How can you be more productive?
It’s a loaded question, I know. Everybody and their mother has an answer to this question. And like most things that everybody thinks they already know, the answers you’ll get will vary wildly in quality and applicability.
Myth: Get An Early Start
Some people will tell you “You just need to wake up earlier- Wake up early, get to the office before anybody else, and you’ll be able to get some real work done! It’s always worked for me, and if you don’t do it, it must indicate some character flaw or laziness.”
Of course, that advice works for them because they have a chronotype that puts them into the group of “Morning People.” (A chronotype is basically the preference for waking and sleep times, as determined by your circadian rhythm. Contrary to popular belief, it is not something that you can ‘will away’).
Myth: Task List and Scheduling
Other people might tell you “You’ll be more productive if you list out every single thing that you need to do tomorrow, and then scheudle time to do those things into your calendar.”
Of course, people who tell you that live in a dream world where nothing unexpected happens, or where you can see the future well enough to know that you’re not going to need any ‘flex time’ in that rigid schedule. They also live in a world where nobody falls prey to the planning fallacy (which tells us that all human beings consistently underestimate the time it will require to do just about anything).
So if everybody is full of it when it comes to offering productivity advice, why am I trying to do it?
Mostly because I’m going to share some research to back up my claims, and it’s extremely easy to try them out and see if they work for you.
Not a Myth: Eating Habits
Businesses are run on mental energy. Strategy, planning, focus, self-discipline, problem-solving, application of logic & forethought, these are all things that we associate with doing well in any area of business.
So how do we do these things? Or, to ask a better question, what is the fuel that these things run on?
If I was asking where the fuel came to run a marathon, that’d be easy. You’d tell me that your body would burn any existing energy stores, and when that ran out it would start the process of converting fat into energy and begin burning that. The energy flow for physical processes is pretty well understood (if not by me, then in general).
But what about mental energy? Can we really think about solving a particularly thorny strategic problem in the same way we’d think about bench pressing our single rep maximum? Can we think about the tedious work of drafting the tenth memo in ten days about how to live the corporate vision the same way we think about doing an hour on the treadmill?
It turns out that we can.
The fuel in question is familiar – it’s blood glucose. Our brains use a lot of it over the course of a day, to handle a whole lot of different processes.
Here’s a scary thought: Every time you resist a temptation (ie exercise self discipline), it draws from your ability to resist any other temptation. In one experiment, resisting the temptation to eat freshly baked cookies caused participants to give up much sooner on a subsequent task that required them to concentrate & think. The 2 seem disconnected, but they’re both aspects of self discipline (resisting the urge to eat, focusing on a task & applying mental resources to trying to solve it).
Think of it like a gas tank – you can only use so much self discipline before it all runs out. In the case of our brains, the fuel is glucose.
So What? What Can We Do With This Information?
One of the scariest findings of this paper is this – While glucose depletion causes impairment of certain abilities (logical reasoning, focus, self-discipline, etc), it doesn’t necessarily cause a loss of motivation. So it’s very possible to be unaware that you’re functioning well below your peak, and keep ‘hitting your head against the wall’, so to speak – when all you really needed was a break to have a quick bite to eat & let the body start feeding the glucose to your brain. We don’t realize that we’re operating at sub-optimal levels when it’s happening (Ever had the experience of working on something for hours straight, not taking a break to eat or snack, and realizing later that you’d missed a crucial element and wasted the last few hours?)
And just as a heads up – it takes a minimum of 10 minutes to go from food in mouth to glucose, and sometimes much longer, depending on the food. That suggests that if you’re feeling sluggish, or irritable, or are having a problem that you just can’t seem to work through, a 15 minute break to have a bite to eat might be your best course of action.
There’s a shelf life for the batteries that power your willpower. And it’s about 4 hours, give or take. Which means that if you have breakfast at 7:30 before you leave your house, and work through till 12:30, that last hour or two was at a much lower level of focus and/or logical reasoning ability than you’re capable of. Have a snack every couple of hours.
Final word – Eat something at least every 4 hours. Take breaks to ‘re-fuel’ your glucose levels. Combine this with regular exercise (which we know dramatically increases cognitive functioning). Your work will be much, much better because of it.