Feel like you need to get more done each day and hour? Productivity tips are only a Google search away. Those are important, but what you need is quality, not quantity. This isn't about being merely efficient. You need to be effective.
Josh Davis, director of research at the NeuroLeadership Institute and a consultant, has a new book called Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done. You can apply neuroscience and psychological insights to be more effective during critical times--maybe a few hours--in which you bring the best of you and your abilities to the task. A relatively small number of techniques can open quality time to tackle what can make or break your day.
Here are some of Davis's main takeaways:
1. Recognize your decision points.
The human brain likes predictability and, when possible, will opt to work on learned behaviors that it can do without too much concentration. When you move between tasks, your brain will want to select what is easiest. There are times during the day when one task or function ends, whether filling out a report or brushing your teeth. For a moment, you become self-aware. At that moment, step back and decide what really needs to be done in your next available block of time. That allows you to choose the truly important task. (I wouldn't be surprised if the power of a to-do list prioritized by importance is that it helps you automatically shift into what should be the next most important item of the day.)
2. Manage mental energy.
All work requires energy. Mental work, which makes up much of what is done at many jobs, requires mental energy. And yet, we don't act as if it does. You wouldn't think of spending a morning lifting weights only to face an afternoon of framing houses. Your body would be tired out. But you might spend much of the early part of your day making small decisions, cold calling, networking, tracking deadlines, or scheduling projects. Guess what? You just burnt through much of your available energy. Tackle creative work and important decisions early in the day, before you have a chance to burn through cognitive resources. Push as much else as you can, including answering emails, to the latter half of the day. When facing a big day, make as many of the decisions you can the evening before. Take a 10-minute nap if you're tired and consider what emotions your schedule will trigger, so you can try to manage emotional energy as well.
3. Stop fighting distractions.
Eliminating distractions would seem a must. And some of that is important. Arrange your working environment to minimize noise. Turn off devices that will only lure you away into useless expenditures of time. However, some mind wandering can help you in being creative or for long-term planning. If you've been concentrating on a challenging task, switch to something only mildly demanding that doesn't require your "working memory," a part of cognition that processes new and existing information necessary for reasoning. So, notice colors and shapes in a piece of art or your surroundings or straighten your desk. (Avoid tasks such as trying to solve a difficult puzzle or handling email, because they can require too much working memory.) Also, practice mindful attention. When your thoughts drift away from something, even reading a book, gently direct them back without scolding yourself. It helps you become more present and gives you practice in letting distracting thoughts go and bringing yourself back to what is at hand.
4. Leverage the mind-body connection.
Use exercise and diet to clear your mind for a block of more effective work. If you have an important meeting or a critical creative session coming up, take a brisk half-hour walk or briefly hit the gym for a short period before the time you need to be sharp. Carbohydrates can offer a short-term boost, but then you can crash. Instead, break up breakfast or lunch into two portions, eaten a couple of hours apart, which helps even blood sugar. Eat sensibly, with a mix of vegetables, fruits, protein, and good fats. Drink water and keep doses of caffeine small.
5. Make your workplace work for you.
If you work in an office owned by someone else, you may not have much control over the aspects of physical design that can influence your concentration. Still, you can close your door or wear noise-canceling headphones. Don't listen to music, talk radio, or the television when you need to concentrate, unless you need to be heavily creative, in which case some background noise like that in a coffee shop or from playing music can be helpful. Work at home or some other isolated place when the demand for results is high, if you are able to. Turn on more lights or use bulbs that have more of the blue spectrum in them--unless, again, you need to be creative, in which case, having things a bit darker than usual can help. Clear clutter from your desk if you have to concentrate.