7 Ways to Work Better… By Working Less
This post originally appeared on Contently’s The Freelancer.
We can’t create time. It’s finite, and we never seem to have enough.
While it’s important to manage and schedule tasks, time is only half the equation. The second half is about managing energy, which, unlike time, is replenishable. Even though many of us think the best way to work hard is to put our heads down and grind away, making the most efficient use of your time is all about renewing energy.
For those looking to beat the clock, here are seven techniques I’ve picked up from experts:
1. Don’t eat at your desk
According to Quartz, nearly two-thirds of us eat lunch at our desks. Many of us resort to typing as we chomp on a sandwich in the hopes we’ll get more stuff done during lunch (and eat faster). Theoretically, overall output will be greater than if we’d spent our time eating elsewhere. However, productivity guru Robert Pozen suggests that this minor extra output isn’t worth the trade-off, because lunch isn’t just about the meal but also energy restoration and renewal for the afternoon.
“Pozen says that since you’ll sometimes have a very full day, eating alone can help you restore your personal resources. And don’t pull out your phone: An absence of stimulation encourages associative or integrative thought, spurring your creativity. As well, if you have an idea that you’re working on in your head, eating alone allows you to continue uninterrupted.”
Don’t be afraid to take longer lunches, as it could lead to more productive afternoons than if you’d tried marathoning your way through. Similarly, develop routines to get your energy levels back up (I find walks to be of great help).
2. Only work in short bursts
We love to feel productive. Unfortunately, feeling productive and being productive can be two very different beasts. Pseudo-work is here to make us feel productive, yet it doesn’t really help us make progress on tasks.
When author and computer science professor Cal Newport was researching how high-performers use focus to their advantage for her book, he found that students who got straight A’s in college typically studied less than most people.
“If this sounds unbelievable, it is probably because you subscribe to the following formula: work accomplished = time spent studying,” he wrote. “To understand our accomplishment, you must understand the following, more accurate formula: work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”
Focus is the differentiating factor here. Newport shared an example that drives his point home:
Intensity of Focus Over Time for Marathon Session Approach
hour 1: 10
hour 2: 9
hour 3: 5
hour 4: 2
hour 5-10: 1
[For math geeks, this is standard exponential decay.]
Intensity of Focus Over Time for Short Burst Approach
hour 1 (sat): 10
hour 2 (sat): 9
hour 3 (sun): 10
hour 4 (sun): 9
“Clearly, this work schedule is much less painful,” he continued. “Just two hours at a time. And a whole day separating the two sessions. However, when we calculate the area under this curve, we see that the short burst approach accomplished: 38 units of work!”
Rather than having one foot in work and one in distractions for several hours, choose to focus entirely on work for a couple of hours. Focus is the essential ingredient when you need to create results during smaller periods of time.
3. Avoid the “grey zone”
We tend to get caught up in our way of doing things without questioning how efficient our methods really are. Yet asking tough questions is very important to managing time: What kind of work are you doing? Is it challenging enough? Are you connecting with sources that can help you improve? In essence, it is similar to spending time feeling productive with pseudo-work.
“If I had followed the program director’s advice and pumped experts for feedback, I would have learned about what you absolutely need for a fundable proposal,” Newport wrote. “I avoided this step, I think, because some part of me didn’t want these answers. By writing my grant in isolation, I could ensure an optimal experience, where I had to put in focused hours, but never really challenge myself too much. This was fulfilling. But it was also a recipe for failure.”
Don’t go through the motions. Instead of rushing to solve problems you’ve seen before, take a step back to reflect. Develop a plan to tackle what will challenge you the most. This research could save you a lot of time in the future.
4. Work alone half the day
Studies show that on average, it can take up to 23 minutes to get back to a task after an interruption. The responses to emails, clients, or collaborators compound into a lot of time spent switching between tasks.
As seen in 37signals’ book Getting Real: “Set up a rule at work: Make half the day alone time. From 10am-2pm, no one can talk to one another (except during lunch). Or make the first or the last half of the day the alone time period. Just make sure this period is contiguous in order to avoid productivity-killing interruptions.”
The next time you consider an interruption or distraction, remember that the opportunity cost is not just the time spent on the actual activity—but also the time spent getting back to the task at hand.
Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham wrote a valuable essay comparing the maker’s schedule to the manager’s schedule—as freelancers, we have to adapt our schedule to be a hybrid between the two.
5. Execute thrust and drag tasks
There are generally two types of tasks in our lives: high-value, important, exciting tasks that move our career forward, and low-value, urgent, menial tasks that simply need to get done.
Researcher Venkatesh Rao calls the first type thrust tasks and the second type drag tasks. Generally, thrust tasks take longer times to deal with, while drag tasks can be completed quickly, but pop up constantly.
“That bad news is that if you don’t have a thrust engine in your life, drag reduction will also become nearly impossible, because there is no source of energy,” Rao explained. “Everything from getting organized to losing weight becomes easier if you have a thrust engine humming. Not only do you have a reason to reduce drag (free up more resources for thrust), you have the means to do so.”
Drag tasks should either be batched up during your non-peak performance hours (e.g., afternoons for me), or delegated to an assistant. By enabling yourself to focus more on thrust tasks, you’ll be able to create more value for yourself and your clients.
6. Use a distraction chair
As a student, I noticed how much less effort it took to get focused on studying in the library compared to when I was attempting to study at home. Although my inability to work at home still frustrates me, I’ve learned to accept it and get out of the house as soon as possible in the mornings.
Similarly, author Jack Cheng explained we have zones that help us perpetuate certain habits. In A List Apart, he discussed how it works:
“I do most of my work from home, and in my apartment I have a comfortable chair reserved for e-mail, checking status updates, and leisurely surfing the web. I call it my ‘distraction chair.’ I try to reserve my work desk for actual work—writing, designing, and coding—and when I feel the inclination to read Twitter or check e-mail, I move to the lounge chair. … At first, it may seem like a nuisance to get up and move every time, but that’s exactly the point.”
Author and marketer Seth Godin wrote a similar piece on using different devices for different tasks (e.g., using your computer for work and iPad for distractions). Even if it takes some getting used to, this habit can help you set up boundaries so you can focus in any environment.
7. Waste time selectively
As Tim Ferriss said when I interviewed him for The Globe and Mail, willpower takes up energy. Getting distracted could actually prepare us to stay more focused later on in the day.
As contributor Rebecca Greenfield wrote in The Wire: “Research found that those who spent less than 20 percent of their time perusing the Internet’s silly offerings were 9 percent more productive than those who resist going online… Not only does a brain reset help you get through the day, but resisting the urge to go online negatively impacts your work, according a Harvard Business School study.”
Getting distracted could end up bolstering your focus, so take breaks in between your focused sprints of work. I generally prefer 50 minute sprints followed by 10 minutes of rest or distraction.
And as the technique shows, working less may actually help you work better.
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