Over the past two weeks, I have shared some ideas I’ve learned around time management. But now let’s turn our attention to the actual time we spend working. How can we supercharge those sessions so we get the most out of them?
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the fact that our attention spans as humans have been negatively impacted by the plethora of opportunities for distractions we have. Our digital devices are especially guilty of this, keeping us returning to the feeds, looking for notifications, mindlessly scrolling for pings of interest.
As a result, it might be hard for a lot of people to sit down and really get hard things gone. This can feel like a herculean task. For you however, the intrepid creative, the entrepreneur, the professional, it has to be a skill you cultivate. These are table stakes.
For our success, we need to do the work, and we need to do it well. And the quality of our creative or productive output hinges greatly on what we are bringing to the table. It depends on our working and creating habits.
In Cal’s words:
To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.
How we engage with the work would be different for everyone. We all have different jobs and responsibilities. And from our school days to our career years, we develop our own styles of being productive and getting things done. However, we can always improve.
Let me share some ideas, that might help give you the edge.
Set aside the time and space you need
This is a fairly obvious no brainer. Of course if you need to get things done, you should set aside the time and place to do them. How else would you get anything done? The work requires your focus and complete attention, you have to make space for that.
The time you set aside for the work should be protected as such. If you need to go deep, you will need no distractions, and nothing barring an emergency should pull you from this sacred time.
Lately, I have found it useful to time block my calendar. So when I plan my week, I am able to set portions of each day that are dedicated to certain activities. These times sections I block away to work are sacrosanct.
As a person who dictates his own hours, having these set times dedicated to work allow me to fully step away from work when I’m outside that time. As long as I’m respecting the work time and making the most of it. I can enjoy my down time guilt free. And when I’m on the clock, I’m free to completely throw myself into the work.
You must also set aside the space. You need a room, a table, an area that is dedicated to your work. There you keep your tools, your materials, all you need to get things done. Once you are in this space you are primed for work and productivity.
You could work from anywhere you like but if you are constantly working in spaces not set up for productivity like a living room or your bed, you will dilute the energy of those spaces blurring the lines between work and life.
It is important to set up a dedicated work area in a way that inspires and enables you to do your best work.
The aim is flow
To have a truly excellent work session, what you are really trying to do is to get to the state of flow – that mental state where you are fully engaged. A place where the work isn’t too hard or too easy. It is the right amount of challenge and it holds your focus.
Once you are locked in this state, your fingers glide over the keyboard, your brush strokes move of their own accord, your ideas emerge freely. This is the state of flow. This is the place where you do great work.
How productive our work sessions are, are dependent on how quickly we can get into flow, and how long we allow ourselves to stay in that state.
If we know how to activate our flow state regularly, then we are able to readily access a deep well of productive energy.
The key to this is a distraction free environment, or at most the right level of distraction. We have to make sure that we are not disturbed. So switch off the phone, switch off the TV, get off the apps, and give your full attention to what you are doing.
Be prepared. Have everything you need around you when you get started – tools, books, paper, snacks. Then get to it.
Over time you will even build a pre-work routine, a ritual that says to your subconscious, we are ready for business. It could as simple as brewing a cup of tea, or having a quick 5 min meditation session to put your mind in the right frame to dive in.
Have a clear agenda / Aim at one thing
Now, you could just jump into the huge pile that is your task lists and just start doing stuff. That is certainly one way to get things done. And if there are not too many things to do, eventually you will get to the end of your todo list.
But often we have numerous balls in the air, multiple projects running, things to worry about and get done. There is no way we can clear out every thing in one sitting. How we do make the most of the time we have to work?
Well you have to be organised as you would imagine. You would need a clear picture of all the things that you need to get done and how they fit to the larger picture.
So for today, for this session, you would need to decide what is most important and prioritise accordingly.
What are the things you could do that would pay the most dividends in the future, or would make things easier or more streamlined? What actions or tasks will actually move you forward? Decide what that is and then get it done.
Being organized and having your priorities clear will have you aimed at the right targets and directing your energies across the right lines. So when you sit down to work, you can confidently dive in, knowing that you are working on the right things.
Take breaks / Stop when there’s still more in the tank
Once you start getting into flow regularly, it gets tempting to stay in that space for as long as possible. It can get addictive. But to be able to work consistently over the long term, we have to respect breaks.
Over the years, many productivity techniques and methods around this idea have sprung up, like the Pomodoro method which advocates that you cycle between 25 mins of work and 5 mins of break for about 4-5 cycles at a time.
A rhythm like this can be useful while barrelling down a day of productivity. But the actual time spans are up to you. Decide what a healthy chunk of work time is for you. It should be just long enough for you to make tangible progress on a task. For me that tends to be about 45 mins of work balanced with 15 mins of break.
Many of us spend all our times in front of screens or seated on desks. The breaks allow us to move the body a bit, stretch and get the flow pumping. Consider getting some sun, or a quick workout in.
Ernest Hemingway in an interview about his creative process, advocates for writing until ..”you get to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
It could be worth the try, leaving something in the tank everyday, so the next day you have a clear springboard to launch from, a state to continue the work from.
Make it fun
Once again, make it fun. Find ways to make your work time enjoyable.
You could do it with snacks. rewarding yourself with candy or crisps after each task is done.
You could do it with friends, finding ways to turn the work into a game and compete for something. Or perhaps work along to your favourite music, or play something you don’t have to focus on in the background – an old show, a documentary.
A favourite of mine is playing video game retrospectives in the background while I work. Some of them can be up to 3 – 5 hours long and I get to learn about a game series and its nuances while I’m focused on something else.
Always improve and kit out your workspace. Make it nice, make it inspiring, make sure you are equipped with the things you need to succeed, as much as possible.
This would make it fun and enjoyable to be in your space. The more you do that, the easier it would be to work and be productive. The easier it is to create your best work.