“I get to the arena 5 hours before a game to start prepping—mentally, physically, and spiritually” —Lebron James
The King, as James is affectionally called, has a pre-game routine that seem a bit excessive, but elite athletes are masters at putting themselves in position to perform at their best. While there’s plenty of fun and joy sprinkled throughout, they know how to show up and do the work. They don’t just role up to the arena and hope for the best, they get themselves ready go. When the gun goes off, when the whistle is blown, when they’re asked to run a drill at practice, they are deliberate, intentional, and focused.
Counter that to how many of us approach our workday. Distraction, interruptions, multitasking, and lots of mindless and frenetic activity that isn’t productive are often the norm. In more intellectual or business related pursuits, we seldom approach our most important work like a high-level athlete. We treat it more like the new jogger. We blast music, hoping to distract ourselves long enough so that we can simply make it through that day’s work.
We are inefficient and unfocused. And it’s not entirely our fault. An athlete’s environment is often set up to maximize their attention and energy: from the practice fields without phones to coaches instructing them and helping them to keep their heads in the game. In the workplace, our surroundings are too often optimized for distraction and mindless work.
We end up getting really good at replying to e-mails and bouncing from meeting to meeting, but not much else. We’re often given hacks or planners to help with our productivity, but these fall short. Here’s what science says actually works.
We can divide the following concepts into three broad areas: focusing, recovering, and using our environment. Focusing refers to doing the work itself. Recovering is what allows us to refill our energy bucket, to make sure that we have the capacity to show up consistently. Using our environment helps us to design our surroundings to promote our desired states.
1. Work In Intervals
Our attention stores are limited. Our cognitive capacities fatigue. The analogy to physical fatigue works well here. Sure, we can go all out off of the starting line, but we’ll gradually (and sometimes dramatically) slow down as our body runs low on energy.
Athletes perform interval training to get in more quality work during a single session. They run a mile, take a short break, then repeat it again, over and over. This allows them to sustain higher speeds than if they simply continued without a break.
The same holds true with our cognitive capacity. Research shows that working hard for anywhere from 25 to 90 minutes with a 5 to 15 minute break is optimal. This finding has been replicated in studies examining employees in a meat-processing plant (on average, 51 minutes on followed by 9 minutes off), agricultural workers (75 minutes on followed by 15 minutes off), and computer programmers (50 minutes on followed by 7 minutes off).
2. Minimize Negative Distractions
During important training sessions athletes aren’t listening to music and they are not on their phones; they are focused on the task at hand, absorbed by it. The same goes for your deep work.
Turn your phone off. Put it away. Throw it outside. Whatever works.
One study found that just having your phone in the same room as you significantly decreases your ability to pay attention to what was in front of you. Another study found that having your phone in sight while having a conversation means lower levels of connection with your conversation partner.
If your phone is visibly on the table or in your pocket, your brain is monitoring it, waiting for it to buzz or flash. You’ve trained your brain to do so. Ever experienced phantom vibrations? I rest my case. Out of sight, out of mind.
3. Know Your Pattern
Scientists refer to those who are most alert in the morning as larks and those who are most alert in the evening as owls. When do you do your best creative work, mindless work, deep work, and physical work? It varies person by person.
Figure out your pattern. Everyone’s pattern is different. We do our best deep focused work when our energy levels are high. For most of us, that’s sometime in the morning. Don’t waste your high energy work doing more superficial work, like answering emails.
4. Minimize The Meeting Linger Effect
Something I commonly see with my executive coaching clients is the lingering effects of meetings. Executives have meetings scattered throughout the day. It takes 5-15 minutes to switch out of meeting mode and into deep work mode. If you’ve only got 30-45 minutes between meetings, you get caught in a losing battle of task switching.
5. Routines Are Great, But Be Flexible
Routines are fantastic. Establish them. But there is a danger in becoming overly attached to the routine. Let’s borrow from sports again. Almost all athletes have routines, but they also have flexibility. They have to. Take the Olympic athlete. They are used to starting their warm-up at a certain time, going through a standard series of exercises. This works great—until the Olympic games, when thanks to TV, they are stuck in a tiny room for 40 minutes before their event, unable to do much besides some high knees in a corner of the room. They’ve got to pivot.
The first rule of routines is to develop one and stick with it. The second rule is to cultivate the capacity to easily release from it.
Have routines that get you in the right state of mind to perform. But don’t be so reliant on writing at a specific time in a certain coffee shop that you can’t write anywhere else or at any other time.
6. Take Your Online Work Offline
Writing by hand can help us comprehend and remember work better. It allows us to wrestle with ideas in a different way. When stuck, ditch the computer or tablet and turn to the notebook. For book projects, I have a dedicated notebook where I wrestle with ideas. Whenever I get stuck I shut my computer and go to the notebook.
7. Separate Your Deep Work from Your Collaborative work
Open spaces work well when we are in collaborate or creative mode. A little bit of ambient noise actually enhances creative collaboration. Open spaces fail, however, for deep-focused work. We need quiet space. Know what kind of work you’re doing. Create the space to do it.
8. Stop Playing Slot-Machines
Most of us take the wrong kind of breaks. We reach for our phone or scroll on social media. But that’s about the equivalent of walking into a casino and playing slots and hoping we feel energized and recovered.
Instead, we need to choose items that allow our mind and attention to recover. What works well for breaks:
- Experiencing awe
- Walks or moving
- Closing your eyes, even if only for a few minutes
- Socializing with friends
9. Get Outside
Evidence suggests that being in nature not only restores our attention, but it enhances our problem solving problems and boosts our creativity. Nature tends to put our mind in a relaxed alertness state.
When nature is nearby, good things happen.
One study found that more green space nearby meant greater resilience to stress and lower levels of rumination and anxiety.
10. Move Your Body Often
Mild physical activity increases alertness just enough, while occupying your mind with an ingrained task. This frees it up to wrestle with the hard stuff.
In a study titled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs,” researchers found that when individuals took a short walk, creativity increased by nearly 60 percent.
A walk around the office does wonders.
11. Create Positive Distractions (At The Appropriate Time)
A recent study tracked workers in an office for three weeks to see if work interruptions helped or hindered job satisfaction. After analyzing the data, work interruptions—a trip to coffee, a co-worker stopping by your office to chat—led to an increase in a sense of belonging. Workers felt more connected to those around them. That sense of belonging ultimately led to higher levels of job satisfaction.
12. Your environment Invites Action
You come home after a long day and plop down on the couch. Before you know it, you’ve just binge watched the latest Netflix show. That couch in your middle room with the remote nearby invites lounging. Literally.
The human brain works in a predictive fashion. It anticipates what we might want to do, predicting a course of action before we actually take it. It takes cues from our environment. A couch invites sitting. A phone scrolling. A notebook writing. A book by your bedside reading. It lowers the bar to taking a particular action.
You can take advantage of this by tying what you do to a space or object you use. Research on affordances shows that physical objects and surroundings can invite us to action. Have a particular notebook for your creative work, a laptop for your writing, and so on.
The more you pair going to a specific coffee shop at a specific time of day and using a specific computer with writing, the easier it becomes to get into a productive creative rhythm. (Remember from above, just don’t get too attached to this.) Even how desks are arranged in the office matter, impacting team cohesion.
13. Create A Home Field Advantage
When we feel psychological ownership over our work space, we boost our performance, confidence, self-efficacy, identity, and sense of belonging. We have a place to call our own.
There are simple and subtle changes that can make us feel this sense of ownership in our own work arenas, whatever they may be: putting up pictures of our family, organizing it in our style, have sticky notes of quotes that resonate. Decorating might seem trivial, but those pictures, books, or whatever your style is send a constant subconscious message that this space is yours.
14. Windows Are Good
Research finds that when we work near a window, we experience:
- Increased Creativity
- Improved sleep
- More physical activity
- Improved cognitive performance
- Less eye strain and headaches
- Increased satisfaction and well-being
- Lower likelihood of quitting our job
15. Surround Yourself Wisely
Motivation is contagious. If someone is working in the same room with people who are internally driven, their attitude also improves. If, however, someone is working in the same room with those who aren’t too excited about their work, then their motivation decreases.
A 2017 study found that sitting within 25 feet of a high performer at work improved an employee’s performance by 15 percent. But sitting within 25 feet of a low performer hurt their performance by 30 percent.
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