People can improve their productivity by choosing their work times, places, and rewards. People's attention levels vary throughout the day, so it's best to match the task to the available attention. People work better by creating or adapting a space for their work, especially studying. People work the best when they also play and relax, so good routines include some time for recreation too. All of this will help you improve your productivity to get more done and enjoy life more, too.
People have only limited amounts of attention in a day. Also, our attention levels naturally vary throughout the day. The biochemistry of this focuses on circadian rhythms. Some of the research comes from education, since the times that students can pay attention the best affects how well they can learn. The results...vary. One study finds that delaying the start of school by an hour helps. Another study finds that many people struggling with reading and recall tests (generally done in the morning) do better with the same tasks and tests in the afternoon. That finding particularly intrigues me because it suggests that the best times are different for different people.
Unless you're visiting from Krypton, it makes sense to manage your attention by matching your work to your attention level. The master of this is Graham Alcott in his amazing book Productivity Ninja . Briefly, he identifies three levels of attention: high, medium, and low. The highest, most focused attention is very limited, and should be used on the most challenging, important tasks. It's usually at the same times everyday, so you can usually plan to get your best work done during those times. The lowest levels of attention and focus can be used for work, but it's best for the sort of mindless stuff that doesn't require too much thought and decision making. Fortunately, the lowest levels are fairly short, too. There's a good amount of medium level attention, where you can clear most items on your to-do list.
During my lowest levels of attention, I have mush mind. Doing much thinking is tough. Not impossible, but way tougher. For me, this happens mid-afternoon, a hour or so after lunch, and can continue until a couple of hours before dinner. So I deliberately plan to do chores, basic errands, and exercise during that time of day. My very best times are about an hour after breakfast, an hour before lunch, and maybe an hour late at night. I try to make the big decisions and plan during those times. Those are also the times I'm most likely to be inspired in writing. As William Butler Yeats says though, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make the iron hot by striking”.
The point is, you can study and note your attention and focus levels throughout the day. You can find the precious few hours when you're most focused naturally. You can find the fortunately few hours where you're at low ebb. And the fairly plentiful times in the middle. You can choose to match your highest-attention tasks to your best-attention times, and so on. If this is just enough to whet your appetite, go buy Graham Alcott's book. He sets out step by step instructions for how to do each part of this process in an easy, approachable style.
Not only is studying and working on a regular schedule really helpful to increase your productivity, but establishing a regular place to study and work helps you learn and work better, too. You don't have to have a fancy office or room just for studying. In fact, the kitchen table could be your regular study place. Wipe it down, move the salt and pepper and napkins, and the little ritual makes it your study place. It might not be ideal –kitchens tend to be high traffic areas for the whole family. But you could make it work if you need. Maybe you'd also have to teach the other family members that books out equals leave you alone unless it's an emergency. Where do you study best? How do you handle balancing work and family?
A student of mine, a mother with kids in elementary school, told me a story about how she finally got the assigned novel read. She just couldn't get much read because of the constant interruptions from her kids and husband. Finally, she announced a few things. She said that she loved them, but that she had to read and study to pass her class. She was going into the bedroom at 4:30pm. She was staying for one hour. She would rejoin the family then, and dinner would be at the usual time. Unless someone was bleeding, she would not be disturbed. And then she ignored knocks on the door except to listen to hear if anyone was hurt. After laying down the law, her reading pace soared. She finished the novel, wrote essays, and did everything else she needed to do to pass the class. She also spent a lot of quality time with her family, just separate from study time. My students don't always stay in touch, but I believe she went on to become a nurse and provide better for her family. Side note: did a teacher make a big difference for you? Have you ever told them that? If so, super. If not, why not look up their office phone or email and send them a brief message to thank them? I guarantee it would make their day!
One of my coworkers finishes all his work in his office before leaving for the day. He wants time at home to relax and spend with his girlfriend. Another coworker takes a lot of work home with her because she works better later at night. There isn't one single schedule or place to study and work that fits everyone perfectly. There are some definite ideas to keep in mind. You'll need to observe and experiment on your own. If you're in a relationship, married, or have kids, you'll also need to figure things out together with your partner, family, or kids. It probably won't be the first time you had to figure out something as a family. It won't be the last.
When my friend left the army to open up an affordable medical clinic, she went from long hours at work to much more time at home as she studies and sets up her practice. Her routines changed a lot. So did the routines of her superdad husband as he home-schools their teenage daughter and runs a business. Their daughter's routines changed, too. They're figuring it out together, and I'm confident their adapted routines will have them working well and productively. What parts of your routine are working well? When was the last time you needed to adapt or update them?
Building routines for where and when you work will have your productivity soaring and you work and study humming along. However, life isn't all work. As a reward for work, your routines should include some play, recreation, or relaxation. Fun. Enjoyment. You know, part of the reason you work so hard is so that you can enjoy life. So enjoy life, just a little, each day. What helps you recharge? For me, spending some time outdoors with nature helps me recharge. I garden, and taking care of the plants is soothing, not a chore. (I imagine that if I farmed or did road work for a living, I'd recharge by doing something indoors that had nothing to do with plants or roads.) I play computer games too. Recently, I started playing Equilinox, which is much like a laid-back city builder, except with an ecosystem instead of a city.
But wait, is playing and relaxing some every day the most efficient way to work? A study about workers at a college in Kenya concludes that yes, yes it is. “The study concluded that recreation is a significant factor in employee performance; increases the level of commitment, enhances bonding and improves employee wellbeing with a consequent positive effect on job satisfaction, service provision, customer satisfaction and productivity.” That was recreation while at work! If your job is studying right now, some recreation might increase your job satisfaction and dedication too. Just in case you want a more local perspective, another article sums up the same ground nicely. The reunion of work and play in Western business was experimented with in the dot.com expansion in the 90's. The article finds much the same results as the scholarly Kenya study before offering to help. What helps you recharge? So relax, you can relax... and still study and work.
In conclusion, there are three great ways to increase your productivity. First, consider how your attention level varies throughout the day and how different work requires different levels of attention. Then match the two as closely as you can, and a regular schedule will emerge. Second, establish a regular place (or places) to work and study. Third, make some time each day to play and for recreation. Contrary to a common cultural assumption, a little fun actually energies your performance. What else should I add here?
Allcott, Graham. Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More, and Love What You Do. London:
Icon Books, 2014.
Hansen, Sarah. “How to Maximize Productivity Through Fun in the Workplace.” Dec. 18, 2013.
Lufi, Dubi et al. “Delaying school starting time by one hour: some effects on attention levels in
adolescents” Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American
Academy of Sleep Medicine vol. 7,2 (2011): 137-43.
Mokaya, Samuel O. and Jomo Kenyatta. “Effects of Workplace Recreation on Employee
Performance.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 2, 3
Wile, Amanda J. and Gary A. Shouppe. “Does Time-of-Day of Instruction Impact Class
Achievement?” Perspectives in Learning: A Journal of the College of Education & Health
Professions. Columbus State University. Volume 12, Issue 1, Spring 2011.
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Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
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