Whether we love or hate our jobs, the amount of work most of us have to do each day has reached unsustainable levels. We start a typical workday anxious about how we will get it all done, who we might let down and which important tasks we will sacrifice—again—so we can keep our heads above water.
As we grab our first cups of coffee, we check our e-mail in-boxes on our handheld devices, scanning to see who has added a new task to our to-do list. The stress builds as we read e-mail after e-mail, each containing a request that we know can’t be dealt with quickly. We mark these e-mails as unread and save them for . . . “later.”
We mentally add them to the piles of work left undone the night before (when we left our offices much too late). More e-mails to answer, more phone calls to return, more paperwork to fill out. And everything needs our immediate attention.
In fact, too many things need our attention before we can even get to the tasks that really matter—and too many things matter. We frequently work all day long—at the office and then at home, taking care of our families, cleaning up, paying bills—sometimes only stopping to sleep. There simply isn’t enough time, but so much always needs to be done.
Work with your biology, not against it
The key to achieving fantastic levels of effectiveness is to work with our biology. We may all be capable of impressive feats of comprehension, motivation, emotional control, problem solving, creativity and decision-making when our biological systems are functioning optimally. But we can be terrible at those very same things when our biological systems are suboptimal.
The amount of exercise and sleep we get and the food we eat can greatly influence these mental functions in the short term—even within hours. The mental functions we engage in just prior to tackling a task can also have a powerful effect on whether we accomplish that task.
Follow the science
Research findings from the fields of psychology and neuroscience are revealing a great deal about when and how we can set up periods of highly effective mental functioning. In my book, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done I share in detail five deceptively simple strategies that I have found are the most successful in helping busy people create the conditions for at least two hours of incredible productivity each day:
1. Recognize your decision points
Once you start a task, you run largely on autopilot, which makes it hard to change course. Maximize the power of those moments in between tasks—that’s when you can choose what to take on next, and can therefore decide to tackle what matters most.
2. Manage your mental energy
Tasks that need a lot of self-control or focused attention can be depleting, and tasks that make you highly emotional can throw you off your game. Schedule tasks based on their processing demand and recovery time.
3. Stop fighting distractions
Learn to direct your attention. Your attention systems are designed to wander and refresh, not to focus indefinitely. Trying to fight that is like trying to fight the ocean tides. Understanding how your brain works will help you get back on track quickly and effectively when you get distracted.
4. Leverage your mind–body connection
Move your body and eat in ways that set you up for success in the short term. (You can eat and physically do whatever you want on your downtime.)
5. Make your workspace work for you
Learn what environmental factors help you be on top of your game—and how to adjust your environment accordingly. Once you know what distracts you or what primes your brain to be in creating or risk-taking modes, you can adjust your environment for productivity.
Reap the rewards
These strategies, derived from neuroscience and psychology, may sound simple; some may even seem like common sense. But we rarely employ them. Understanding the science behind them helps us know what’s worth acting on and how to do so within the constraints we have. We can all learn to deploy them regularly and consciously with powerful results.
While I believe that you can accomplish great things under the right conditions, I’m not suggesting you’ll be able to get all your work done in just two awesome hours. I do think, however, that when you are mentally effective, you can accomplish whatever matters most to you at that moment, with pride in your work and inspiration to do more.
Working in tandem with our biology—setting up the conditions for a couple of hours of peak productivity—allows us not only to focus on the tasks that are most important to us and our success but also to restore some sanity and balance to our lives.