Using performance forecasting and taking frequent breaks from sitting greatly improved my productivity, but there were still a few pieces of the puzzle I need to solve: knowing the best time of the day to get things done, figuring out my ideal work/break cycle and learning how to recover from low willpower.
The best time to work
According to psychologist Ron Friedman, our focus is at its highest during the first 3 hours of the day, therefore we should always try to do the hardest work first. If instead, we read our emails / RSS feed, we’re wasting precious high productivity time.
After lunch, our focus capacities aren’t as good so it’s time to switch to a creative task. According to a study led by psychology professor Marieke Wieth, our lateral thinking works best when we’re a little tired (or drunk but that’s a different story)!
80 minutes of high focus
In my search over the years for the most effective work session, I’ve tried various productivity techniques with little success:
- Pomodoro’s 25m/5m is not long enough to enter a high focus state
- themuse’s 52m/17m didn’t work for me either. After 50 minutes of work I’m usually very focused, so stopping at that stage for a long break feels frustrating
The answer came through personal observation. I noticed that the quality of my focus consistently dropped around the 90 minutes mark. This can be explained by our Ultradian rhythm: A 1993 study found that our tiredness peaks every 80 to 100 min. This also coincides with Anders Ericsson’s study of skilled violinists: They all practised in sessions of 80 - 90 minutes. His studies of pianists, chess players and famous writers found similar patterns.
Following these findings, I created own 90 min cycle: four 20 min working sessions followed by a 10 min break.
Using this system, which breaks up the prolonged sitting periods with non-disruptive exercise moves, I can protect my health while maintaining a high focus.
When you’re completely demotivated, starting an easy task with a 20 minutes timer is a great, low friction way to push through the pain and start the ball rolling.
If you hit rock bottom, try eating something sweet: Daniel Kahneman suggests in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, that when our self-control is low, an intake of sugar can restore it. This works well for me, but be careful of what you eat, as a sugar high now can lead to a sugar crash later.
Lastly, remember that willpower is not a true resource and it can in fact be willed into existence. This article explains that people who believe willpower is an unlimited resource get more of it!
Sands Time management
During my productivity experiments, I needed a time management tool that was highly customizable and pleasant to use. Unsatisfied with what was then on offer in the MacOS AppStore, I created Sands.
Sands is a time management suite featuring:
- A time tracker to assist with performance forecasting
- Custom timers to test new productivity techniques
- The 90 minutes high focus cycle
- Idle detection, billing, themes and more.
In addition to the points mentioned in this series on productivity, here are a few other tips I found helpful:
- Get enough sleep (after-lunch crash is a sure sign of sleep deprivation)
- Block news websites and other time sinks
- Meditate, just 2 min of breathing is a great way to start
- Have a daily TODO list, but remember part I - make sure it’s achievable
- Plan thoroughly before taking action
- Clear hurdles swiftly - as Sun Tzu said in the Art of War, “Do not linger on dire terrain”
That’s all for now. If you have any other productivity tips, feel free to tweet me at @PierreAclement…