The Big Idea
When you focus on one thing at a time, you’ll feel more productive and happier.
Questions I Answer
- How can I feel less stressed at work?
- How can I be a better multitasker?
- How can I figure out when I’m most productive each day?
- Does our productivity peak at certain times?
Actions to Take
- Start adding time buffers into your schedule to give you a little breathing room.
Key Topics in the Show
Activity + Rest: The different and importance of your circadian rhythm and ultradian rhythm.
Why we need to stop taking pride in our multitasking, and how to start monotasking instead.
What ‘attention residue’ is, and how to eliminate it distracting you from beginning a new, focused task.
Learn how to easily track your time throughout the week with tips, examples and a free download.
Resources and Links
- Related Episodes: Episode 010: The Magic of Monotasking
Welcome to Productivity Paradox from inkwell Press, a podcast focused on finding success and happiness through the power of productivity. Each season, Tanya focuses on specific strategies to help you discover your own priorities and purpose. Season five is all about investing in you. You can also join Tanya for more interaction and support in her free Facebook group at inkWELLPress.com/group. Now, here’s your host, Tanya Dalton.
Hello, hello, everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host Tanya Dalton, owner of inkWELL Press and this is episode 59. Today’s episode is brought to you by Trunk Club, an easy and streamlined way to stay in style. I’ll be sharing later in the episode how I use Trunk Club. Let’s go ahead and talk about today’s topic, being protective of your time. People don’t often think about protecting their time as an investment in themselves, but it is. When we give ourselves good, solid blocks of focused time, we’re giving ourselves a gift. The most precious gift of all, isn’t that what time is? Yet, we feel obligated to give it away to anyone who asks or even interrupts.
That time is valuable, so it’s really important to understand how time works with our bodies so we can be protective of our key times and create a schedule that’s focused around our priorities. That’s really part of investing in yourself. Okay. First, I think you need to understand that we live in a universe that is characterized by rhythmic movement between activity and rest. Think about the daily rising and the setting of the sun, the ebbing and flowing of the tides, and the movement between the seasons. All organisms including humans follow rhythms. You might have heard of your circadian rhythm, which is a 24-hour period in which we live. We’re awake for about 16 to 18 hours, or in other words, we’re using energy during those times.
Then we’re asleep for seven to nine hours where we are renewing our energy. Within that circadian rhythm lives our ultradian rhythm, and that’s really the ebb and flow of our energy throughout the day. During the first part of this cycle, our heart rate, our hormone levels, our muscle tension, alertness and brainwave activity all increase. After about 90 to a 120 minutes, the body starts to crave rest and recovery. Our ultradian rhythm repeats throughout the day with these 90 to a 120-minute periods of high energy, and then about 20 minutes of rest and renewal. This is why we cannot work solidly for longer blocks of time. Our bodies simply are not designed to work that way.
If you’re insisting on blocking off a solid three or four-hour power session, you aren’t really doing more work, you’re just wearing your brain out. Think of this like sprinter Usain Bolt. He’s the fastest man in the world, right, and he’s fully on during his sprint. Then he strategically disengage and recovering when he’s not sprinting. He couldn’t possibly continue 24 hours a day at that same pace he uses during his races. He has a time of great energy and then a period of rest, and our bodies work the same way. We don’t typically think of work like this where we’re either on or we’re off. Instead, we’re always trying to constantly use and preserve the energy at the same time.
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We need instead to live a life where we’re either fully concentrated a 100% on the task at hand or fully disengaged from our work, and that is using your ultradian rhythm. There can’t really be this in between of doing some work or one more thing
or doing something halfway because you’re tired. Your body really needs those periods of energy and rest. That disease, one-more-thing-itis is so real. One more thing, just one more thing, we say it to ourselves. Other people say it to us. We’re always trying to cram our days full. When we’re done with those tasks, we find one more thing we have to do.
It’s like what we’ve discussed in the past with our to-do list, it feels easy to add more to our list, to add one more thing, that we forget, these things, they come with responsibilities and time commitments and energy requirements. This is why prioritization is the key. It allows you to weigh through all of your choices, all of the one more things, and decide if it’s something that really does need to be done by you. I want you to really keep that in mind. Because when you have a schedule that’s synched with your rhythms, life can be so much easier. We often think we have to work longer. That actually doesn’t add to your productivity. In fact, in most cases, working more hours is detrimental to the work that you do.
Your quality of work quickly declines when you are working too long of hours, and you’re fighting against that rhythm your body naturally has. When you’re invested in protecting your time and using your natural rhythms to your best abilities, you’re able to accomplish so much more. Take, for example, Professor Adam Grant. In 2013, he was the youngest professor to be awarded tenure at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. A year later, he was the youngest full professor there. This is because he produces so much research, publishes a large amount of academic articles, and he has best-selling books. Now, Professor Grant doesn’t do this by working longer hours.
He actually uses very precise focused blocks of time that he works on, and he uses that time very carefully and he protects it. In the large overview of the year, he batches his classes by teaching only in the fall semester. That way, he’s focused solely on teaching and teaching well, and then he’s really available to his students. It shows he’s one of the highest rated teachers at Wharton and he’s the winner of multiple teaching awards. Then in the spring and the summer, he dedicates his time to research in alternating periods of time when his door is open to students and colleagues. He has periods where he isolates himself to focus solely on a single research task without distractions.
During these isolated periods, which can last three or four days at a time for him, he turns on an out-of-office auto responder for email, so anyone emailing knows not to expect a response. Professor Grant feels it’s important to enforce this strict isolation until he completes his task. He’s protecting his time. He divides his writing into three tasks, analyzing data, writing a draft, and then editing. During each one of those stages, he’s fully focused only on that activity. When he’s doing his work, it’s laser focused and he’s able to get more done. Because when you focus on one thing at a time, you can be far more effective at producing high quality work in a shorter period of time than if you try to multi-task.
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You’ve heard me talking about mono-tasking before, but I feel like it really fits in well with this episode and I want to revisit this idea. Mono-tasking is the act of really honing in and focusing on one thing at a time. It’s the exact opposite of multi tasking. Now, I know a lot of us take a lot of pride in our multi-tasking abilities. Here’s the irony, if you think you’re good at multi-tasking, you’re probably much worse at it than those people who only consider themselves so-so at multi-tasking. That’s because, really, what we’ve talked about as multi-tasking is truly switch-tasking. We switch from one task to another, depleting our neural resources and our energy, and this is why our brain gets so tired. Your brain is like a train track.
Every time you’re trying to use that same section, you have to switch tracks. When you pay full attention to one task at a time, you tend to enjoy it more. Paying attention is how our brain decides whether we really want to do something or not.
The more we let ourselves get distracted, the more we feel the need to be distracted. We become almost internally addicted to checking things. You know what I’m talking about, when you pick up your phone, you check your email again even though you just checked it two minutes before? Mono-tasking helps you really focus and put away these distractions, and it really reinforces that difference between being effective and being efficient. When we multi-task, we’re focused on the time that a task takes, or being efficient.
When we focus solely on one task at a time, when we are mono-tasking, we’re focusing on effectiveness, and that brings out your highest quality of work. You’re not going to have to go back and correct as many errors if you’re being effective. If you’re focused solely on efficiency, you might actually end up spending more time, because you have to go back and correct your errors and see what gaps you have. Mono-tasking is a way of being more mindful and more intentional with the blocks of time you have during your day. To do this effectively, we have to be careful that we’re not lining up our blocks of time one right after the other. We’ll talk in just a little bit about planning fallacy, where you might not plan the right amount of time in the first place.
I want to focus first on attention residue. This is where your attention doesn’t immediately switch from one task to the next. It gets stuck still thinking about task number one while you’re working on task number two. Sophie Leroy is a business professor at the University of Minnesota. She introduced this concept of attention residue in 2009 when she did a study of people switching tasks back and forth. In her experiment, she had her subjects working on a set of word puzzles. In one group, she interrupted them in the middle of their word puzzle and told them they needed to move on to a new task, which in this case was reading resumes and making hypothetical hiring decisions.
For her other groups, she allowed the subjects to finish the word puzzles before giving them that second task. She asked questions between the two tasks to quantify the amount of residue left from the first task while they’re working on the second task. What she found was that people experiencing attention residue after switching tasks were likely to demonstrate poor performance on the next task. We don’t want to have that attention residue because it’s bleeding in to our other tasks. This is why it’s so important to give yourself some wide space between things that
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you’re doing. Before you switch from one thing to the next, you have to allow your attention to switch as well, so we need to protect that block of time from distraction.
A great example of this that you may experience in your own life, when you get an email or a message, especially one that you can’t read and answer right away, this creates some attention residue and harms your focus and effectiveness for the tasks you really want to work on. We do this a lot. We check our email, we’re checking our phone, we’re picking it up, we’re scrolling things, we’re looking at our texts that come in. What’s interesting is the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued in Unmodern Observations that we seek out distractions to keep ourselves busy mentally so we can avoid the big tasks, the big questions like whether we’re really living a meaningful life.
Okay. Yes, this is a little dark, but think about it, how often have you scrolled social media or cleaned your house or done literally anything possible to avoid working on a big project? Once we recognize distractions for what they are, an internal urge to get away from that task at hand, we can really begin to deal with them properly. You can set your intentions, and that is what this episode is all about. It’s one of the core values I shared with you last week, time is best spent on the things that are important to you and your goals. Harvard experts recommend that if you’re deliberate with your time and if we set a focus for our attention, we won’t get as caught up with distractions, so figure out what’s most important today for you to get done and recognize that.
Clarifying this will allow you to set a positive intention and move forward deliberately, really protecting the time so you’re focusing on what matters most. Don’t worry if you’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed by this idea, I’ve got a free tool I’m going to give you that’s going to help you figure out how you’re spending your time. First, I want to take just a second to remind you that today’s episode is brought to you by Trunk Club. As I’ve mentioned in that past, I’m really picky about who I talk about in my shows, so when I tell you that I love Trunk Club, you know it’s true. To be honest with you, I found them. I was looking for a solution for myself because I was feeling frustrated about my closet.
I want to stay in style and I want to have clothes that work really well for my life. Honestly, I don’t have time to spend on that. I want to spend my time doing other things. What I love about Trunk Club is how easy and streamlined it all is. I have a conversation with my stylist on the phone or via chat. I tell her what I have going on, what my budget is, and she pulls together a collection for me. No need to pull together a Pinterest board or anything like that. It’s simple and fast. I’d love to introduce you to my personal stylist. Just go to inkWELLPress.com/trunkclub and you can work with her as well. There’s no charge for my stylist if you purchase anything in your collection. It’s really easy and it’s basically free. I love that. Okay.
I want to talk to you a little bit about how you can really begin to see where you’re spending your day. When you track your time, you learn to better estimate your projects, and that reduces a lot of the chaos in your life. A lot of us live in chaos because we don’t properly estimate the amount of time things take. It’s estimated that organizations lose or waste about 11% of their project budgets due to poor estimates and bad planning. If we apply this statistic to your productivity, that means
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we would find an extra 18 and a half hours in the week if we just have a better sense of how long things are going to take. Now, this statistic may not apply evenly like this, but it’s still a good point to think about.
This is a great way to find these little gaps and spaces in your day that you can use to your best of your abilities. This estimation problem is planning fallacy which I mentioned earlier. We tend to think of ourselves as far more productive than we actually are, so we grossly underestimate how long projects take us. When researchers wanted to see this planning fallacy in action, they conducted an experiment. They asked students for an estimate of when they would complete an academic project. They were asked to assign a confidence level to when they’d have their project done, 50% confident, 75% confident, 99% confident, and so on.
At the point of time when students said they were 99% certain they would have the project done, only 45% of the students had actually completed the project. That means half of those people, more than half of those people had underestimated their time drastically, because they felt certain they would be done. I’m willing to bet that those students who actually had completed their projects probably had set aside focused time to do the work. Now that we’ve talked about your natural rhythms, with your ultradian rhythm and your circadian rhythm, we’ve talked about planning fallacy and attention residue, I want to talk about effectively finding these blocks of time in your day that you can have this focused work. Back in episode 23, I had an interview with Laura Vanderkam, and she’s done a lot of research on time tracking through her blog and in her book.
She talks a lot about why it’s so important to see what you’re doing with your time to understand how you’re spending it. As she says, how can you spend your time better if you don’t even know how you’re spending it now? Laura recommends that you jot down a note or two every half hour about what you’re doing for about a week. That will allow you to see your activities at a glance and where your time is really going. You could even make a note if you wanted to of what energizes you, what did you accomplish and what you feel like. I’ve got a little bit of an easier solution. I have a free download that you can grab if you go to inkWELLPress.com/ podcast and look under episode 59.
I have a time tracker there, and you’ll be able to color code your activities throughout your day for a week, and that will give you a clear picture of how your time is spent. You could make notes if you wanted to, but color coding is so much easier. Basically, you assign a color to different activities. Let’s say you do blue for sleeping activities, and red is for important level work, and green is for social media, and black is for exercise stuff, and so on. I want you to assign a different color to the different categories of tasks that you do throughout your day. What you’re going to do is you’re simply going to stop and color in the appropriate color on your time tracker. You’ll begin to really see how your day is spent, where you’re spending most of your time. You’ll likely even begin to see that ultradian rhythm in action.
There will be peaks where there’s large amount of tasks being done, and valleys where you didn’t do much of anything at all. I don’t want you to mistake this as a tool to get rid of those valleys. As we mentioned earlier, that’s not possible. This is how your body naturally works. We just want to be able to recognize this highs and
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lows in order to use them better so we can focus our time and really begin to be protective of these key working times for ourselves. Here’s what’s interesting, you might be surprised of what you’ll learn. For me, I learned that my peak productivity is high, my first one starts about 4:45 in the morning, and I am not a morning person. I don’t always wake up this early in the morning, but when I have a lot of things going on, I do get up.
I find that when I’m really deliberate and I focus my energy during this 4:45 block of time, I get almost a full day’s work done before my family’s even awake. You might be surprised of what you’ll see. No matter what, you’ll discover even when you’re really busy, there’s probably times that you’re devoting things that you care less about that you could get rid of so you could spend time on the important tasks. Knowing how you’re spending your time is so powerful. It gives you the courage you need to make the decision to really focus on your priorities. Once you begin to see where your time is used best and where it’s wasted, you can begin to really invest in yourself during these pockets of focused time. I hope that download helps you.
Again, you can grab it at inkWELLPress.com/podcast under episode 59. In this Friday’s mini episode, the week ender, I’m going to be talking to you about a concept about how you use your time and how you may end up using more time than you really need. You can look for that on Friday. Next week, I have a special treat for you, because I have the most amazing guest who I cannot wait to share with you, my friend Marshawn Evans Daniels. She has written an amazing book that I cannot wait for you to hear about. I really think this book is so powerful and is going to make a big difference in how you invest in yourself.
In the meantime, I want to encourage you to sign up for my newsletter. When we have an episode like we did today where we have a download, those will be emailed to you automatically when you’re on my newsletter list. You can sign up for that at inkWELLPress.com/podcastemail. Once you’re on that, every time I have a download, you’ll be sent it automatically. All right. Until next time. Happy planning.
Thanks for listening to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press. To join Tanya’s free group, simply go to inkWELLPress.com/group.