When you write about the way people work a living, it affects the way you work. Having written hundreds of posts about productivity, it's started to pervade my life: I go analog when I need to concentrate, I follow coffee meeting protocols, and I'm literally squatting at my desk as write these words.
But what if I formalized this unconscious process? What if, for one week, I fully practiced what I preached? Would the productivity hacks become home?
Here's what happened when I spent a week following my own advice:
An alarm is a jarring way to get out of bed, and using the snooze button confuses your system. Mobilization hormones shoot through your body upon waking—and laying your head back down sends a message of further relaxation. Sending those mixed signals to your body leaves you with a groggy, rather than clearing, head.
Yet despite dispensing this advice, I still use one to wake up every weekday morning around 7:45 a.m., while on the weekends I allow myself to sleep until 10:00 a.m.
In order to awake unassisted research shows, we have to awake at the same time every day which means we also have to train ourselves to go to bed at a consistent time that allows us to get enough sleep.
The Results: I still set an alarm every morning so I wouldn't risk sleeping too late and missing the day's commitments. But I set it consistently (both weekdays and the weekend) for 8 a.m. in hopes that I wouldn't need it.
While I wasn't up before the alarm every day, my eyes started opening around 7:30 a.m. or 7:45 a.m. most days without electronic supervision—and with a greater sense of spaciousness. The key was following the findings of Tony Stubblebine, the founder of habit-shaping app Lift. He told me a crisp wakeup requires knowing exactly what you're going to do once you're out of bed—any ambiguity can be a distraction. With that in mind, my morning gained a regularity of bed, bathroom, yoga mat—allowing my mind to reacquaint itself with consciousness while my body took care of brushing my teeth. Now the mornings have more momentum.
Mindfulness meditation has been linked to a boost in concentration and better stress resilience, among a myriad of other health benefits. Mindfulness meditation is also awesome because it trains you in gaining a sense for when you’re distracted—a big problem for journalists who have to constantly juggle a lot of incoming information while trying to stay focused enough to write a cohesive story.
While I’ve been meditating on and off for nearly four years, I thought I’d see what a week of just-after-awaking sitting would do for my workflow.
The Results: I sat for five to 20 minutes every morning. Interview questions, chapter headings, and other worries would pop into my mind, and after chasing the thoughts for a bit, I’d realized that I forgot to keep breathing. Then I'd say "thinking" to the thoughts racing in my head—labeling each as a thought, though neither good nor bad—and refocus on the breathing.
The difference between a 20-minute and five-minute sit is pretty remarkable. My mind often feels like a snow globe: whenever jostled, thoughts start flying all over the place. That's why the longer sessions suit me better: the thoughtflakes have more time to settle down to the bottom. Correspondingly, the longer I sat in the morning, the more crisp my thinking felt throughout the day.
We all fall victim to the sad desk lunch, and the croissant flakes embedded in the cushion of my office chair can attest to my frequency of desk breakfasts too. While it feels efficient: "Look, I can put pizza into my mouth and do research at the same time!" It's not good for you. If you don't have slices of not-work within a workday, you'll get burned out.
As a freelancer, I’m not surrounded by my colleagues; they’re on the other side of a chat window. I need some sort of socialization to feel like I’m highly functioning, so stepping away from my desk for a midday meal needed to become a priority.
The Results: On some days I would pop out to the yoga studio in what would otherwise be the workbreak—getting physical activity and human contact in one fell noontime swoop. Other days I went for a long, snowy walk. But I found that with all the deadlines, interviews, and other to-dos, eating lunch with another person was hard to put together. I only managed to make time for lunch with a friend once.
Setting aside my social deficiencies, thinking of lunch as less a meal than as a midday break is really quite key: if I walked away from my desk around noon, I had way higher energy into the evening than if I "powered" through the lunch hour.
Even though productivity guru Tim Ferriss told me that "you need stimulus and recovery in mental work in the same way that you need stimulus and recovery for sports," I didn't always recover.
Since I spend the whole day writing, reading, and interviewing, my mind often feels like mush by the end of the day—and the quality and clarity of my writing and thinking slumps lower than my slouch.
So maybe interrupting my day with a little physical activity would help.
The Results: I decided to add a midday yoga class to my schedule. Every day after meeting the day’s immediate deadlines I ran over to the neighborhood yoga studio—and I felt fresher in the afternoon than in the morning. Though a phone interview did superseded the downward dogs more than once, I was able to make it to the studio for three of five times.
Wayne State University associate professor Neha Gothe helped me to see why. She's found that people have greater cognitive performance after yoga than cycling or walking.
"It’s not just about physical movements," she says. "(There is) also lot of breathing and mindfulness behind it, that helps you sustain your attention."
After a week of putting into practice all these productivity ideas, I feel more committed to sculpting my routine. Since I feel so much clearer when I've sat for a full 20 minutes, I need to build that into my routine. This will require getting up earlier—and a reintroduction of our friend the alarm clock. And since it's so energizing to have lunch with awesome humans, I'll be eating alone less.
All this speaks to a larger point about how the behaviors suit the goal: if my purpose were to write an infinite number of posts a week, then I'd never leave my desk. But since I aim to write fewer, more thoughtful pieces, creating an environment that allows me space to think boldly is essential.
It's like what philosopher Gustav Flaubert said: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." So the more I arrange my days to take care of my body and mind, the more "violent and original" I can be in these articles.
[Image: Flickr user Mish Sukharev]