5 Tips for a Super Productive Work Session

5 Tips for a Super Productive Work Session

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.

Nothing exists until it is measured

Nothing exists until it is measured

Having a written set of goals is not enough, you have to take action and then systematically measure your progress – Michael Hyatt

There is the idea (and I am bastardizing it here) that on a quantum level, things do not ‘exist’ until they are measured. Until you actually view light for instance, and depending on how it is measured, it will either exist as a wave or as a particle. Every atom is in a state of uncertainty, it is either there or not until you observe it, sort of like Schrödinger’s cat. Or something like that.

There is something else that does not really ‘exist’ until it is measured or observed. That is your goals and your dreams. The more attention you pay to your goals and dreams, the more you look at them and measure them, the more defined they become, the faster they come true. This is part of the reason why having a vision board works. It pays to keep the target before your eyes at all times.

A big dream killer is being vague. I know all about being vague, it is one of my favorite things. Vagueness is a comfortable nebulous zone where the potentiality is sky high, and you can be anything, you can be the greatest or you can be utterly crap, but you haven’t ‘been’ yet so it’s easy to revel in the idea of what you are going to do, instead of actually doing it. It is nice to wallow in the primordial soup of uncertainty.

But nothing exists, until it is made real. Nothing exists until it is born concretely. And that is where the fear lies. The fear of the irrevocable first step, a first step or an entire journey that could end up being less than perfect. The commitment to a dream, to a path. The forsaking of others. The burning of the ships, the tying yourself to the mast. Going all in, etc. All that can be scary.

But your dreams and goals must move from being vague to being defined and definite. It is easy to have aspirations, to want something to change. But for real progress to be made, the goals have to be defined, the metrics have to be clear. It is not enough to say you want to make more money, say exactly how much money you want to make and by when. Break your goals down to numbers that you can measure and aim for. Now there is accountability. Now there is a target, now there is a deadline. Now you can focus all your energy and make sure you hit them. You need a goal that can focus your faculties and provide you with the necessary direction, motivation and limitations to achieve it.

I have spoken about why you should build systems as opposed to setting goals. The concept that you should systemize the steps and daily actions you need to take to achieve what you want. This is very useful when you are starting out because you are still getting used to forming new habits and embodying a new vibration. You are not too concerned with hitting specific targets, you are just trying to get into the general ballpark of taking regular action towards those goals. While this idea builds our capacity and habits over time; to really squeeze the juice out of this process, you must take it to the next level by having discrete and clear targets to hold yourself accountable to. This is where you turn pro.

You have to know what your numbers are. They could be a once-off hit, like run a total of 20 000 miles in a year, or a streak, like blog once a week, every week for a whole year. They could be numbers to hit in the gym, an income target to reach in 6 months. It could be a new skill, being able to start and finish a project that you could not undertake before. In any case, you need a goal, you need a target to hit, and you need a way to measure your progress.

It is easy to fool ourselves and think we are doing work towards our goals. Once we start to look at the numbers for real though, we often see a different picture.

So how do we put this into practice? There are many ways to do this depending on your temperament and the nature of your goals. But I think it would generally look like this.


1. Define what success looks like

For every project, you have to define what success is. How do you know when you have won? For instance, I am working on a book now, and my time limit is 3 months, so by end of June I should be done. What does ‘done’ mean to me? It means I have taken the idea, put together all the material needed, as well as written and reworked and polished the manuscript to my personal satisfaction. At the end of June, I should have a book in Word that reads cohesively from start to finish.

That is a finite project, it has a beginning and an end. But what about projects with a reoccurring component? For my blog for example, success to me is maintaining a certain editorial schedule. And it is based on a scale. The absolute minimum is the once a week posts which I’ve been doing so far, and the higher limit is a schedule that sees me posting about 3 times a week. So, I know I am doing the minimum, but I have plenty room to improve.


2. Determine what it would take to achieve success

What gets measured, gets managed – Peter Drucker

Once you know what success looks like for your goals? You have to break it down further, looking at your schedule and how you spend your time and figure out what your daily or weekly actions must be to get you to that goal. For project-based goals like ‘writing a book’, it can mean drafting an execution road map for the project. It could play out like this – come up with book concept/idea, craft the book outline, collect all research and articles needed, write the book, edit the book (3 passes), design the book cover, design the book layout, create pdf file, upload, share.

Now I have a clear path to follow to reach this goal and I can set time frames for each section.

Another thing I would do, is break my goals down to daily or weekly activities I can do. For example, I can decide to work on my book for an hour every day, preferably first thing in the morning. I can round that off with 4 hours of dedicated time every weekend to really push forward on the project. This also gives me something to track and be accountable to in addition to the execution road map.


3. Be accountable

Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t – Jay Z (Reminder, The Blueprint 3)

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. To make steady progress towards the goal of having a book done by June, I would need to be constantly taking steady action. Every day I wake up, I know where I am on that roadmap and what I need to do next. At the end of every day I know if I spent an hour working on my book or not. I can track that. The more important the goal is, the more important it is to track and review my efforts.


4. Review

Now life is chaotic sometimes. Shit happen, things throw us off course. I could decide in the middle of the project, that this is crap and I actually don’t want to write a book. I could get busy with other projects and need to focus on those instead. But regularly I have the chance to review my work and my numbers and see if I need to adjust my plan to new realities or scrap the project all together. But at least, I have the numbers to back it up. I have a real frame of reference.

Measuring and tracking performance is not easy. It takes discipline and a commitment to the process. It is much easier to be vague and just play at it. But if you really trying to get what you want, embracing this idea will take you further faster than you could imagine.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’m incredibly great at being vague. I’ll put off making a decision to the very last moment, and I’m not great at tracking the time I spend on client projects talk less of the moves I make towards my goals. But I recognize that being more aware of my metrics could have some value, hence this post, which is a stern lecture to myself as much as it is an exhortation to you.

So, do you have any tactics or frameworks you use to chart your progress? It could be health, exercise, finances, learning, projects, anything! Do share, I would love to learn from you.