Is this the secret of maximum productivity?
I recall years ago reading an article about productivity. It was trying to figure out the amount of hours that should go into a work week to maximize productivity.
Now, in our #Hustle, #Grind, and #CrushIt world, many people assume more is better when it comes to work.
But there was a study cited in this article that may contradict that assumption.
The study was an analysis of productivity at some big consulting firm. It analyzed the hours spent working per week, and how that related to output.
It found a U-curve.
Naturally, part-timers — people who work around 20 hours per week — had trouble matching the productivity of those working full-time — around 40 hours.
But this may shock you. Because the people who worked 60 hours per week ALSO had trouble matching the productivity of those working a 4-hour week.
In other words, more hours over 40 actually led to DECREASED productivity, across the workforce studied.
The peak productivity range was in working around 35 to 45 hours per week, with the highest productivity actually just under 40 hours.
The author of the article guessed that maybe people who spend more hours in the office do so at the expense of sleep, or relaxation and social activities that could help them recharge. Or, perhaps, their productivity is a reflection of the downside of Parkinson’s Law, that work fills the hours given, and with more hours they simply take longer to do their work.
Ever since reading this, I’ve actually valued that I do not push myself to work nonstop.
I do work a lot. And like many knowledge workers and entrepreneurs, I’m working when I’m not working — because it’s hard to turn my mind off work 100%.
But I’m absolutely aware that the time spent NOT working plays a critical role in helping me be more productive.
This is true in so much of human performance…
Humans are NOT machines, designed to run nonstop…
Quite the opposite, in fact.
In most of nature, you’ll find most of life follows this pattern. There are large periods of minimal activity, followed by occasional periods of high activity.
We’re exactly the same.
And one area this is becoming incredibly obvious is working out.
It used to be believed that good cardio health came from endurance exercise (such as extended jogging), and good strength came from resistance training (such as weightlifting).
But all the exercise science of the last few years is pushing us in a brand new direction.
At the extremes, it’s important to train to extremes. If you want to prepare your body to run a marathon, you have to practice running long distances. If you want to do competitive power lifting, you have to lift like crazy.
But for most of us, what leads to the best health and functional mix of cardio and strength is a variation on high-intensity interval training, or HIIT.
Basically, do exercises near the top of your capacity, for a short burst, then pause, then repeat.
I do a variation on Tabata intervals that are essentially a form of high-intensity interval training. For my workouts, I have an interval timer that is programmed for 19 consecutive periods of 20 seconds of work, followed by 10 seconds of rest. That’s 9 1/2 minutes total (basically, the length of the song Pushit, by Tool, which I listen to while working out).
This is a remarkably effective way to push my body near its limit and get a complete workout in under 10 minutes. Since starting these, my cardiovascular health and overall fitness have improved dramatically. I’m in as good of shape as I’ve been in all of my adult life, and probably very close to my peak condition while playing hockey as a teenager.
It’s also important to take rest days, no matter what kind of workouts you do.
When I did my pull-up challenge to work up to 100 pull-ups in a single day, my muscles very quickly fatigued. I’d been doing pull-ups every day, increasing by 2 per day. Within a couple weeks, I couldn’t do anymore. By switching it up to take the weekends off, I built in a recovery period and was able to get to 100.
You’ll find it’s the same no matter how you work your body. By intentionally taking time off from your most intense work, you’ll have more capability when you work out next.
Why am I going into so much detail on working out and physical health?
Because mental work is very much the same.
Our brains are built to work in intervals…
There is nothing in all of human history that prepares us for long, extended periods of mental labor. Not hunting and gathering. Not farming.
The human species has a couple million years (not counting our primate ancestry) of NOT needing the ability to hustle and grind for 60, 70, 80 hours a week — or even 8 hours straight.
It’s only in the last couple hundred years that the way we work changed very much at all… And only in the last few decades that we’ve started to see the kind of work expectations that we’re so familiar with today.
Like physical exercise, your brain will be more productive if you honor this.
Rather than expecting yourself to work non-stop for 8, 9, 10 hours or more per day, consider how taking breaks can give you a little recharge.
Some people take naps — I find that difficult.
But even stepping away can be quite useful.
I like to take a walk around the block. Occasionally, I’ll just close my eyes and breathe for a small break. I actually didn’t get to exercise this morning, so I’m going to use physical exercise as a mental break after I’m done writing this.
You choose what works for you. The idea though is that after an intense period of focused work, your brain needs a break. So go do something that doesn’t involve a lot of thinking.
(This is actually a benefit to the mandatory breaks labor law imposes on shift work. I’m not going to look it up, but I recall it’s something like this… Every shift of 3 hours or more must have a 15-minute break. Every shift of 6 hours or more must also include a 30-minute lunch. Every 8-hour shift must include two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch. There’s a reason for this — and a benefit to it.)
There’s also a popular method called Pomodoros. The name comes from a timer shaped like a Pomodoro Tomato. To follow this method, start by setting a timer for 25 minutes. While the timer is running, focus exclusively on one task, working rapidly toward its completion. When the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break, where you don’t work at all. Then, repeat. You can also change the interval (50 minutes on, 10 off is another popular one). But the idea is the same — it’s all about the intervals.
Copywriter Eugene Schwartz — one of the best and most successful copywriters ever to have lived — used a variation on this as well. He preferred to work for 33 minutes and 33 seconds, before taking a quick break.
No matter how you do it, the idea of working in intervals — and importantly, NOT working in between — can make you more productive.
One more tip…
Take vacations and unplug…
It’s also critical for your work to take time completely off and out of your normal schedule.
Become less available.
Be less plugged-in.
Perhaps even go off grid.
Go out in nature, if possible.
Get out of the #grind.
Taking extended vacations has a recharging effect.
I’m actually an Audible member and every month you can get two free Audible Originals with your membership. This month they have a free audiobook called The 3-Day Effect, which documents research into how 3 days in nature reduces anxiety, enhances creativity, and improves your overall well-being.
It’s how humans work. It’s how we’re made to work.
We work hard, and then we do not work, before we work again.
And in the end, that’s how we accomplish things.
So with that, I’m signing off until June 3rd, when our offices will reopen and I’ll have more marketing and business breakthroughs for you!
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,
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