I am waking up far earlier than I want to these days—a combination of earlier sunrises and hotter days, which means the sliding door in my bedroom stays open to let in some cooler night air. Today, I am up early enough to see the baker and his assistants having their morning break. They come in at 3:30 am and have the bulk of their work done by 6:30.
Two and a half years into living in Portugal, I haven’t quite adjusted my work schedule. I keep my computer and calendar on Eastern time zone, which helps with client scheduling. Little by little, I’m making better use of that five-hour time gap. While I always seem to have “more work to do” (writers always have at least a dozen ideas to work on), the truth is I can, if I “apply myself,” get all my work done in about four hours a day.
Most of us can. The average office worker is only productive for about three hours of an eight-hour day. The research I’ve been doing to share with my Focus & Finish group says that two to three hours of focused work is about all most people can do on a daily basis. The remainder of the work day should be spent doing things that are more routine and less taxing.
Bursts, Sprints, and Getting Going
I’ve been experimenting with my own ability to focus. I’ve done sessions that are 45 or 50 minutes long with a short break in between, as well as practiced “micro-bursts” as Chris Fox, author of 5000 Words Per Hour, calls them. If you’ve ever had a spare ten minutes and thought it wasn’t enough time to get anything of consequence done, I challenge you to set a timer for ten minutes and do something. Clean out a drawer, outline an article, handwrite and address a couple of thank you notes. I have written over 250 words in a 10-minute sprint. There are days when it will take me 45 minutes to pull 250 cohesive words out of my brain. Something about having a clock ticking motivates me. This week I will experiment with mixing longer “focus sprints” and shorter micro-bursts. I can already tell that the shorter bursts are priceless for getting me started on a task.
Did you ever have something you put off doing? Basically, kept avoiding? (No, never Barb. Not me!) Tell yourself you only have to do it for five minutes. Dishes sitting in the sink? You don’t have to do them all. Just do the dishes for five minutes. Email needs a response? You don’t have to finish it, just work on a draft for five minutes. When I am putting off settling in to work, I play the five-minute trick on myself: I tell myself that I don’t have to finish the task and if I am five minutes into it and hating life, I can stop doing it. But in almost every instance, five minutes is enough to give me the traction and motivation to keep going. Sometimes it’s because the task is almost done. Most of the time it’s because I’ve overcome that inertia that stops us before we start. I don’t know if the five-minute game will work for you, but it generally works for me.
What if the Day Doesn’t Want You to Jump on It?
The whole point of waking up early (and earlier and earlier) is to “get a jump on the day.” Really, it’s to get a jump on other people. The US is an environment of constant competition and people are always looking to get an edge. So many self-improvement books encourage you to get up earlier in order to fit in all sorts of best practices before the rest of the world rolls over.
I am not a morning person. I grudgingly get out of bed and walk into walls for the next hour or two, sucking down coffee and praying that nobody attempts to engage me in coherent conversation Living alone helps tremendously.
If you’re not a morning person, I have the perfect “hack” for you. Change time zones. (Teehee!) I can sleep in ‘til 9:00 am and it is only 4:00 on the US East Coast. (Now that’s what I call a Miracle Morning.) I smugly drink my coffee, all loose and relaxed, knowing some self-styled alpha male is rolling out of bed to go work out at a gym, drink a nasty-ass smoothie, and freak out about the guy who got up at 3:30.
It’s not about waking up earlier or even about mornings. It’s about having uninterrupted time. We live in a world that does everything in its power to take our attention away from what we need to be doing in order to sell us things. The Internet, television and radio, billboards, devices that can ping us anywhere at any time. There’s a reason you can’t get your shit done. There’s a reason why it’s hard for you to focus. Life is a constant series of interruptions. If you allow them.
You don’t have to do anything as drastic as moving to Portugal to get away from these distractions. (Though it is working for me.) You can turn off notifications and put your phone on silent. You can hang a Do Not Disturb sign on your door or cubicle. You can get up earlier if you like, but there are many people who work in the quiet hours of the night when people are asleep or zoned out watching television.
Quality, Not Quantity. Duh.
It’s not about the hours you put in. It’s about the quality of the hours you put in. More than that, it’s about the quality of the hours you don’t put in. If you’re spending your off time thinking you should be working or worrying about the competition getting ahead of you, you’re not having off-time. Your mind is still at the office.
We have been brainwashed into thinking we need to hit the ground running and continue full force 24/7/365. Keep this up for too long and you will die. And then you will be replaced. The problem is no one knows how long is “too long” for them.
Self-improvement gurus and “thought leaders” are always telling you to work smarter, not harder. And then they tell you that you have to hustle, hustle, hustle. So, which is it? For me, it was realizing that the eight-hour work day was merely a construct designed by factory owners and management with the hope that people would put in a full day’s work. In an office environment, people are only productive for three hours out of those eight.
Shit-Can the Shoulds
We grew up in a world of shoulds. It was absolutely normal to work eight hours a day (nine or more if you figured in commutes and unpaid lunches). We feel “guilty” if we’re not putting in the full eight or even ten. Or we’re told we’re not “serious” about our business if we’re not hustling all the time. It turns out, that is outdated thinking. The world changes. Technology improves. And the way we approach our work needs to change.
Try slowing your roll. Have your coffee sitting someplace other than your car or desk. Get away from the noise of life, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Thinking things through often takes time and a distraction-free environment. The US is filled with people who are busy being busy. But are they getting ahead? Are they even happy?
Perhaps the best thing that Portugal has taught me is that things get done in their own time here and getting frantic or up in someone’s face about it is not going to help your cause or get it done any faster. Carrying that wisdom over to my work day has taught me that I can get “everything” done without being chained to my desk (okay, recliner) for eight hours a day. Working with the Focus & Finish group, I’ve been able to increase my ability to focus and get my work done in a compressed amount of time, which allows me to work on pet projects, have lunch with friends, or just sit on my balcony and watch the world go by. And really, isn’t being able to enjoy life the reason why we work?
So, if you don’t punch a clock, you hereby have my permission to get up from your workspace when your day’s work is done. You can work the hours that work best for you. You can take a break and go clear your head when you need to. Chaining ourselves to a desk for a mandatory amount of time does not make us any more productive. That’s the reality. Go forth and enjoy yourself.