“It doesn’t matter how long I work for, I never feel like I do enough.”
If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone. Despite our workdays getting longer, we seem to be doing less. But why is that?
To understand what’s getting in the way of getting things done, all you have to do is think through a typical workday. If you’re anything like me, your days look something like this:
You start full of energy, go through your to-do list, and picture a fully productive day. But instead of diving right in, you want to make sure you aren’t missing anything urgent.
So you check Twitter for mentions. LinkedIn to see if anyone commented on your last post. Your inbox to make sure you’re not missing a pressing update.
Now its time to work.
What’s that? Susan updated the project proposal? You should probably check that out first.
How is it already 10 a.m.? You need to start prepping for that 10:30 meeting.
And what about that thing Robby asked you to do yesterday afternoon? What was that again?
Your own responsibilities (and distractions) will be different, but the result is the same: a scattered and fractured day.
In fact, when we analyzed 185 million hours of working time, we found that most people average just two hours and 48 minutes of productive time a day.
This isn’t meant to shame you into trying to work more. Once you understand that you only have a few hours a day to be truly productive, you can start to take advantage of this situation, instead of pretending you have all the time in the world and then wondering where it all went.
The problem isn’t that you only have about three hours of productive time a day. It’s that you fragment that already limited time into small chunks of 15–20 minutes in between meetings, calls, and other distractions.
You might think you’re different, but that’s probably not the case.
When we analyzed behavior from more than 50,000 RescueTime users, we discovered that 40% of workers never go more than 30 minutes without being interrupted during the workday.
There’s a huge difference between a solid three hours of focused time and a collection of five-minute chunks between “urgent” tasks.
When your day is a fragmented mess, you’re setting yourself up for failure. All of a sudden, your limited time becomes contaminated by several factors.
- Context switching: Even just bouncing between your inbox and your current task can eat up 20% of your productivity.
- Attention Residue: Our brain can’t switch tasks on a dime. Some studies say it can take up to 23 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted.
- Productivity shame: We spend 46.9% of our days thinking about something other than what we’re currently doing. Splitting your attention like this means tasks take longer and you’re always stressed about doing more.
On the other hand, if you can learn to dedicate even just one or two hours of your day to intense focus, you get a compound return on your investment.
In fact, in his book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler found that executives were up to 500% more productive when in a state of intense focus.
To take advantage of this leap in productivity, you need to know two things:
- When is the best time for you to focus?
- How are you going to protect that time?
Thinking you’re going to be 100% focused for an entire day is naive at best. Instead, you simply need to accept your limitations and then optimize your day around them.
Two hours of intense focus can yield more results than a day loaded with meetings, emails, calls, and tasks.
As Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, told us, “Two hours where you can really get into the problem yields solutions that are going to be better than if you spent 10 hours broken up by meetings and bouncing around on Slack channels.”
This five-step process can help you make real progress every single day (without working yourself to death).
1. Find your optimal time to work
We all have moments during the day where we’re naturally more energetic, focused, and productive than others. If you can schedule your focused time during these times, you’ll naturally get more out of them.
So when do you work best? We wrote a full guide on how to find your personal peak productive hours here, but as behavioral scientist Dan Ariely explained during a Reddit AMA, “Generally, people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.”
2. Give yourself the right conditions to do good work
Now you need to give yourself the optimal conditions to take advantage of that time. That means optimizing how and where you work, as well as making sure you’re starting the day with a full tank.
If you’re tired because you stayed up late, you’re going to lose out on these prime hours. So before you can do anything, make sure you’re following a healthy sleep routine and getting the hours you need.
Next, you need to make sure you’re in an environment that allows you to focus.
Start by removing the external distractions from your environment. This means finding a quiet, uncluttered space (hopefully with a bit of light and fresh air) to keep you energized and motivated. Remove things that are easy to access and that take your attention away, such as your phone or even your to-do list.
Next, you need to make sure you’re blocking or removing internal distractions like checking social media, news, or even your email.
It’s not enough to rely on willpower. Instead, use a distraction blocker like FocusTime at the start of the day to force you into a state of focus. Personally, I like to start my day with a scheduled 30-minute FocusTime session to stop me from eating into my productive hours by checking the news or social media.
3. Choose a daily “highlight”
With the right time and environment for focus, it’s time to decide what deserves your attention. The goal here is to use your highest energy, peak productive hours to make real progress on your most important work.
What you choose to spend your time on should be important and meaningful. If the rest of the day gets eaten up by meetings, calls, and urgent work, you should be able to look back on it and know you got something important done.
In their book Make Time, the authors call this your daily highlight. “Long-term goals are useful for orienting you in the right direction but make it hard to enjoy the time spent working along the way. And tasks are necessary to get things done, but without a focal point, they fly by in a forgettable haze,” they wrote.
A highlight is somewhere between a task and a long-term goal. It’s something that deserves your attention and that you want to be the focal point of your day. This could mean something that is:
- Time-sensitive: What needs to get done or has been nagging you for a while now?
- Satisfying: What do you want to get done and that will make you feel accomplished at the end of the day?
- Joyful: What will make you feel good about how you spent the day?
Whatever you choose to spend your two hours on, that time needs to be sacred and respected. If you work with a team, make sure to time-block them out on your calendar, and don’t let people take them away with meetings or calls.
As Angie Morgan, coauthor of Spark: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success, explains, “You could spend 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. just emailing, but that’s not driving results or moving you toward longer, bigger goals. When people say, ‘I’m so busy,’ it really means, ‘I’m a poor planner,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to prioritize or delegate.'”
True productivity is doing the right thing at the right time in the right place.
4. Listen to your body, not the clock
While we’ve been using “two hours” as our guide for this entire process, it’s not a rule that’s set in stone. Forcing yourself to work when you’re losing your focus and energy will only lead to burnout. Instead, you want to protect your focus by giving yourself time to recuperate.
This comes from listening to your body and not just the clock.
Just as you discovered your optimal time to work by looking at your productivity curve, you need to be aware of when that energy level dips. According to sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, our minds naturally crave breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work.
When we need a break, our bodies send us signals, such as becoming hungry, sleepy, fidgeting, or losing focus. Listen to these signs, and take a quick 5–10-minute break to walk around, stretch, grab some water, and reset your energy.
If you want to give your time more structure, you can also follow a strategy like the Pomodoro technique. This is where you work in stretches of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break. String four of these together in a row and you’re guaranteed to have a productive day.
5. Work the rest of the day around your “personal productivity curve”
Completing your daily highlight each day ensures that you feel accomplished at the end of the day. But it doesn’t mean you have to stop there. Use the rest of your time to make progress on urgent tasks and catch up on communication, meetings, and updates.
You can use the same technique here as before. Once you know when your energy levels are highest and lowest throughout the day, you can match your tasks to them. For example:
- Meetings, emails, and calls when your energy level is lower
- Daily tasks and urgent work when your energy level is higher (but not during your peak hours)
- Breaks when you know you’re going to crash (like during the dreaded afternoon slump)
You can still be productive outside of these focused hours, but the goal is to commit to this time every single day. As long as you get those tw0 hours in, you’ve had a good day. This is more than most people can say.
More time ≠ more work
Intense focus is a superpower in our distracted world. Starting each day with as little as an hour or two of focus will bring you compounding returns over time.