We are expected to quickly respond to things such as email and personal messages, but we also need to do focused work, for instance when we need to write an important document. We can manage to do both if we set up our day so that it fits our activities and our rhythm. Follow these five steps to find out how.
Do you also get drawn into the craziness of being available all the time? A study by Jackson and colleagues shows that the typical person checks email every five minutes and then, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking the email.
This leads to worse performance for almost all of us; a study by Watson and Strayer shows that only 2% of the population can pay attention to two things at the same time. When we hear this, most of us think we belong to that 2%. Sorry to break it to you, but we probably don’t.
As much as our culture idolizes multitasking, for almost all of us trying to do many things at the same time leads us to perform worse. It looks like we’ll need to put our beloved multitasking to rest and focus on one thing at a time, the old-fashioned way.
We can do both: allow time for focused, uninterrupted work and also respond to external demands. Here’s how.
1. Do one thing at a time
Since we’re not good at multitasking, we need to do what we do well: do one thing at a time. Choose one task to work on for the next 30 minutes of one hour. And commit to it. Set a timer and begin.
Make sure you eliminate distractions during this time. Also close your email app, close any messaging apps, put your phone on silent and out of reach. Close the extra tabs on your browser; they attract your attention, and you may find yourself clicking on them without even noticing. If you habitually open your browser and end up distracting yourself, you can turn off the wifi on your device or even turn it off in your house if you’re working at home.
Observe yourself and learn about your own tendencies. What attracts your attention? What distraction is so irresistible that you end up pursuing it? If you notice what distracts you, you know what you need to address, and then you can come up with a way to minimize it.
2. Set aside blocks of time for certain activities
Make sure you’ll have time for all those other things that are calling your attention. If you keep wondering what’s in your email, schedule time to look at email after you’ve worked on your important task. If you want to check social media, make sure you give yourself 10 minutes to do that after your focused time period is finished.
One way to do this is to schedule specific time blocks for certain activities. For instance:
Image credit: Marisha Manahova
Another way is to pair two activities: after you’ve completed the first one, you can do the second one. For example:
“After I’ve worked on my article for 45 minutes,
Then I will look at social media for 10 minutes.”
Knowing that you will get to the activities that are attracting your attention puts your mind at peace. Even if you’re not responding to your emails right now, you will get to them in a hour.
3. Figure out when you have the most energy
It is also important to figure out when is a good time for you to do focused work. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to figure this out.
On a free day, at what time do you wake up? This doesn’t refer to the day after you’ve been out all night. Rather, if you’ve had a few days when you could go to sleep and get up whenever you wanted, what does your wake up time end up being?
That is your natural wake up time. After that, the body has some sleep inertia (i.e., remaining sleepiness) which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has lifted, then your peak energy starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:
Image credit: Marisha Manahova
In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should schedule your main task for the day sometime in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.
4. Set your main task for the day
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, each day should have a main task, also known as an anchor task. This is the most important (and often most difficult) thing you need to do that day. It should be prioritized over other tasks, and you should devote uninterrupted time to it during your peak energy window.
5. Prepare for the next day
At the end of each workday, spend 10 minutes planning the next day at work. Look at your calendar and at your tasks for the next day and decide what would be the best time distribution. What will your anchor task be? Schedule 1.5-2 hours to work on it during your peak energy window. What other 1-3 tasks will you need to work on? These are smaller tasks (i.e., not your anchor task) that still need to get done but are not as important and don’t demand as much attention as your anchor task. Schedule time for those either during your peak energy window or outside it.
Also, schedule time for email, messages, and other external demands. It usually works well to have two time blocks scheduled for that, for instance, one hour right before lunch and one hour at the end of the workday.
Putting it all together
To put this all together, you can take the following steps:
- Start by figuring out when your peak energy window is;
- For each day, decide on an anchor (i.e., main) task;
- Schedule time to work on the anchor task during your peak energy window;
- Schedule time to work on smaller tasks during other times of the day;
- Schedule blocks of time for email, messages, external demands, social media, or whatever else tends to call for your attention.
Once you’ve planned out your day, all you need to do is set the timer and get going.