Productive hours aren't easy to come by, but there are ways to get more of them. By using breaks and distractions your body is able to reset and attack tasks and projects with a renewed focus.
What if I told you that you can have more than 2 productive hours in a day?
And no, the key isn’t working more or some crazy sleep cycle where you wake up every 90 minutes.
The solution, at least in my opinion, is to to actually embrace breaks, distractions, and resets as necessary to consistent and high quality work,
But before you get out your pitchforks and beat down our virtual doorstep about how breaks go against your antiquated beliefs in productivity, let me explain.
Think of your average work day as a road trip - in order to stave off fatigue and stay focused you need breaks right? Those breaks are like resets - they let you get back in the car and drive like the wind, just like you did at the beginning of the trip. When you apply similar breaks to your workday it creates a similar effect - you are revitalized and often operating at near 100% once again.
The question is, then, how do you identify breaks that work for you and use them to improve your productive hours?
The Case for Breaks at Work
There is no question that some industries have incredibly demanding work cultures. And even if you neglect the potential risks to your health from working too much, there is always the concern that your work will suffer if you take your foot off the gas.
After all, drivers have pit stops, athletes have timeouts, teachers have periods off - why shouldn’t you be able to take 5 minutes to reset and refocus?
Identifying Breaks and Distractions that Work for You
The great thing about distractions is that they are as diverse as the people that they affect and even if you can’t think of any off the top of your head, you likely use them every day.
Anything from reading the news to doodling in your notebook can be a worthy distraction, but I’ll let you in on the one guideline I try and adhere to when it comes to my breaks: the further I get away from work-related material, the harder it is to get back.
This means reading a blog is fine, but it’s even better if that blog is related to your job as opposed to the latest celebrity gossip. Believe me, I’ve tried to stretch the boundaries of this, but I am much more productive after a break when my mind hasn’t strayed too far from work.
For me, the distractions I use regularly are Reddit, Emails, and Blogs, and here’s why they work for me:
- Reddit: I try and stick to relevant subreddits like /r/startups or /r/entrepreneur and usually I’ll end up learning something and occasionally be able to contribute.
- Emails: I get a lot of email between my work and personal accounts, but I do my best not to check it when I’m in the zone. This means that whenever I do take a break, there are plenty of emails for me to go through and answer and it not only takes my mind off my current task but also gives me a sense of accomplishment as I was going to have to do it anyway.
- Blogs: 90% of the blogs I read are for work so clicking over to Feedly during a break is an easy way to take a break without getting too far off topic.
In order to identify what might work for you, I suggest thinking about the things you do every day when you’re looking to kill time. Do you read the news on the bus? Do you check your email in the break room? Do you listen to podcasts in your car?
These are all distractions and all of them can be used to support your work instead of detracting from it. So, make note of a few that you already use or want to use and let’s see how to test their effectiveness related to your productive hours.
When to Use Your Breaks and Distractions
The effectiveness of any distraction or break always comes down to scheduling - when should you use it in order to achieve maximum effectiveness on your productive hours?
I am very much a take-a-break-when-I-need-it type of person, meaning I break when I feel like it and don’t try to box myself in with designated times of productivity.
This might not be you, and that’s fine. What’s important is that you recognize when you're being productive and when you are not.
More than a few people have told me that they work better when they block off their time. This means that they will work hard for 1-2 productive hours and then take a break. They repeat this throughout the day and even though I don’t do this myself, I find that it serves as a great starting point when you’re trying to determine your most productive hours.
To test this method, you’ll want to download a free Pomodoro timer like this one so you can set up and experiment with work periods. The traditional Pomodoro Technique is to work for 25 minutes and then take 5 minutes off, but I highly suggest you test this. Start with 25-45 minutes of work and make sure to take note of how you feel when you take a break. Did you feel like you could keep going? If so, up the time, and keep going up until you reach a point when you definitely feel like you need some time off.
That’s your sweet spot - the point where you are no longer doing your best work and can really benefit from a break. When you reach this point, take 5-10 minutes to engage one of the the distractions you found earlier and come back to tasks refreshed and ready for some more productive hours.
Never Force a Break
Just like you’d never stop driving simply because 30 minutes has passed, it doesn’t make sense to take a break if you don’t feel like you need one. Everything in this post was written to serve as a guideline, not a set of unbreakable rules. Occasionally I find myself in such a groove (I love that feeling) that stopping doesn’t make sense.
If you’re working at the rate of a caffeinated monkey, by all means keep going!
And, if you want to cheat the system a bit and increase your chances to get into a groove then consider an app like Cold Turkey that prevents you from accessing tools and websites outside of permitted times.
All too often I hear people limit themselves by saying stuff like “I’m a morning/night person” and it causes me to cringe because I don’t think it applies to productivity. I enjoy mornings far more than nights, but that doesn’t mean I can’t turn out some awesome work long after the sun goes down.
In the context of productive hours, labels like this do nothing but box you in and give you an excuse to lean on when you spend your afternoon playing candy crush. Using the things mentioned above you can easily break free from these labels and recapture and reuse your most productive hours.