Rest and relaxation are good: coasting is not.
Either take a deliberate break, or get on with making a difference.
High levels of productivity require energy, concentration and willpower. And for those, you need the magic effects of a good night’s sleep. Towards the end of the day, unwind slowly, reduce light levels, avoid stimulants, and get an early night. That way, tomorrow will be a productive day.
You will be at your most creative at the ends of the day,hen your logical brain is not quite at full steam. Some (like me) find first thing in the morning is best for creative thinking. Others find their inspiration comes most often while winding down. Schedule some blank-paper time to day-dream, doodle, and jot down ideas.
Your will power and concentration are at their peak when you are well rested and properly fed. After your morning creativity hit and some breakfast, then put in a good solid chunk of high-quality demanding work. For most people this means the first 60-90 minutes after getting to work. Don’t fritter it away on low-concentration tasks like emails.
Scheduling your day has the biggest positive impact on your ability to feel (and be) in control of your time. Don’t only schedule meetings: put all of your important tasks into your diary with clear time slots. Make them realistic: not so long you can coast, but enough time to do a good job without feeling stressed.
Take the thinking out of as much of the simple stuff as possible, to leave more of your mental reserve for the more demanding stuff. Roy Baumeister describes willpower as like a battery – it depletes during the day. Save it for what matters by setting up systems and routines for the easy things, and so reducing your need to concentrate on them.
My own routine
I typically start my day at 5am with a cup of tea and the World Service. By 5:30, I am doing my first task – often the planning or design of a seminar, talk, book chapter, course or article. I’ll start work on the less-creative, high-willpower doing bit when I have finished, then break for 30-60 minutes to have breakfast with my daughter and then shower. After that, I am fed and fresh and ready for a good solid stint of doing. Around 9am, I’ll look at my email for the first time, with three hours of work in the bag.
I’m still a project manager at heart. So I recommend you put gaps in your diary to allow for over-runs of tasks that prove trickier than you expected, dealing with the unexpected, and taking a proper break between activities. Use the break to get up, stretch, move around and get a glass of water. If you work in a fluorescent, air-con shell, at least once a day, get outside for an hour of daylight and fresh air.
You cannot be productive trying to do two or more things at once; you can only be busy. Do one thing at a time and concentrate on getting it done to the right standard, before starting something else. Your brain is built to work best that way.
Do you have times of the day when your brain slows down and can’t focus well? Of course you do; we all do. Those are the times when you should be doing the low concentration stuff like checking emails, sorting things out, and doing routine admin tasks. Of course, if you have the luxury of taking a nap… do so.
You will be at your most productive when you decide to take pride in what you do, to do it really well, and to savour the experience of doing it. I have a routine I learned from a friend (Rich) of selecting the very best materials before I start a task I want to focus on, and clearing my desk. In my case, it is often the right notebook and a nice pen.
At the end of the day, make your last routine about clearing away the day, so hat tomorrow starts with a blank workplace slate. If you can, clear down your emails too. Most of us cannot, but an innovation I have introduced into my own routine this year, with great success, is once a month, on a Friday afternoon, to create inbox zero – an empty email inbox before the weekend.