays or try to force ourselves to work all day at peak efficiency, we use brain science to help create briefer periods when we’re at our greatest effectiveness—what he calls “awesome.”
As his book’s title suggests, he thinks most people should try for two hours of awesomeness per day, although people’s capabilities and needs can vary. “Two hours are reasonable and achievable for most people,” he says. “A lot of people have no awesome hours in a day. There are times we either need to be or want to be on for more time than that. Maybe I’m running a workshop where I really need and want to be present for four straight hours, so getting myself set to be able to do that is important. Other times, I’ll have an hour-long session in the morning when I’m on, and maybe another two hours in the afternoon.”
The essential first step is to stop seeing yourself as a machine, he says. “It starts from a shift in understanding how we work based on the fact that we are biological creatures rather than computers. We have to set up the conditions that allow a biological creature to thrive, and when that happens we can do amazing things. We can figure out complex problems. And we have a very hard time making progress even on things that aren’t complex when we’re not operating well.”
Talking with Davis made me realize that many of my work habits are bad for my own productivity. In the first of two articles, he shares seven of his tips for jump-starting productivity and creativity. I’m planning to give most of them a try. How about you?
1. Be Smart About Your Schedule
“It makes sense to think about our days in terms of what the really important work we have to do that day is, and how to have the right mental energy for that work,” he says. “If I have some flexibility, how should I schedule that important work so I can do it when I’m at my best? If not, what should I do right before the important work?” Start with answers to those questions, he advises. Then fit in the tasks that are less important.
2. Watch Out for Decision Fatigue
It turns out that making decisions fatigues your brain. “If you’ve just made a lot of decisions, it becomes harder to make decisions,” Davis explains. The problem is that we make a lot of decisions without really thinking that we are, especially when dealing with email. “Should I send this right now? Am I including the right people? Did I say it the right way?” Davis says. “A lot of people try to pack it in right before they’re going to give a presentation or try to do something creative and they’re affecting their ability to do it effectively.”
So much for my longstanding habit of reading my email before I start serious work. At the very least, there should be a buffer between the two activities, Davis says. “Stay away from that kind of work for at least 20 minutes beforehand,” he advises.
3. Save Email for Your Tired Times
“If I find myself really fatigued or distracted because I’m irritable about something—this is the time to catch up on email or expense reports,” Davis says. Rather than letting these unimportant tasks take up your freshest, most creative time, save them for when you know you’re not at your best mental energy, he advises.
4. Make Room for Your Emotions
We are all emotional beings and how we’re feeling will affect our ability to be effective, Davis says. Instead of struggling with this, we should recognize it and accommodate it. “If we have to have a tough conversation with someone, giving feedback or getting feedback, we should expect that interaction to affect the way we think and how effective we are for some time afterward,” he says.
If you’re feeling angry, he adds, that may be just the right moment to tackle a task you are reluctant to do. “When you need to move toward something unpleasant, anger is very adaptive,” he says. On the other hand, if you need to collaborate with someone, anger will work against you, so either choose a different time or use one of the techniques below to alter your mood.
5. Make the Most of Interruptions
Interruptions are awful and annoying, right? We’ve all read—and experienced—that it can take up to 25 minutes to recover from an interruption when we’re in the midst of a complex task. But interruptions have their good side, too, according to Davis.
There are only a small number of points in the day when we can really think about what we’re doing, he says. “Most of the time we’re on autopilot. We don’t need much conscious monitoring. If we’re conversing, we’re in conversation mode, if we’re commuting, we’re in commuting mode, if we’re checking email, we’re in email mode. But once in a while we come to a crossroads where autopilot can’t handle the situation.”
An interruption in the middle of a task is one of those times, he says. “I’m writing something, I’m into it, and someone else wants to talk to me. That’s when our self-conscious awareness resources come online and we tap into the prefrontal parts of the brain. Those conscious moments can help us make a decision.”
Getting interrupted can be very unpleasant, he acknowledges, but it’s an important opportunity to take a step back and consider how you’re spending your time. “When we’re on autopilot we can’t just snap out of it,” he explains. “So after the person who interrupted me finally leaves, I step back for a moment and say, wait a second, am I doing the right task? Am I in the right mental state for this? I can take advantage of knowing how mental energy affects me.”
6. Reset Your Mood with Moderate Exercise
“If you engage in some moderate exercise—a 40-minute brisk walk, a 20-minute light jog, or 10 minutes going up and down stairs—that is an extremely reliable way to reduce anxiety,” Davis says. “That will put you in a more positive mood and able to collaborate more effectively. It’s very useful when you really need to hit the reset button.”
Davis uses this himself, he says. “Now that I know this, I build it into my preparations. If I’m traveling and I’m going to give a presentation, I’ll jog in place for 15 minutes in my hotel room if I need to.”
7. Spend Some Time Staring Out the Window
Believe it or not, this will boost your productivity. “If you’re a human being, your mind will drift,” Davis says. “When that happens, we often beat ourselves up and yell at ourselves to get back on track. And although we’ve been trying to stop for decades, we still keep doing it.”
When our minds drift, we’ll do one of two things. Either we’ll turn to an absorbing distraction, such as reading our email, reading the sports or gossip pages, online shopping, or a game, or else we’ll just stare into space or out of the window. Although reading email or an article may feel more fun and productive, “it’s actually the worse choice,” Davis says. For one thing, we’re more than likely to get absorbed in the new activity and before we know it, our planned work time will have flown by.
Not only that, “it blocks mind-wandering, which is a really useful tool,” Davis says. “When we mind-wander, it allows us to integrate information between the executive circuits and social processing circuits in our brains. So perhaps I’m able to see how the goals I’m working on fit with the demands of my social life. Mind-wandering also encourages creative incubation. If you mind-wander, you’re more likely to come to a creative solution.”
Like anything else, we can all learn to mind-wander better, he adds. The best way is to take your mind off what you were doing but not focus hard on anything else, for just a little while. “One thing I really like about staring out the window is that it gets boring after a few minutes,” Davis says. “You have this built-in end point when you will get back to work.”
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