What if you could work less hours in a day and get more done?
Does this scenario sound familiar?
You wake up ready to face another day, and for those first blissful few seconds, you feel invincible. Then reality hits and you remember yesterday’s to do list, which has barely half the items crossed off, plus all the things you need to get done today, the meeting you know will be a waste of time but it’s apparently essential, the project that should have wrapped by now but it’s dragging behind because you haven’t managed to schedule any face-to-face time with the client for three days and… you’re exhausted already and you haven’t even dragged your butt out of bed yet.
Or perhaps you’ve got a fancy morning routine, starting with some relaxing meditation and morning pages, which are supposed to get you in the right frame of mind to hit the office but lately that all seems to just delay your stress for an extra hour each morning.
However you approach your day, if your stress levels are high and you feel there are never enough hours to get everything done, it might be time to ditch the time-based management system and start thinking about energy instead.
A Time-Focused World
To-do lists, meetings, schedules, even that fancy morning routine — all of these things are ingrained into our working lives. And they all can have their place, don’t get me wrong.
But we automatically see these and other productivity-related measures in terms of time. What happens if we look at them in terms of energy, instead?
The Energy Switch
In their excellent article for the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwarz and Catherine McCarthy explain that while time might be a finite resource, energy is not.
Energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals — behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.
Eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising are the three pillars that spring to mind when we think of physical energy. But just as important is understanding the concept of Ultradian Rhythms.
Ultradian rhythms are the 90 to 120 minute cycles where our bodies naturally start out at a high level of energy and move through to a depleted energy state. In other words, when you sit down refreshed and ready to work, you’ve got about one and a half to two hours maximum until your energy levels are depleted and you’re no longer as productive as you were when you started.
Testing yourself and therefore knowing when you need a break is key to making the most of your own ultradian rhythms. You might find you get the same amount of work done in three hours, including two fifteen minute breaks, than you would get done in a straight four-hour slog.
Schwarz and McCarthy found that intermittent breaks for renewal resulted in higher and more sustainable performance.
The length of renewal is less important than the quality. It is possible to get a great deal of recovery in a short time — as little as several minutes — if it involves a ritual that allows you to disengage from work and truly change channels.
Focus of Energy
Schwarz and McCarthy contend that fully focused work for periods of 90 to 120 minutes, what they call ‘ultradian sprints’, are far more efficient than working longer but with more interruptions. This is because of the phenomenon known as switching time. That is, stopping work to answer an email or phone call — even if this task only takes a minute or two — can actually increase the time required to finish the primary task by up to 25%.
Say you allocate an hour to finish an important task; perhaps it’s an article you’re writing for your blog. If you focus completely you know you’ll be done in that hour. But if you allow interruptions — let’s say a two minute phone call, plus a five minute email follow-up — you may have suddenly blown your time out to an hour and a half! You haven’t done 90 minutes worth of work, though. You’ve done sixty-seven minutes work — the hour blog post, the five-minute email and the two-minute phone call. The other twenty-three minutes were lost switching tasks.
But I got straight back to work after the email, you might say. Yes, I’m sure you did. But remember we’re not talking about straight time here. We’re talking about energy. You might physically have turned your attention straight back to your blog post, but was your mental energy refocused immediately as well?
There are many helpful rituals you can establish so you don’t get interrupted while performing focused work. You can turn off your phone, go to a quiet room, go offline, or choose to do regular focused work such as writing at a time of day when you are least likely to get interrupted.
However you do it, not being interrupted for your ultradian sprints will mean more work done in a shorter amount of time, and your energy system less depleted to boot.
Quality of Energy
The quality of our energy is compromised when negative emotions find their way into our day. And while we may not be able to change the causes of these negative emotions, we can find ways to control our reactions to these causes and therefore influence our emotions.
For example, receiving a rejection for a piece of writing you submitted to a publisher may cause a negative emotion — anger at not being chosen, fear of not being good enough, worry that you won’t meet your income targets for the month, and so on. ‘Why should I bother,’ you might think. ‘I’m never going to get accepted.’ These negative emotions can have an immediate impact on the quality of your current work.
But if you have a ritual for diffusing negative emotions — a simple breathing ritual, for example — you can turn the situation around and see the rejection in a new light. A few deep breaths might help you to understand the rejection as information — now you know what the publication doesn’t want. Or you might see it as one step closer to acceptance. You have the chance to see the rejection as the learning experience it is, rather than the waste of time it seemed to be before you took those deep breaths.
On a larger scale, learning to view the events in our lives in a more positive light enhances our emotional energy and that of those around us. Again, we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction to it. Painting yourself as the victim in a situation does little to lift your energy. But asking yourself how you might grow and learn from it can put things into a different perspective.
So how do we apply all this to our day of to-do lists, meetings, schedules, and morning routines?
To-do lists are great for getting things you must do later out of your head so you can focus on the job at hand. Establish a ritual to add nagging items to your list so they become less of an interruption, then allocate a period of time later in the day or perhaps once a week to focus on the task list.
Meetings aren’t always productive, but sometimes they’re the best way to achieve action on projects involving groups of people. If you’re in charge of an important meeting, try to schedule it when everyone involved will have high energy levels. If that’s not possible, implement rules and rituals that help keep yourself and other focused.
Scheduled blocks of time are key to moving forward on creative tasks and deep work. Learning to understand your personal ultradian rhythms will mean more work achieved in less time.
Morning routines have been proven to motivate and inspire leaders, senior executives, and successful people the world over. But don’t follow theirs — listen to your own energy and create the morning routine that works best for you.