Have you noticed that your best and most creative ideas tend to come, not when you’re sitting at your desk, but when you’re driving or taking a shower? There’s a reason for that. Our brains tend to have their most creative ideas when they’re relaxed and distracted from the problem at hand – the exact opposite state of staring in frustration at a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen.
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Sounds great in theory, but it’s hard to see how you can make it work in practice; after all, you can’t spend your entire work day in the shower. There are, however, ways that you can restructure your schedule to get those “shower moments” throughout the day. The best part? Even though you’ll be more productive, you’ll actually work less.
Get More Sleep
We know, we know – you don’t have time for sleep. No one does. The seven-and-a-half to nine hours recommended by the National Institute of Health seems more like a cruel joke than sound medical advice. But cutting back on sleep actually makes your work time less productive.
Chronic sleep deprivation can reduce your problem-solving skills and your creativity, disrupt your concentration, interfere with your memory, and make you moodier and more irritable. It doesn’t take long, either.
A 2003 study of children showed that when 10-year-olds lost just two hours of sleep for three days, they went from the cognitive level of sixth-graders to that of fourth-graders. That extra hour or two of sleep may take time away from your work, but when you’re done, you’ll be working smarter and more creatively than before.
Hit The Ground Running
After you wake up from that good night’s sleep, take your shower and have your coffee to wake your brain up; then get to work. In the first two hours after you wake up, your alertness is running high, but you haven’t yet burned through your willpower on thousands of mundane decisions – a regular mid-afternoon complaint called “decision fatigue.”
Try to tackle your most demanding and creative projects the moment you feel awake and alert in the morning. While you’re working, close every time-wasting tab on your computer; you don’t want to waste the most productive part of your day on social media.
Make A To-Do List . . .
A tremendous portion of your day is wasted on figuring out exactly what you need to do today and when. When is that report due? Do you need to answer that email this morning, or can it wait until this afternoon? What is that darn thing you know that you have to do today?
By creating a list of your tasks for the day, preferably during those fresh and alert first two hours, you can have a game plan so that you don’t have to waste hours trying to remember your schedule.
. . . And Prioritize It
Prioritizing is where the “when” part of “what you need to do today and when” comes in. If you don’t prioritize your to-do list, chances are that you’ll either waste time dithering over what to do next, or you’ll waste your high-energy, high-attention times on simple tasks that don’t seem intimidating.
Either way, you end up doing more work without achieving any of the important things on your list while feeling tremendously stressed in the process. Instead, knock out the most important tasks and leave the little simple ones for times when you don’t have much mental energy, like during your post-lunch food coma.
There are a few different strategies you can use to prioritize your to-do list, and you’ll have to experiment to find the one that works best for you. One possibility is to actually draw up a schedule for yourself, putting the most important tasks in your times of peak productivity and your least important tasks in your low-energy times.
Another is to rank each task on your to-do list from one to five – one being extremely urgent and important and five being trivial – and work through all the ones, then all the twos, and so on until you’ve got through a good chunk of your list.
A third is to pick three MITs – “most important tasks” – and knock those out first; then attack the other items on your to-do list in any order you like. Whatever method you choose, the end result is the same: instead of wasting time on unimportant tasks and then having to frantically cram in the important ones at the end of the day, you’ll be doing the important ones first and then getting to the less important ones at your leisure.
Breaks, like sleep, may seem like something you just don’t have time to work into your day. However, breaks will dramatically improve your productivity and make you feel happier in the process.
One study found that the most productive employees tend to work for 52 minutes, take a 17-minute break, and then return to work – a pretty arbitrary set of numbers, but one that gets the job done.
If you’re getting halfway through your work period and you know you have a break coming in 20 minutes, you’ll be less tempted to sneak off to YouTube and watch a funny video . . . and another, and another, and another.
Taking a break also helps relax you and distract you from the problem at hand, which is exactly the state of mind that makes driving or taking a shower so productive.
When you’re taking your break, do something that interests you and makes you happy, such as reading a favorite book or blog, taking a walk, or, yes, watching that cat video on YouTube. A 2011 study showed that people who do something interesting are more likely to be engaged in tasks immediately afterward, even if those tasks aren’t interesting themselves.
What’s more, another study showed that people in a happy mood are 12% more productive than their colleagues. So go ahead and have fun on the Internet, but do it at the right time.
Have A Bedtime Routine
Fast forward to bedtime, before you get those seven-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep. Every parent knows that small children need to do relaxing activities and avoid screens for the hour before bedtime, but few adults apply it to themselves, even though the same principles apply.
Do a quiet, soothing routine such as reading or drinking herbal tea. This will tell your brain that it’s time to get ready for sleep and will help you not to lie awake staring at the ceiling for an hour.
You may find it helpful to do some of your morning tasks as part of your bedtime routine, letting you get them out of the way so you can jump right into those productive two hours. For instance, Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg wear the same outfit every day to cut back on decision fatigue. If you aren’t willing to go that far, you can pick out your clothes the night before.