On New Year’s Day, without fail, John Grisham starts writing a new book. Five days a week, each morning at 7 a.m., he’s in the same room, sitting in the same chair, tapping away on his same old trusty computer, and most importantly, with the same cup of coffee.
There are no beeps, pings, messaging, or Wi-Fi for that matter–absolutely no distractions. And like clockwork, six months later out pops a new book. He’s been doing this for over 30 years. You can do the math to see how many books that makes.
While we might not all need to be this regimented, discovering and safeguarding time is absolutely essential for doing your best work. “Shapers” — those that get energized by what they do — are militant in scheduling uninterrupted time when their energy is just right for the task at hand. They know it’s paramount to find your flow in today’s endlessly distracting world.
The average full-time American worker clocks nearly 50 working hours a week and many others work eclipse this. But while the demand for knowledge-based work escalates, your daily cap for cognitively-taxing work remains exactly the same at four and a half hours.
The craving to be productive is ubiquitous. And the urgency you place on yourself — making more to-do lists while others lay neglected in a corner — is in mortal combat with the amount of time you feel you have.
If we aren’t able to work smarter naturally, surely there is a way to hack it. So we slurp coffee, pop pills, and double down on the awful habit of multitasking. We remain busy but not necessarily productive. Our devices keep us perpetually tied to our employers, not by mandate, but often because we just can’t help ourselves.
This is not the case at The Muse. Employees at this career advice company discovered how their most productive staff worked: in bursts. Staff switch between 52-minutes bursts of focused work sprinkled with 17-minutes short breaks. Not far off from the Pomodoro technique that many swear by — indeed there is a method to the madness.
While everyone has a different chronotype and working style, discovering when, where, and how you work best tees you up for success. You can listen to your energy levels and as a result, spend your time wisely. I’ve outlined a few tips around managing where your attention is going.
Smart email responding
We now spend over 60% of the workweek managing our email inbox or searching the web. If you’re a typical office worker, by tonight you’ll have processed 124 emails. The reality is that your pandemic email mountain is not going away and instead of it being a drag to your working lives, it can actually be a delight.
More often than not, there’s no need to reply to a particular email, yet still we do. Learning to tame this impulse frees up a lot of time and mental energy to get those emails that actually do. Furthermore, we often forget how these clever communications occur asynchronously to real life. Just because we might always be accessible, doesn’t mean we should be.
Similar to burst working , you can limit both the frequency and the time you spend doing email. Nibbling away on email throughout the day with over-the-top formalities, project updates, bottomless newsletters, spam, and carbon copies is a doomed strategy. A better one if you get away with it is to remove your notifications altogether and set specific times in the day that you do email. Try to cap these burst at 30 minutes if you can.
Lastly, and by far the best and easiest technology hack, is to become a master “Searcher.” Relying on your worthy computer to do emailing “filing” for you lets you find emails 41 seconds faster trying to dig it out from one of your fancy folder trees. With practice, you’ll cultivate an email diet that stands the test of time and helps you push your creativity to the max.
Embrace empty time
Research suggests that when you get to your busiest level, your attention is hijacked. You simply can’t take the time to control your time and exercise good judgment on how to best spend it. The net outcome, of course, is that you end up busy being busy and experiencing increased anxiety to boot.
Enter “anti-flow.” This phrase simply translates to deliberate boredom, which is not only good for us but is critical for problem-solving. Taking some time out doesn’t curb creativity; it can catapult it. Scheduling these breaks is not a sign of weakness but a symbol of stability. Ironically, how we spend our time not working impacts how capable we are when we are working.
Anti-flow practices like meditation, journaling, or a bike ride help you get unstuck as your mind works through problems in the background. It also reduces your feeling of time pressure. When you return to your work, it’s easier to find your flow and do so with ease and presence of mind.
Jonas Altman is a speaker, writer, and entrepreneur on a mission to make the world of work more human. He is the author of SHAPERS: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future.