To Have A Productive Day, Make Work A Series Of Sprints

A well-timed burst of business—followed by a well-earned rest—can do wonders for your productivity. Here's how to put one foot in front of the other to get it done.

Got a case of mush-mind? It's because your brain is overloaded and your attention is over-divided. How do you cure it? By selectively sprinting into your most important tasks.

That's according to Tony Schwartz, an engagement consultant who's worked with the likes of Google, Facebook, and Coca-Cola. Writing for the New York Times, Schwartz makes an intuitive argument: that since quality work requires focus, and you only have the energy to focus for so long, you need to be conscious of how and when you focus in order to do your best work.

  • "... it’s better to work highly focused for short periods of time, with breaks in between, than to be partially focused for long periods of time. Think of it as a sprint, rather than a marathon. You can push yourself to your limits for short periods of time, so long as you have a clear stopping point. And after a rest, you can sprint again."

What he says is interesting for a few reasons. First, in blocking out your time into sprints, you're actually blocking out distractions. When you close your Gchat and turn off your phone for 90 minutes, you become an authority in the way you spend the scarce resources of your attention—same as why empty calendars make people so productive. (And if 90 minutes seems too long—how about 50?)

When you push the limits of your ability and give yourself a goal, you're apt to enter into what positive psychologists call flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term—and his book of the same name provides a polished understanding of what's happening when we're doing our best work. It's usually in a burst of skill-expanding immersion—similar to the 90-minute sprints that Schwartz recommends.

After the sprint comes the rest. As we've talked about with Schwartz before, not working is part of doing your best work. Why? Because, while your mental energy is a renewable resource, it doesn't refresh on its own—you need to take responsibility for it. And no, you're not "taking a break" when you fuss with your phone.

Faced With Overload, a Need to Find Focus

[Image: Flickr user Sebastian Mary]

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2 Comments

  • Reina Carpeso

    It sounds just about right.
    Focusing too much for too long doesn't really work because most of the time you're just warring out your mind from thinking and wasting time in the process. Sprinting works especially when you take breaks in between.
    One productivity tip I always use from Nomadic Matt's interview ( http://www.staff.com/blog/how-... ) is that you always have to create your own effective schedule. To make your schedule effective, you need to know when your mind works best. On my own schedule, it includes major tasks, minor, tasks, breaks and unproductive stuff. With this, my tendency is to stick to my schedule because I know that when I finish those tasks, I can reward myself with a break (naps or going out for fresh air) or fun stuff (watching a movie).