With the coming of the information age a fad called multi-tasking was also born. Somehow it was perceived efficient to be able to do many things at the same time; read your emails, talk with your spouse, eat bubblegum while walking… The reason I call multi-tasking a fad is that research shows that multi-tasking is actually detrimental to productivity, and apparently can be worse on your IQ than pot smoking. 🙂 How about that?
Instead of concentrating on doing many different things at the same time, you should choose a single important task and immerse yourself completely in it. This approach has been paraded in multiple productivity blogs and books, including here at Lateral Action. Indeed, the real power of human mind is the ability to focus on single things for extended periods of time. When and if that focus is interrupted, it may take up to 25 minutes to regain it. And if those interruptions happen multiple times a day, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see how disastrous this is to productivity.
In order to be able to take advantage of this remarkable power of focus, you need to first eliminate distractions. This means finding an environment that does not interrupt you, putting your mobile phone on silent and away from sight, closing facebook, email, twitter, and instant messaging programs.
Image by Chris Halderman
Ultradian Rhythms and Peak Performance
I assume most people who follow Lateral Action are aware of the importance of single-tasking and being able to focus on one specific thing without interruptions. However, these concepts and their benefits can be taken even further with the use of Ultradian Rhythms, meaning natural bodily rhythms that occur at intervals of less than 24 hours. In practice, most people experience this by feeling energized for an hour or two, and then rather quickly their minds start to wander, they feel drowsy, and unfocused. This is evident in feeling full of energy in the morning at work, getting things done, but in the afternoon you suddenly find it hard to concentrate on anything.
I myself experience Ultradian Rhythms very powerfully after work and late at night. Everytime I get home from work I feel too spent to do anything, but about an hour later I’m already feeling a lot better and find myself engaged in some activity. Then, around 8-9pm I am tired enough to fall asleep, but because it’s not that late yet I struggle to stay awake. After 10pm I’m again so full of energy that it’s impossible to even think about going to bed. The trick is to learn to harness these periods of high energy for productive purposes, and also to learn to wind down, relax, and replenish your energy during the “down” times.
How to Harness Your Ultradian Rhythms for Maximum Effectiveness
Image by Creativity103
For most people Ultradian Rhythms occur at intervals of 90-120 minutes throughout the whole day, during which they feel energized and are able to get things done. This is followed by a 30 minute stretch of low energy levels. Then the cycle starts again and you’re on your way towards another period of peak performance. How you can take advantage of this, is to set a timer when you start your work to, say, 50 minutes and use those 50 minutes to fully engage in one important activity. After the 50 minutes are up, set the timer for 10 minutes during which you can take a break from whatever you were doing. Then set yourself another 50 minute block of uninterrupted time, after which you can enjoy a longer 30 minute break. The ability to focus is like a muscle, and by training it this way you actually become better at it, and focusing on whatever you are engaged in becomes easier over time.
However, being great at immersing yourself in the task at hand is only one side of the coin. It is just as important to actively disengage yourself during the breaks as it is to focus on doing something. Being able to unfocus this way is a hugely unrated skill, but a complete disengagement from the task at hand is at the heart of being able to rest and properly replenish your energy levels.
There are three channels of activity that we humans have. Those are the cognitive, the physical, and the emotional. When you are taking a break, it’s important to change channel. If you’ve been engaged in an activity that requires a lot of thinking and brainwork, the break should disengage you from the cognitive channel. This can be done by e.g. going for a walk, doing some yoga, meditating, playing with your children, or even taking a 20 minute powernap, which happens to be my personal favorite.
A great way to consciously engage the emotional channel is through music. It has the wonderful quality of invoking our emotions. In a way, we don’t play music, but music plays us. Choose a few songs that resonate strongly with you, turn up to the volume on your speakers or headphones, close your eyes, relax, and simply experience the music flow through you. As an example, Life is Wonderful by Jason Mraz never fails to put a smile on my face, making me feel grateful just to be alive, and When Things Explode by UNKLE and Ian Astbury is simply epic.
It is reassuring to know, that even if you are tired and spent now, you will feel energized again after the break – but you need to let yourself to take the break. And this may be harder than it sounds. Especially for workaholics.
By timing the blocks of uninterrupted time you are already making a pact with yourself; agreeing that this period will be used in full engagement in one important task. So whenever you get those impulses to check instant messaging, email, or some news sites, you can say to yourself “later, I will do that during the break.” Or you can even assign an hour a day for things that require multi-tasking, such as making some phone calls, responding to email, or anything else that does not require full focus and consists of small tasks that can be batched together.
Energy Is More Important than Time
The most important message here is, that it’s not the time you have allotted for doing something, but how much energy you have for doing it that matters. And for this to work, you need to be aware of how you feel. You need to understand that your body needs rest instead of violently pushing through that feeling by taking yet another cup of coffee or eating a powerbar. By acknowledging and accepting that you have these natural bodily rhythms of high and low energy, you can take comfort from the fact that after taking a break you will be full of energy again, and can continue your work.
What I want to also emphasize is, that you really need to learn to listen to your body. Even if you use the 50+10/50+30 minute system – or any other one – you can never be sure at which point of the Ultradian Cycle you are when you start the timer in the beginning of a workday, or after returning from a lunch. So when you feel drowsy, your mind starts to wander, and it seems difficult to focus, take that 30 minute break with full understanding that the feeling of drowsiness is just temporary. And after the break you can start your timer again from the beginning.
Over to You
Do you notice your energy rising and falling during the day? How does this affect your work?
Have you ever used a timer to focus your attention and boost your productivity?
What kind of methods are you using to “change channels” or otherwise take your mind off the things at hand?
About the Author: Sami Paju is a Finnish blogger who studies how the human body and mind works, and how that knowledge can be used for greater personal growth, health, fitness, and living a happy life. You can find him at samipaju.com and on Twitter.