Although this may be obvious given people’s mediocre performance, addiction to stimulants, lack of engagement, and the fact that most people hate their jobs, now there’s loads of scientific evidence you can’t ignore.
The Myth of the Eight-Hour Workday
In the most productive countries in the world, employees do not work eight hours per day. Actually, the most productive countries have the shortest workdays.
People in countries like Luxembourg are working approximately 30 hours per week (approximately six hours per day, five days per week) and making more money on average than people working longer workweeks.
This is the average person in those countries. But what about the super productive?
Although Gary Vaynerchuk claims to work 20 hours per day, many “highly successful” people I know work three to six hours per day.
It also depends on what you’re really trying to accomplish in your life. Gary Vaynerchuk wants to own the New York Jets. He’s also fine, apparently, not spending much time with his family.
And that’s completely fine. He’s clear on his priorities.
However, you must also be clear on yours. If you’re like most people, you probably want to make a great income, doing work you love, that also provides lots of flexibility in your schedule.
If that’s your goal, this post is for you.
Quality Versus Quantity
“Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.” – Dan Sullivan
If you’re like most people, your workday is a blend of low-velocity work mixed with continual distraction (e.g., social media and email).
Most people’s “working time” is not spent at peak performance levels. When most people are working, they do so in a relaxed fashion. It makes sense–they have plenty of time to get it done.
However, when you are results-oriented, rather than “being busy,” you’re 100 percent on when you’re working and 100 percent off when you’re not. Why do anything halfway? If you’re going to work, you’re going to work.
To get the best results in your fitness, research has found that shorter but more intensive exercise is more effective than longer drawn-out exercise.
The concept is simple: intensive activity followed by high-quality rest and recovery.
Most of the growth actually comes during the recovery process. However, the only way to truly recover is by actually pushing yourself to exhaustion during the workout.
The same concept applies to work. The best work happens in short intensive spurts. By short, I’m talking one to three hours. But this must be “deep work,” with no distractions, the same way that an intensive workout is nonstop. Interestingly, your best work – which for most people is thinking – will actually happen while you’re away from your work, “recovering.”
For best results: Spend 20 percent of your energy on your work and 80 percent of your energy on recovery and self-improvement. When you’re getting high-quality recovery, you’re growing. When you’re continually honing your mental model, the quality and the impact of your work continually increase. This is what psychologists call “deliberate practice.” It’s not about doing more, but about better training. It’s about being strategic and results-focused, not busyness-focused.
In one study, only 16 percent of respondents reported getting creative insight while at work. Ideas generally came while the person was at home or in transportation, or during recreational activity. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.
The reason for this is simple. When you’re working directly on a task, your mind is tightly focused on the problem at hand (i.e., direct reflection). Conversely, when you’re not working, your mind loosely wanders (i.e., indirect reflection).
While driving or doing some form of recreation, the external stimuli in your environment (like the buildings or landscapes around you) subconsciously prompt memories and other thoughts. Because your mind is wandering both contextually (on different subjects) and temporally between past, present, and future, your brain will make distant and distinct connections related to the problem you’re trying to solve (eureka!).
Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain. Ideation and inspiration is a process you can perfect.
Case in point: When you’re working, be at work. When you’re not working, stop working. By taking your mind off work and actually recovering, you’ll get creative breakthroughs related to your work.
Your First Three Hours Will Make or Break You
According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the first three hours of your day are your most precious for maximized productivity.
“Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well,” Friedman told Harvard Business Review.
This makes sense on several levels. Let’s start with sleep. Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Your subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while you slept, making contextual and temporal connections.
So, immediately following sleep, your mind is most readily active to do thoughtful work.
On a different level, the science of willpower and self-control confirms that your willpower – or energy levels – are strongest immediately following sleep.
So, your brain is most attuned first thing in the morning, and so are your energy levels. Consequently, the best time to do your best work is during the first three hours of your day.
I used to exercise first thing in the morning. Not anymore. I’ve found that exercising first thing in the morning actually sucks my energy, leaving me with less than I had when I started.
Lately, I’ve been waking up at 6 a.m., driving to my school, and walking to the library I work in. While walking from my car to the library, I drink a 250-calorie plant-based protein shake (approximately 30 grams of protein).
Donald Layman, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois, recommends consuming at least 30 grams of protein for breakfast. Similarly, Tim Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Body, also recommends 30 grams of protein 30 minutes after awaking.
Protein-rich foods keep you full longer than other foods because they take longer to leave the stomach. Also, protein keeps blood-sugar levels steady, which prevent spikes in hunger.
I get to the library and all set up by around 6:30 a.m. I spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation, followed by a five- to 10-minute session in my journal.
The purpose of this journal session is get clarity and focus for my day. I write down my big-picture goals and my objectives for that particular day. I then write down anything that comes to my mind. Often, it relates to people I need to contact, or ideas related to a project I’m working on. I purposefully keep this journal session short and focused.
By 6:45, I’m set to work on whatever project I’m working on, whether that’s writing a book or an article, working on a research paper for my doctoral research, creating an online course, etc.
Starting work this early may seem crazy to you, but I’ve been shocked by how easy it is to work for two to five hours straight without distractions. My mind is laser at this time of day. And I don’t rely on any stimulants at all.
Between 11 a.m. and noon, my mind is ready for a break, so that’s when I do my workout. Research confirms that you work out better with food in your system. Consequently, my workouts are now a lot more productive and powerful than they were when I was exercising immediately following sleep.
After the workout, which is a great mental break, you should be fine to work a few more hours, if needed.
If your three to five hours before your workout were focused, you could probably be done for the day.
Protect Your Mornings
I understand that this schedule will not work for everyone. There are single parents who simply can’t do something like this.
We all need to work within the constraints of our unique contexts. However, if you work best in the morning, you gotta find a way to make it happen. This may require waking up a few hours earlier than you’re used to and taking a nap during the afternoon.
Or it may require you to simply focus hardcore the moment you get to work. A common strategy for this is known as the “90-90-1” rule, in which you spend the first 90 minutes of your workday on your No. 1 priority. I’m certain this isn’t checking your email or social media.
Whatever your situation, protect your mornings!
I’m blown away by how many people schedule things like meetings in the mornings. Nothing could be worse for peak performance and creativity.
Schedule all of your meetings for the afternoon, after lunch.
Don’t check your social media or email until after your three hours of deep work. Your morning time should be spent on output, not input.
If you don’t protect your mornings, a million different things will take up your time. Other people will only respect you as much as you respect yourself.
Protecting your mornings means you are literally unreachable during certain hours. Only in case of serious emergency can you be summoned from your focus cave.
What you do outside work is just as significant for your work productivity as what you do while you’re working.
A March 2016 study in the online issue of Neurology found that regular exercise can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years. Loads of other research has found that people who regularly exercise are more productive at work. Your brain is, after all, part of your body. If your body is healthier, it makes sense that your brain would operate better.
If you want to operate at your highest level, you need to take a holistic approach to life. You are a system. When you change a part of any system, you simultaneously change the whole. Improve one area of your life, and all other areas improve in a virtuous cycle. This is the butterfly effect in action and the basis of the book Start With Habit, which shows that by integrating one “keystone habit,” like exercise or reading, that the positivity of that one habit ripples into all areas of your life, eventually transforming your whole life.
Consequently, the types of foods you eat, and when you eat them, determine your ability to focus at work. Your ability to sleep well (by the way, it’s easy to sleep well when you get up early and work hard) is also essential to peak performance. Rather than managing your time, then, you should really be focused on managing your energy. Your work schedule should be scheduled around when you work best, not around social norms and expectations.
Don’t Forget to Psychologically Detach and Play
“Recovery” is the process of reducing or eliminating physical and psychological strain or stress caused by work.
One particular recovery strategy that is getting lots of attention in recent research is called “psychological detachment from work.” True psychological detachment occurs when you completely refrain from work-related activities and thoughts during nonwork time.
Proper detachment or recovery from work is essential for physical and psychological health, in addition to engaged and productive work. Yet few people do it. Most people are always “available” to their email and work. Millennials are the worst, often wearing the openness to work “whenever” as a badge of honor. It’s not a badge of honor.
Research has found that people who psychologically detach from work experience:
When you’re at work, be fully absorbed. When it’s time to call it a day, completely detach yourself from work and become absorbed in the other areas of your life.
If you don’t detach, you’ll never be fully present or engaged at work or at home. You’ll be under constant strain, even if minimally. Your sleep will suffer. Your relationships will be shallow. Your life will not be happy.
Not only that, but lots of science has found play to be extremely important for productivity and creativity. The same way your body needs a reset, which you can get through fasting, you also need to reset from work in order to do your best work. Thus, you need to step away from work and dive into other beautiful areas of your life. For me, that’s goofing off with my kids.
Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has studied the “play histories” of more than 6,000 people and concludes playing can radically improve everything – from personal well-being to relationships to learning to an organization’s potential to innovate. As Greg McKeown explains,
“Very successful people see play as essential for creativity.”
In his TED Talk, Brown said, “Play leads to brain plasticity, adaptability, and creativity … Nothing fires up the brain like play.” There is a burgeoning body of literature highlighting the extensive cognitive and social benefits of play, including:
- Enhanced memory and focus
- Improved language-learning skills
- Creative problem solving
- Improved mathematics skills
- Increased ability to self-regulate, an essential component of motivation and goal achievement
- Conflict resolution
- Leadership-skill development
- Control of impulses and aggressive behavior
Having a balanced life is key to peak performance. The Tao Te Ching explains that being too much yin or too much yang leads to extremes and being wasteful with your resources (like time). The goal is to be in the center, balanced.
Listen to Brain Music or Songs on Repeat
In her book On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains why listening to music on repeat improves focus. When you’re listening to a song on repeat, you tend to dissolve into the song, which blocks out mind wandering (let your mind wander while you’re away from work!).
Give it a try.
You can use this website to listen to YouTube videos on repeat.
I generally listen to classical music or electronic music (like video-game-type music). Here are a few songs that have worked for me:
- “One Moment” by Michael Nyman
- “Make Love” by Daft Punk
- “Tearin’ It Up” by Gramatik
- “Terra’s Theme” from Final Fantasy 3
- “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars
- “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” by Oasis
- “I Give Up” by Eligah Bossenbroek (so beautiful)
- “Heart” by Stars
- This cover of an Ellie Goulding song
- “Fragile” by Daft Punk
- “The Son of Flynn” by Daft Punk
- “Cool” by Alesso
- “Sun Through the Clouds” by Matthew Morgan
- “Testing” by CKY
- “Borderline” by Madonna
- “Every You, Every Me” by Placebo
- Main titles composed by Alan Menken for The Little Mermaid
- “Halcyon On and On” by Orbital
- “There Goes the Fear” by Doves
- “Never Follow Suit” by the Radio Dept.