If you want to be more productive, more effective, and get the really important stuff done, stop for five minutes or so at your decision points a few times a day and think -- really think -- about how you can best spend your mental energy and time.
That advice comes from Josh Davis, chief scientist at the Mentora Institute and author of Two Awesome Hours. Why is it so important to stop and think for five minutes? As Davis explains, our brains are seriously good at conserving their own energy. That's not a bad thing -- saving up mental energy gives us more power to solve difficult problems when we need to and has doubtless helped us survive over the millennia. But it means that the vast majority of our day-to-day activities are so governed by routine that we really don't think about them.
Take brushing your teeth. I don't know about you, but for me it goes something like this: I put toothpaste on my toothbrush and turn it on, always beginning my brushing routine at the upper right corner of my mouth. Three minutes later, the toothbrush turns itself off and my teeth are clean, but I have no real recollection of how that happened. It's a completely automatic process that runs almost subconsciously while my conscious mind wanders away to the project I'm working on or my weekend plans.
Not everything we do is quite so automatic, but almost all of it -- from checking our email to getting lunch to writing a proposal or an article like this one -- happens by habit, running along a well-worn neural pathway. Your brain uses these pathways to repeat tasks you've done before without putting too much thought or decision making into them.
This means that once you start on something you will likely keep going until the routine has run its course, or until you are forced to stop, perhaps because you have an appointment or because someone has interrupted you. If nothing happens to stop you, you may suddenly look up at the clock three hours later and realize that you've spent all that time answering emails instead of writing the pitch that might land you a big customer and that you swore you would send out today.
Why decision points matter.
If this sounds at all familiar, Davis has a suggestion for you. Identify and make the most of your decision points -- the few moments in a day when you aren't operating by routine and can make smart choices about how best to spend your next chunk of time. When do these moments happen? Before you start work at the beginning of the day is one such moment. When you complete a task and before you start on a new one. When you return to your desk after taking a break. And whenever you are interrupted, which you may dislike, but which Davis describes as "a gift."
Unfortunately, it's a gift you may feel like you want to return. When someone interrupts our work flow, most of us don't say "thank you." Instead, we get grumpy. We hurry back to what we were doing and try to pick up where we left off, in part because the feeling of being jarred out of our routine and the sense that we're getting nothing done are both highly unpleasant. The same is often true when we finish a task.
At those moments when you're not in a routine, you become more fully conscious, Davis says. That usually means that you're conscious of all the tasks you have left undone. It can be an uncomfortable feeling. "Most people I know, when they have a lot on their plate, get kind of anxious or feel guilty when they become aware of time passing without their making progress," Davis writes. "Precisely because our decision points can be uncomfortable, we have a tendency to try to get them over with quickly."
That's a shame, he says, because when you rush right into the next task without really stopping to think about it, you raise the odds that you'll waste time and effort on something that isn't really important, or isn't the best use of your time.
"Aha! This is a decision point."
So -- right now -- make some plans for how you'll handle your next decision point. The important first step is to recognize that moment when it happens. Something has interrupted you, or you've just concluded a meeting, and you suddenly find yourself unoccupied. Chances are, you're also fully alert. Stop and say to yourself, "Aha! This is a decision point."
Now, plan to spend some time in that decision point, in that alert state, maybe as much as five minutes. That may feel like a lot to you, but as Davis says, even a really good day will have, at most, around 10 decision points. If you took five minutes for each one, you'd still spend a total of only 50 minutes on them all. That's a very worthwhile investment in taking back conscious control of your own time.
What should you do during those five minutes? Begin by getting some distance from your work -- literally. Get up and walk away from your desk and maybe out of your office. Step outside for a minute or two, if you can, and breathe some fresh air. Check in with how you're feeling physically and address those needs -- drink a glass of water or do a couple of shoulder stretches, for example.
Now, ask yourself: "What is the best use of my time right now?" And really think about the answer. Maybe it's the right time to tackle that big new project you keep putting off. Or maybe not, because you have a meeting in 30 minutes which won't give you enough time to make any meaningful progress. If it's late in the day and you're feeling tired, it might be a good time to tackle some mundane work, such as answering emails or filling out paperwork. Or maybe it's early, you're feeling fresh, and you have about two hours ahead of you with no other commitments, making this the perfect time to dive into something important and challenging that will require you to be at your creative best.
Only you can know which of these answers is the right one and which task will make optimum use of the time and mental energy you have right now. But by taking a few moments to sit with the discomfort of doing nothing and really think about what you should do next, you're giving yourself the opportunity to be as productive and as effective as you possibly can be in this moment. That's well worth five minutes of your time.