Updated: Aug 22
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could begin work with 100% focus? And then maintain optimal productivity throughout the entire day? And never burn out? Ever?
Okay, that’s not realistic. It takes time to engage and focus on the task at hand. And while there are strategies to maintain productivity, don’t expect every day to hum along without a hitch. There’s a point when the pursuit of productivity is futile.
These are a few nuggets of wisdom in the productivity videos we’re watching this month. Let's break them down a little further.
Expect a 6-Minute Productivity Ramp
In Optimizing Workspace for Productivity, Focus, & Creativity, Dr. Andrew Huberman of the Huberman Lab Podcast explains ways to set up your workspace to optimize for productivity. He covers how to adjust light, arrange your physical workspace, and improve your body posture to maximize productivity.
Whether you’re context switching or beginning your work day, one of his evidence-based tips is to expect your brain to take approximately six minutes to engage the work you want to get done.
Dr. Huberman draws a parallel between cognitive function and physical exercise. You wouldn’t expect to walk into a gym and achieve a personal record lift or perform your best sprint without warming up. You would at least do a few warm-up sets or jog a bit.
In the same way, you can’t expect your brain to focus on a task immediately or instantly switch from one task to the next. To assume so is unfair. To be more realistic, anticipate it taking about six minutes to engage your work and for your neurochemical systems to rev up. As you optimize things like lighting, screen positioning, and posture, you’ll see that the time to ramp up decreases.
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Try Timeboxing To Maintain Productivity
Speaking of time to ramp up, once you’re in the zone, how do you maintain productivity and ensure everything you need to do gets done?
In Timeboxing: Elon Musk’s Time Management Method, Thomas Frank highlights a productivity method used by Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Cal Newport, and many others.
Timeboxing is setting a fixed amount of time for each task you have to do and integrating those blocks of time into your daily schedule.
He suggests capturing tasks for the following day, estimating the time needed to complete each task, and then scheduling the tasks. Simple enough, right?
Theoretically, yes. But to be successful, you have to be good at two things: making time for planning and estimating the time you need to complete each task.
In terms of planning, some might find this technique overly structured. However, it aims to solve a phenomenon that you’ve likely experienced, which is that work expands to the time allotted, also known as Parkinson’s law. If you have too much unscheduled time, completing a specific task can take up more time than necessary. With timeboxing, you put limitations on your time to ensure you don’t waste it.
The other challenge is estimating the time it takes to complete your work. Frank points to research and what’s known as the Planning Fallacy, which shows how humans tend to make overly optimistic predictions about how long things take to complete. Instead of remembering that traffic delays, meeting extensions, and interruptions are part of daily life, we imagine best-case scenarios where focus switches on instantly and disruptions are non-existent.
To compensate for this shortcoming, he suggests tracking your time to improve your ability to make better predictions. You can use the timer on your computer, mobile device, or an app for time tracking. Once you get a record of how long things take, you can see the discrepancy between your original estimation and the actual time.
Another way to account for the tendency to underestimate interruptions is to schedule what Cal Newport calls reactionary time blocks. Use this designated time to tend to all the unplanned items that come up over the day.
Lastly, when you use your calendar for timeboxing, it helps prevent people from scheduling unnecessary meetings and forces them into fewer, remaining time slots. It may also prompt them to communicate in another format like an async Slack conversation or collaborative document review.
Give timeboxing a try and see if your productivity improves.
Watch Out For The Law Of Diminishing Returns
Can you ever be too productive with all the possible ways to improve productivity? In The Problem with Productivity, Harshibar breaks down hustle culture and explores the productivity paradox.
Hustle culture is essentially the glorification of workaholism. It’s the prioritization of work above all else — health, family, relationships — and is believed to be the only way to achieve your goals. While a good work ethic is valuable, and life is better when you derive meaning from your work, there’s a point when this philosophy goes too far.
The law of diminishing returns illustrates that over time there’s a certain threshold when productivity slows down, and even a point when returns become negative. Increasing productivity is no longer achievable no matter how hard you pursue it. This also leads to burnout, which can seriously affect your health.
The best way to avoid bottoming out on productivity is to take breaks. It’s been proven that slowing down, scheduling breaks, and taking long weekends and vacations make you more productive. In other words, working less can make you more productive. Who doesn't want that?
We all want to be productive and get more meaningful things done in less time. To do so, it's important to allow several minutes for your brain to warm up before you expect it to function optimally. Given Parkinson's law, try timeboxing to manage your time—just brush up on those time estimation skills and get in the habit of planning out your days. Lastly, utilize breaks and vacations to maintain healthy productivity levels. Even applying one of these tips could give you the productivity boost you need.
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