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Productivity bloggers place a lot of emphasis on granularity. According to accepted wisdom, if a task squats on your list for a while, you probably haven’t sliced and diced it enough. Solution: Start carving until you’re left with a “next action” that you can effortlessly knock off in 10 minutes flat.

But some tasks simply don’t lend themselves to the GTD slice-and-dice. They demand time, focus, and sustained concentration for half an hour or more. Some typical examples:

  • Planning
  • Designing
  • Outlining
  • Writing
  • Brainstorming
  • Polishing
When I need to do manuscript editing, I can’t slice things up much smaller than a chapter, and even a pass on a single chapter in some books can take a couple hours or more of sustained, uninterrupted concentration.

There are two obstacles to achieving this level of sustained flow: the constant barrage of information and distractions and “need it now” problems we all face, and the fluctuating levels of mental energy we can bring to bear throughout the day. How do we find the time and mental energy for the big stuff while juggling all the tiny-but-still-important stuff?

When Are You Smartest?

Face it. There comes a point in every day that you simply aren’t at your best. No one stays sharp 24/7. My wife is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 5 am for her morning jog; when she’s nodding off around 11pm, I’m buzzing to edit some podcasts.

So the first step in regaining sustained flow is to map out a typical day’s mental performance: Print out a blank day calendar and leave it next to your desk. Schedule a reminder to go off every hour. For one entire day, mark off your energy level on a scale from 1 to 3 every time your reminder goes off.

At the end of the day, plug the results into Google Spreadsheets and graph it. The result will give you a basic sense of how your energy fluctuates from hour to hour. These fluctuations are partly based on what you eat, partly based on how much sleep you get, and so on, but all things being equal, you usually follow a pattern, and by determining that pattern, you can learn to work with it instead of against it.

Night owls will probably always be night owls, and the sooner you learn to love your owly nature, the sooner you’ll start maximizing that productive time and easing up on yourself when you’re brain is in hibernate mode.

Find the Quiet Times, or Make Them

Just as your brain and body fluctuates from nimrod to ninja and back again, your work interruptions have their own pace and rhythm. Sometimes the phone calls and emails never stop. Other times, crickets are chirping by the water machine. And while it often feels like these interruptions come in random bursts (“Boy, it’s busy for a Wednesday afternoon!”), there’s usually an overall pattern.

One way to get a quick sense of this is to look at the times of your incoming emails and voicemails. See any clusters? My emails tend to flow in fastest from around 10am to 11am, as people settle in and get rolling. They taper during lunch, pick up around 3pm, and taper again well before 5pm. That’s my pattern, so I know to forget looking for a free hour during those peak interruption times. Your schedule may vary, so pay attention to when things feel craziest during the day and reserve those periods for doing small, easily interruptable tasks. Like calling and emailing everyone else!

(Some productivity gurus argue for checking email twice a day or even less. In my job, emails are often used instead of phone calls to get someone’s attention right away, for a meeting or an urgent issue. I can’t afford to shut it off indefinitely, and I assume that some of you have the same issue.

Trying to do something that requires heavy concentration and just wishing that distractions will magically stop is a recipe for frustration.

Matching Peak Performance to Perfect Stillness

Now you should have two maps: One of your mental energy throughout the day, and one indicating the ebb and flow of external interruptions. Find the spot where your mental energy is usually at its highest and your interruptions are usually at your lowest. That’s Golden Time.

You may not even have any Golden Time in your workday, as it stands. Adding some might be as simple as showing up at the office half an hour earlier than you normally do. Or staying a bit later. Or even moving your lunch hour so that you’re back from lunch just when everyone else leaves.

Either way, once you’ve identified some Golden Time, don’t squander it. Often, when we hit that beautiful lull in the week when our minds are active and our phones are quiet, we find it most appealing to procrastinate. We decide to pick a new WordPress theme or organize our contacts. When we have time and energy, we tend to feel like our time and energy are boundless and inexhaustible. But Golden Time is precious. When you hit that patch, think of Pac-Man when he eats the super pellet: You have a perfect opportunity to knock out the ghosts that have been squatting on your task list for days, but only for a short duration. When Golden Time arrives, try any and all of the following (if possible) to get the most out of it:

  • Quit out of email.
  • Turn off your phone ringers.
  • Close your door. Put up a sign on your door asking for peace.
  • Disable Twitter, Facebooks, IM, etc.
  • Shut off your Internet connection/WiFi altogether.
  • Use an app like WriteRoom to isolate the window you’re working in.
  • Set a timer to go off when your next appointment or meeting is almost due to begin.
You’ll get more done in 30 minutes of this than you would in frustrating dribs and drabs across an entire week. And this technique will allow you to stop worrying about big tasks you can’t focus on and devote what energy and concentration you do have to the small but necessary stuff.

Photo by andreapacelli.

8 Comments

  • Cesar

    gravatarDec 13, 2007
    9:46 pm

    I find my creativity increases when I have music playing in the background, but I noticed I kept loosing concentration too much, not because of the music, but because I liked to change songs to find that one song if it was in iTunes or on my iPod. Sometimes I’ll just play music from the other room or even crack a window to hear what’s up outside.

  • Jason White

    gravatarDec 14, 2007
    4:07 pm

    Ahem…Nicotine and caffeine: laser focus AND flow.

    And @Cesar we (my wife and I) are usually home together each on our own machine doing our own separate things. We almost always have Music choice on and set to Soundscapes.

    That 24hr cycle of uninterrupted new age music does wonders for flow because I would never buy any of that stuff, I don’t know any of the artists, and it just sits there in the background supporting us.

    That’s the way to go otherwise you do that procrasti-work stuff where you can’t work until everything is just right.

  • Jeff

    gravatarDec 17, 2007
    4:56 pm

    www . pandora . com

    Internet radio that cost about $35 a year. You create a station based on a artist or song and they play songs that you should like based on the artist/song selection. You can rate the songs as they play, allowing for station customizing in real-time. I enjoy the stations they create and am able to focus on work instead of music selection.

    Footnotes:

    On recent trip to Canada I was unable to access my Pandora account, looks like the Canadians sense some sort of copyright violations.

    Jeff

  • JasonP

    gravatarDec 19, 2007
    10:02 am

    Procrastination is the name of the game for me. When I set tasks for the day I add in short procrastination spurts. For every 3 hours I am in front of my computer I will allow approximately 15 minutes of internet searching/blogging or whatever else I can distract myself with.

    If I stay disciplined procrastination/controlled distractions help me to regain my focus.

  • Pardes

    gravatarDec 23, 2007
    5:07 pm

    FLOW is a fascinating subject that eludes most of us. Arriving late (after 34 years) to a managerial position, I find that I’m equally fascinated by the “work” I’m doing and the process of doing it. All techniques of focus will work for someone somewhere but the bottom line is LOVING THE WORK AND THE PROCESS. Pardes

  • Kristi Holl

    gravatarDec 26, 2007
    11:37 am

    This is a terrific concept–matching your high mental energy time with your low interruption time to find those golden moments in which to create. So often we could structure our time more productively if we kept this principle in mind. I think I’m going to rearrange my OWN schedule for today!

  • Nathan Ketsdever

    gravatarDec 31, 2007
    4:55 am

    Two key hacks in my blogging workflow:

    –Using del.icio.us to capture key links –Then using del.icio.us combined with the advanced search on flickr to find creative commons pics and saving them in del.icio.us –sometimes searching pics in flickr trigger ideas for blogs (particularly about creativity and productivity in a metaphorical way)

    However, I still find it hard to go back to old drafts and re-work them. I seem to let the info-explosion of the web overwhelm me a little too much, which is so easy.

  • Mathew Anderson

    gravatarJan 24, 2010
    12:04 am

    I must say there is a lot more to be done in terms of software for achieving focus. I could write a piece of software for this purpose I suppose then again I am not focused enough to do it !