Dr. Amantha Imber4 February 2018

How to create your most productive workday

Andy Grove, Former President of Intel, used to arrive at work at 8am and left by 6pm every day. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, leaves the office by 5.30pm everyday so she can have dinner with her kids at 6pm. If you are struggling to fit in a productive day’s work and shut down your computer at a reasonable hour, turning your working day around might be as simple as changing just a handful of behaviours.

1. Work to your chronotype.

Do you wake up at 5.30am, ready to bounce out of bed? Or are you still hitting the snooze button at 8.30am, despite needing to be in the office by nine? Perhaps, like many, you are somewhere in the middle. 

Through studying thousands of people’s internal body clocks, scientists came to learn that we are not all created equal when it comes to our daily energy levels. Around 14% of the population are what these researchers refer to as Larks. They are stereotypical “morning people” – you know, the type that are severely irritating if don’t happen to be one of those people. They spring out of bed before the sun has risen and appear at the office early with a big smile on their face (despite not having yet been caffeinated). These types are at peak productivity before lunch, and will generally be the first to leave a party and go home to bed. 

At the other end of the spectrum are Owls, which represent another 21% of the population. Owls struggle with the 9am-5pm routine, preferring to sleep in. In contrast to Larks, Owls have their peak productivity after most of us have had dinner and quite often, well into the night. 

If you can’t relate to either extreme, you are known as a Third Bird. You are somewhere in-between, but in general, tend to follow the energy patterns of a Lark, albeit a couple of hours delayed.

The big problem that Owls face is that the corporate world and the education system work against their natural body clocks. But if you are an Owl and you work in a company that has traditional hours, or better yet, if you are your own boss, try to deliberately restructure your day to suit your natural chronotype. For Larks and Third Birds, know that you are most productive in the hours preceding lunch so schedule your most important work for that time block.

2. Get focus fit.

We are living in a world of distractions. Some of them are inflicted upon us through notifications that pop up on our phone, tablet or computer. Others are self-imposed, like when Jenny checks Facebook for the 53rd time today, just in case that cute photo of her labradoodle has another Like. Research suggests that the average person can’t survive for more than 10 minutes without checking their phone. Addiction, anyone?

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that because of the distractions technology imposes on us, we spend the majority of our time doing Shallow Work – work that is non-cognitively demanding. And because of the constant distractions, we have forgotten how to truly engage in Deep Work – that is, focused thinking where we make meaningful progress on our most challenging but impactful projects.

Because many of us have been conditioned into fitting bits of Deep Work around lots of Shallow Work, many people often find it hard to spend large chunks of time focusing. And my goodness, isn’t it tempting to “just check” email when we reach a stuck point to give ourselves a little hit of distraction?

What we need to do is get focus fit. When we start a new exercise regime, we don’t start by bench pressing 50kg in our first session. So when it comes to (re)building your focus muscle, think about building up slowly. When I began retraining myself, I started out by doing just 30 minutes of focused work where all notifications and distractions were switched off (turns out Flight Mode can be useful for more than just flying) . And I simply built up from there.

3. Sprint. Don’t run a marathon.

A stereotype exists of the classic overachiever who spends 16 hour days at their desk doing nothing but focused work. When I was completing my PhD thesis many, many years ago, I used to aspire to be like this. In reality, I couldn’t last more than 30 minutes without manufacturing some kind of break to get away from the horror that is writing a PhD thesis. However, it is best to ignore this 16 hour day stereotype when thinking about your own routine as the human brain is designed to be a sprinter, not a marathon runner. 

Our energy levels work in 60-90 minute cycles. While a great daily goal is dedicating three or four hours to doing focused, deep work, go with your natural biology which is designed to split that time up into two to four 60 to 90 minute sprints.

4. Create a deep work ritual.

If you are a Lark or a Third Bird, you will ideally spend your morning doing deep work (for Owls, deep work is best done at night). But to start with, every muscle in your brain will be aching to do shallow work, because it’s far easier. What’s more, doing a shallow activity such as checking emails or your social feed gives you a little hit of the “feel good” chemical, because who knows what exciting email or status update awaits you. 

Creating a deep work ritual will make it easier to break your shallow work habits because it triggers your brain into associating your ritual with actually doing deep work. For me, my deep work ritual is as simple as walking to my favourite cafe, ordering a lemongrass and ginger tea (yes, I am one of those smug “morning people” who doesn’t need coffee), opening up my MacBook, and commencing work. Find a ritual that works for you and stick to it until it becomes a habit.

5. Take frequent breaks instead of one long one.

If you are in a busy job and already working long hours, you may be someone who can easily get consumed with your busy-ness and “forget” to take a break. Or perhaps you believe you simply don’t have time to take a break. You are attached to your computer, lunch is eaten at your desk while checking emails (#efficiency), and you rush from one meeting to the next.

Research has shown that this style of working has a big impact on productivity. We believe that we are working more (through not taking a break), however, we are actually in a constant state of poorer cognitive performance.

One study showed that the most productive performers worked solidly for 52 minutes and then had a break for 17 minutes. Other research has shown that in contrast to one 30 minute break, hourly five minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively. And another study found that taking a 40-second “Green Micro-break”, that is, looking at a view of greenery, increased concentration levels by 8%. 

To help make this happen in my own working life, I have banned 60 minute meetings from my diary. Instead, I make what would have previously been 60 minute meetings as 50 minutes. This gives me time for a quick walk and a few minutes to get ready for my next meeting or activity.

6. Don’t eat lunch at your desk.

62% of Americans eat lunch at their desk. Despite not being an American, I am ashamed to admit that I most definitely fell into this category of people. I used to think I was being more productive by eating and working at the same time. Multitasking, right? Wrong.

Research has shown that the simple act of eating our lunch anywhere but at our desks leads to us being better able to cope with workplace stress and also gives us greater energy for the afternoon. Real estate company CBRE has even gone so far as to ban desk lunches in their Toronto office.

7. Say no. 

A big reason why many of us end up so busy is because we are bad at saying no. I used to be terrible at saying no, and unfortunately, every week, I receive many requests for my time. And at the time of receiving the request, it felt far easier to say yes, rather than no. However, once the resulting time commitment arrived from saying yes, I would feel immediate regret and frustration at myself for agreeing to the commitment in the first place.

So this year, I have made a point of thinking more carefully about what I say yes to. A simple strategy I heard on the Tim Ferriss Show was to grade every opportunity on a scale of 1-10. However, the key to the strategy is that you can’t select seven. A score of seven out of 10 is so easy to give – it’s the equivalent of saying “Urgh, yeah, ok”. It’s a lukewarm yes. By removing the option to select a seven, it becomes easier to see whether it’s an exciting opportunity (after all, eight and above out of 10 is a great score), or whether it’s a six or below, which is clearly a no.

8. Go analogue

I largely abandoned paper notebooks a long time ago, despite being someone that has an unhealthy love of stationary shops. I travel a lot, so anything that adds weight to my bad needs to justify its space. Given I take all my notes on Evernote, I felt that bringing a notebook with me was redundant.

However, I recently stumbled upon research that made me go out and buy a Moleskin (and some pens, highlighters, pencils – oh the joy). Research from Princeton University and the University of California has shown that taking notes by hand in a notebook leads to better recall of the content compared to those typing notes on a laptop. In general, when we take notes on a laptop, we tend to do so robotically and type things out verbatim, but when we write notes out by hand, we mentally process the information much more effectively.

9. Park on a downhill slope

If you are human, there is a good chance that when you have sat down to start or even continue work on a project, you have felt overwhelmed, not knowing what to do first. Sometimes, it’s just hard to get started.

Even writers such as Ernest Hemingway are not immune to this issue.  To help himself find motivation and flow in the morning, Hemingway used to end his writing sessions mid-sentence. It allowed for an easy start the next day, because he could simply complete the sentence and keep on going. Essentially, it’s the writing equivalent of parking on a downhill slope. It tricks our sometimes lazy brain into starting, because it’s starting from an easy base.

10. Shut Down your day.

It’s so easy to leave the office, only to get home and start working again. And even if you are not engaged in this pattern, it’s very easy for work and stresses from the day to linger in your mind well beyond 5pm.

To help reduce stress and provide closure on your day, author Dan Pink suggests developing a mental shut down of your day. Specifically, he recommends spending two to three minutes writing down what you have accomplished that day. Feeling a sense of progress has been shown in research to be the most powerful motivator at work, so ending the day reflecting on this progress provides a sense of satisfaction. 

Next, spend two to three minutes planning the following day. This helps provide a sense of control, another great motivator, and also helps provide mental closure. 

Finally, if you have a spare minute left, express gratitude towards someone, in the form of an email or a text message. Gratitude has been shown time and time again to be an effective mood elevator.

Rather than try all of these strategies out at once, research into adopting new habits has shown you are far more likely to be successful by making one change at a time until it sticks. So pick your favourite, and spend the next few weeks changing your behaviour to achieve much, much more at work, in far less time.

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture where innovation thrives.