Humans are not machines.
This is stating the obvious, but the obvious hasn’t seemed to sink in. We organize our work days as if we were machines, never turning off even when we get home.
These work habits are erroneous, unhelpful, and unhealthy.
When the Huffington Post polled 1,000 people on their work habits and routines, the results show just how far we’ve tilted the scales to a machine-like existence:
- 60% take 20 minutes or less for lunch.
- 25% never leave their desk.
- 66% fail to take their allotted vacation
- 25% leave at least a week’s worth of vacation unused each year
And to top it all off, 33 percent spend less than half an hour a day completely disconnected from email.
This isn’t a sustainable work style.
What’s more, we treat multitasking as an essential technique to getting more done in less time when, in fact, multitasking may be hurting more than it’s helping. Numerous research studies have concluded that multitasking as we know it is a myth. The brain can’t do more than one thing at once. Reading while watching TV? Can’t do both properly.
Instead, your brain actually performs high-speed switching of one action to another. Eventually this constant switching begins to wear on productivity. The more you multitask, the less you’re able to filter information, sort tasks, and remember. According to Stanford research Clifford Nass: “Multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”
The obvious problem with that: Multitasking doesn’t work.
Instead of a rhythmic focus on important tasks, we flit from one thing to the next and load too much onto our plate. This harmful combination of machine-like productivity as an ideal, multitasking, information overload, and constant connectivity actually prevents you from getting the most out of your day.
A three-step alternative to a machine-like workday
Humans thrive on rhythms and cycles. We should find a natural rhythm that guides our day, shifting between intense activity and restful recovery.
Combinings these three techniques provide a formula for meaningful productivity and well-being:
1. Follow your instinctual rhythms with pulsing.
2. Limit distraction by grouping your tasks with batching.
3. Seek rhythm, not random with slow web.
1. Follow your instinctual rhythms
Circadian rhythms — the 24-hour cycles the body uses to sync with day and night —are notable for their association with sleep and rest, but it is ultradian rhythms that are key to work efficiency.
Ultradian rhythms refer to the body’s natural cycles that occur multiple times within a 24-hour timeframe. Ultradian rhythms include everything from blood circulation, blinking, and pulse to heart rate, bathroom breaks, and appetite. They also govern our mental capacity to work.
You can only focus on a task for 90 to 120 minutes. After this, your mind needs a 20- to 30-minute break to recoup its productive brainpower.
Think about that. When you’ve been cramming on a project all morning and can’t seem to find your focus or your energy, check your rhythms. You’re probably spent for very good reason — you’re out of sync with your mind cycle, and you need a break. You may even notice the biological signs that you’ve gone too long: fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness, and loss of focus.
A better way to work is to go along with those rhythms. Start by dividing your work day into 90-minute increments with a break following each.
This technique has an amazing track record of success. Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson discovered this pattern in the work ethic of top musicians, athletes, chess players, and writers. Startup founders and execs have successfully implemented the strategy into their workflow. Author Tony Schwartz cut his book-writing time in half by switching from 10 or 12-hour chunks of working to three 90-minute windows each day.
The human body is hard-wired to pulse. To operate at our best, we need to renew our energy at 90-minute intervals — not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Working in cycles and at a pace is a way to optimize, supercharging our work day simply by listening to ourselves.
2. Limit distraction by grouping your tasks.
Interruptions are the bane of an efficient workday. One study by Gloria Mark at the University of Chicago found that people get an average of eleven minutes into a project before the first interruption. “Fragmentation of work”, the study authors report, “is a way of life for … information workers.”
For this reason, batching has become a popular method of getting work done. Darren Rowe, founder of Problogger discovered that batching increased his productivity tenfold. Batching is what it sounds like — grouping similar tasks together and focusing on one batch at a time. So you simply carve out time to perform a single task—and don’t allow any other tasks to distract you.
The problem is actually implementing batching can be challenging. In many ways, batching has a New Year’s resolution feel: we know it’s good for us, we attack our new batch schedule with gusto, and a week later, it’s back to the same old routine.
For starters, batching is hard work. In practice, blocking out distractions and concentrating on a single task can be incredibly difficult because it requires a lot of discipline — discipline to stick to a schedule of meetings and calls, discipline to let inclinations to check your email or look up something. Even when it’s information that you need, you might as well go down a rabbit hole.
Another obstacle to batching is the addictive nature of the web. For many of us, batching fails because our internet behaviors mirror many elements of gambling at a casino. We pull the lever on social media, hoping for something spectacular. We peek into the slot machine of email one more time because maybe something amazing has shown up. The internet feeds our dopamine supplies, and we struggle to make the break.
With this in mind, the ultimate key to batching is to form a habit and not get discouraged if it takes time to stick.
The good news is that the brain can grow stronger to resist distraction. In one experimented designed at the request of Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, authors of The Plateau Effect, researchers found that people showed an ability to improve how well they deal with distractions.
For an initial cognitive skills test, people were first warned about possible interruptions and then actually interrupted. Then on a second test where they’d received a warning but then were left alone, they turned in higher scores. “Somehow,” Sullivan and Thompson write, “they marshaled extra brain power to steel themselves against interruption, or perhaps the potential for interruptions served as a kind of deadline that helped them focus even better.”
Start small, if that will help. Creating a habit of focus is essential to unlocking efficiency, and good habits take time.
3. Seek rhythm, not random
Both ultradian rhythm and batching offer specific ways to organize and schedule an efficient workday. So consider slow web a philosophy to guide your day.
Slow web is a direct response to the demanding “fast web” culture the internet has created. The slow web movement values reflection, connection, and priorities. It’s a fundamentally different way of seeing the internet as a tool to add value more than it exacts a toll.
Jack Cheng’s encapsulation of slow web explains:
Fast Web is destination-based. Slow Web is interaction-based. Fast Web is built around homepages, inboxes, and dashboards. Slow Web is built around timely notifications.
Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web.
Too often, we let the internet drive our working days, be it through notifications or alerts, messages or distractions. Many of us accept this as collateral damage of a wired world. While the internet can be many things, it’s important that we remember its utility, to remember who’s in charge. The slow web way of thinking steps in to remind us that the internet has incredible value as a means for getting work done efficiently.
Slow web supports a workday built on the rhythm of pulsing and batching, and it gains practical applications in the decisions we make and the services we use.
For instance, one slow web decision may be to reduce or remove notifications from your workday. This means no inbox pop-ups, no phone push notifications, etc. In terms of services, you can use technology to help create a slower culture. Schedule social media posts with Buffer so that you don’t need to be connected all the time. Save interesting articles to read later with Pocket.
There’s much about the internet that supports an efficient workday of focus and rhythm. We just have to be in the mindset to find it.
A sample work day
Combining these three techniques has huge potential for your productivity and happiness. You may come about these revelations naturally, as your workflow has settled into a variation of these techniques. I’ve taken a more structured approach to implementing pulsing, batching, and slow web.
Here’s the schedule I’ve created:
- Workday begins at 6:00 a.m.
- 6:00 - 7:30 = Research blog posts
- 7:30 - 8:00 = Work out (run, lift, etc.)
- 8:00 - 9:30 = Manage social media, schedule posts with Buffer
- 9:30 - 10:00 = Check email
- 10:00 - 11:30 = Read RSS reader, develop new story ideas
- 11:30 - noon = Break for lunch
- noon - 1:30 = Write blog posts
- 1:30 - 2:00 = Browse Tumblr
- 2:00 - 3:30 = Write blog posts
- 3:30 = Done for the day
It’s amazing how much you can fit into one day of work when you’re working efficiently. A principle of slow web is not letting the internet dictate your time and attention, so after 3:30 I say good-bye to my connected media and spend time with family and friends — and, if I’m being honest, playing video games. It’s a wonderful feeling to relax and unwind knowing you’ve produced a solid work day at your highest level.
Will it work for you? There’s only one way to find out!
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