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The typical American office worker only does about 90 minutes of real work per workday.
The rest of each workday is largely spent on distractions like reading the news, web surfing, socializing with coworkers, snacking, taking coffee breaks, shuffling papers around, processing irrelevant emails, needless delay tactics, playing games, and daydreaming.
Moreover, American office workers are among the world’s most productive. In many other countries, even less work gets done each day.
This stat hasn’t changed much in decades, despite massive investments in time management and productivity training by many companies. We have more technology to assist us in being productive, but we also have more to distract us.
The general problem is that we’re still applying an industrial age model to the productivity of knowledge workers. It makes sense to pay attention to hours worked if the productive output for each hour is roughly the same. That may be true for repetitive labor, but it doesn’t apply much to knowledge workers.
For a knowledge worker, what’s the difference between an hour of peak productivity vs. a low productivity hour? That peak hour could easily be 10x more productive in terms of the volume of work completed and the results generated.
What sense does it make to spend more time at the office if you’re normally operating at less than 20% of capacity? Why not simply do 90 minutes of real work and then go home for the day?
What if you could complete a whole day’s work in only 90 minutes? What would that 90-minute period look like?
Here are some recommendations for having a very productive 90-min period (let’s call it a focus block):
1. Pick one theme – Instead of doing a bunch of random actions, pick one clear theme for the block. This allows your brain to load in a singular context and stick with it, which makes you more efficient. Your theme may be a project you’re working on, a type of work like catching up on correspondence, or anything that lets your brain load in one clear context and stick with it.
2. Define the finish line – See your focus block as a fast dash to the finish line. But where is the finish line? What does it look like? Having a clear goal that’s only 90 minutes away will help you focus. Don’t worry if you don’t cross the finish line each time; it’s there to help you focus, so aim for it, but accept that sometimes you’ll miss. Some examples: Write and post a new blog entry. Process items in my email inbox till it’s completely empty. Plan and schedule all my focus blocks for the upcoming week.
3. List the action steps – List the specific actions you’ll take during this block. For some blocks this is really helpful. For others it may not be necessary if the steps are already clear. I wouldn’t list out my action steps for writing a new article since that process is very familiar to me, but I’d list brainstorm and list steps for an unfamiliar new project to make it easier to get started. Some examples: Delete all obvious spam and clutter from my email inbox first. Then quickly process all messages that I can handle in less than two minutes each. Next, sort and prioritize longer messages for response. Respond to my most important longer messages till I’m at the 90-minute point. Surrender to the realization that it’s not a good use of my time to reply to the rest, and just archive them to empty the inbox.
4. Ensure zero interruptions – Do whatever it takes to ensure that you will not be interrupted under any circumstances during your focus block. If necessary, tell people in advance that you will not be available for the next 90 minutes; let them know that you will be available after that. Lock your door if you can. If you can’t guarantee that you won’t be interrupted in your current work environment, then do your focus block somewhere else. You’ll be much more productive and your focus will be deeper if you know for certain that you won’t be interrupted.
5. Work fast – Think fast. Move fast. Work fast. If you catch yourself going slow, speed up! Imagine that you’re in a race, and you have to maintain a strong pace for the full 90 minutes. After that you can rest. With practice this gets easier.
6. Allow no distractions – During your focus block, you must do your pre-defined work and nothing else. Keep your cell phone off. Turn off any notifications that might interrupt you. Turn off your Internet access if you won’t need it during this block. Do not check email during this time. Do not take a coffee break or snack break. Use the bathroom during this time only if you must.
I think you get the idea.
Avoid the Gray Zone and Take Real Breaks
Many people spend their workdays in a gray zone marathon. That’s why it takes them 7-8 hours to do 90 minutes of work. They work slowly and inefficiently. Their work time is cluttered with distractions and interruptions. They begin late and wind down early. Most of the time, they’re only half working.
Instead of doing a gray zone marathon each day, cycle between real work and real breaks. This will be much more efficient, even if you work only half as many hours or less.
Don’t immediately go from one focus block right into another. After you complete a focus block, celebrate your achievement. Then assess where you are. Tune into your energy and see how you feel.
If you’re still feeling alert and energized, you may only need a short break. Take 5-10 minutes to stretch, go to the bathroom, and have some fresh fruit. Then feel free to dive right into another focus block.
If you feel tired, it’s good to eat something and/or take a nap.
If you feel like doing something physical, go for a walk or take an exercise break.
If you feel like you could use some emotional renewal, you may wish to meditate, socialize, or read some inspiring material.
How long should your breaks be? Make them as long as necessary till you’re ready for another round of focused work. Sometimes you may only need a few minutes. Other times it may be wise to take a couple hours off, especially if the previous block was particularly draining. Between focus blocks, seek to refresh and renew your energy until you’re ready to handle another focus block.
Do your best not to load up your breaks with gray zone tasks like email since that’s more likely to drain you. I recommend batching small tasks into their own focus block (including email). But if it’s just a quick one-minute email check now and then, that probably won’t be too bad, but never do email checks during a block unless it’s critical for the completion of the block.
Realize that if you only complete one focus block in a whole day, you’ve still done as much real work as the typical American office worker does in a full eight-hour day. And if you only complete two blocks, you’re twice as productive as most. On a super productive day, you may complete five or six blocks, which is like getting a full week’s worth of work done in one day.
Do a Week of Work in a Day
During one of the most productive periods of my life, when I was doing contract game programming work, I’d normally work from 9am to noon, take a one hour break for lunch, and then work from 1pm until 5pm or 6pm. But I’d subdivide the work into shorter focus blocks of deep concentration.
At the start of each day, I’d define the next milestone I wanted to reach, such as a short list of new features to add. Then I’d make a short list of action steps in my work journal (just an everyday spiral notebook). Sometimes I wouldn’t bother to list the action steps if they seemed obvious. Then I’d program the items on the list. Finally, I’d compile the software, test the program, fix bugs, and tweak the implementation until I was satisfied. A typical milestone would take me about 45-90 minutes to achieve.
Since I was programming games, testing the program meant playing the game a little to test the new features as well as the overall gameplay. In effect, the testing phase gave my brain a nice break from designing algorithms and writing code.
When I finished one cycle like this, I’d feel a nice little sense of accomplishment. I might take a quick stretch break. Then I’d make a new list and repeat.
In the morning, I would complete a few of these cycles, perhaps three of them. In the afternoon I’d do several more. My game projects progressed very quickly during this time. Every day I added many new features. I could have a prototype of a whole new game running in just a few days this way. With today’s better development tools, the work can progress even faster.
During lunch each day, I took a complete break to restore my mental energy. I rarely went to lunch with my co-workers. Usually I brought a sack lunch with me, but I left the office to go eat. I’d drive to a nearby park, sit on the grass with my back against a tree, and eat alone in silence. I’d let go of work and just relax. After eating, I’d lie back on the grass and take a 20-minute nap, or I’d stare up at the sky and totally zone out. I’d enjoy the breeze and listen to the birds. I gave the brain circuits I needed for programming work a very restful break. Then I’d go back to my car, return to work, and crank out a few more cycles before leaving for the day.
Test, Train, and Experiment
If you aren’t used to a working rhythm of alternating focus blocks with rest periods, you may need to practice this method for a while to get used to it. I expect you’ll really like it once you taste this kind of flow. Doing a full day’s work in about 90 minutes is not only efficient; it’s also motivating and energizing.
Cycles of about 90 minutes usually work well once you get up to speed. But you may find that shorter cycles like 45 or 60 minutes work better for you. You may also find that different cycle lengths are more suited to different types of work. Sometimes I’ll keep going for 2.5 hours (or more) if I’m feeling good, especially when writing a new article.
Some people like having scheduled focus blocks with scheduled breaks, so everything is a set duration. They’re sticklers for starting and stopping at set times. There’s some evidence that this helps your brain optimize its performance if your cycles are the same every day.
For instance, you might have focus blocks at 5:30-7:00am, 8:00-9:30am, 10:30am-noon, 1pm-2:30pm, and 3:30-5pm, which would give you five 90-minute focus blocks with hour-long breaks in between. This would be a super productive day that would see you doing as much real work in one day as the typical American office worker does in a week, but you’re only working for 7.5 hours total.
Other people prefer a more organic approach, deciding based on their energy levels how low each focus block and break should be. This is how I work most of the time.
A modest but still highly productive schedule might entail having three focus blocks per day. You could easily complete a great deal of work this way. Many top creative workers only work 3-5 hours per day, but they work with deep focus and zero interruptions during that time.
Don’t succumb to the cultural bias that may try to convince you that working 8+ hours per day makes you productive. That may be true for physical labor and some repetitive tasks, but it’s not true for knowledge workers and creative types. Many people enjoy tremendous flow and achieve great results by working in short high energy, bursts of motivation and drive. Try this for yourself, and you may never want to return to the gray zone of long, unproductive workdays again.