Have you ever spent all day working, but at the end, after at least eight hours of straight desk time, you have nothing to show for it? How is that even possible? And how can you fix it?
By doing something unexpected: working for less time. It sounds backwards, but working less can up your productivity. As more demands are placed on you and your life gets busier, you often compensate by working harder and for longer periods of time. Instead, you need a smarter system that allows you to get more work done per hour. And to do that, you need to remove the activity that clouds your mind and slows you down: multitasking.
The human brain is not built to multitask. Ask someone to walk fast in a straight line and solve a difficult math problem; their walking speed will slow down while they try to calculate the answer.
When you do two things at once, your brain is “context switching.” When you stop doing task #1 to start task #2, you have to mentally bookmark what you were doing and where you were to then come back after you finish task #2 to start task #1 again. This confusing chain of events is called a context switch—and just like a computer, your brain slows down when you give it multiple commands at once.
Many people live in a “mixed mode”—they’re not fully focused on work, but they’re not completely switched off, either. It slows them down, burns them out and drains them of all their energy. Think that might be you?
Signs You’re Stuck in Mixed Mode:
1. You work until you’re distracted. You work on one task until you get sidetracked, then you start a new task until your attention is diverted again. You have trouble focusing.
2. You are always multitasking and never fully disconnecting. You’re at a social dinner but you talk about work, or you’re at home with your family but you check emails constantly. You never completely relax and recover, so you feel tired all the time.
3. You don’t take breaks. You tend to work on tasks until they are 100 percent complete. By ignoring the mental cues that you need to take a break, you run down your mental energy faster. When your concentration evaporates, you don’t have the energy to reboot, so you get stuck in mixed mode.
Our bodies have natural “work and rest” cycles built into them. A runner who runs without rest will damage their body, but a runner who over rests will become weak. The solution? To run and cause a little stress to the body, then have a period of rest where the body recuperates and makes itself stronger.
The secret to personal performance is to work in a similar way. If you work without breaks, you will burn out—mentally and physically. But if you unplug too often, your performance will weaken. So to maximize your output, you need to focus your working time in 90-minute chunks (“focus mode”) and follow up with 30-minute breaks (“stop mode”).
You should try to get your first “focus mode” completed as early in the day as you can—logging 90 minutes of focused, uninterrupted work first thing will give you something substantial to show with just one session.
Next up will be your first “stop mode”—that 30-minute period where you’re completely disconnected from work. The idea is to switch gears, to switch modes. So get away from your desk. Don’t even think about work. Unplug and unwind. When you come back to your work, you should feel recharged.
If you run the “focus mode” session four times a day, you’ll get six solid hours of work done, which is much better for you than working eight straight hours. And it’s definitely better than eight straight hours of being in the “mixed mode.”
Your thoughts will feel clearer because you’re focused. You’ll feel more energetic because you’re not wasting your energy in the mixed mode any more. And you’ll get more work done in less time.
Michael Maven is a marketing strategist, author of The Scientific Marketing Codex and Get Better Customers Now and the founder of the CatchAndRetain.com customer acquisition system. With profit enhancement firm Carter & Kingsley, he has helped to grow sales for companies like Amazon, IBM, eBay, 888.com and Match.com.