The typical office worker only does about 90 minutes of real work per workday. The rest of each workday is largely spent on distractions like reading the news, web surfing, socializing with coworkers, snacking, taking coffee breaks, shuffling papers around, processing irrelevant emails, needless delay tactics, playing games, and daydreaming.
American office workers are among the world’s most productive. In many other countries, even less work gets done each day.
This stat hasn’t changed much in decades, despite massive investments in time management and productivity training by many companies. We have more technology to assist us in being productive, but we also have more to distract us.
The general problem is that we’re still applying an industrial age model to the productivity of knowledge workers. It makes sense to pay attention to hours worked if the productive output for each hour is roughly the same. That may be true for repetitive labor, but it doesn’t apply much to knowledge workers.
For a knowledge worker, what’s the difference between an hour of peak productivity vs. a low productivity hour? That peak hour could easily be 10x more productive in terms of the volume of work completed and the results generated.
What sense does it make to spend more time at the office if you’re normally operating at less than 20% of capacity? Why not simply do 90 minutes of real work and then go home for the day?
What if you could complete a whole day’s work in only 90 minutes? What would that 90-minute period look like?
Here are some recommendations for having a very productive 90-min period (let’s call it a focus block):
1. Pick one theme – Instead of doing a bunch of random actions, pick one clear theme for the block. This allows your brain to load in a singular context and stick with it, which makes you more efficient. Your theme may be a project you’re working on, a type of work like catching up on correspondence, or anything that lets your brain load in one clear context and stick with it.
2. Define the finish line – See your focus block as a fast dash to the finish line. But where is the finish line? What does it look like? Having a clear goal that’s only 90 minutes away will help you focus. Don’t worry if you don’t cross the finish line each time; it’s there to help you focus, so aim for it, but accept that sometimes you’ll miss. Some examples: Write and post a new blog entry. Process items in my email inbox till it’s completely empty. Plan and schedule all my focus blocks for the upcoming week.
3. List the action steps – List the specific actions you’ll take during this block. For some blocks this is really helpful. For others it may not be necessary if the steps are already clear. I wouldn’t list out my action steps for writing a new article since that process is very familiar to me, but I’d list brainstorm and list steps for an unfamiliar new project to make it easier to get started. Some examples: Delete all obvious spam and clutter from my email inbox first. Then quickly process all messages that I can handle in less than two minutes each. Next, sort and prioritize longer messages for response. Respond to my most important longer messages till I’m at the 90-minute point. Surrender to the realization that it’s not a good use of my time to reply to the rest, and just archive them to empty the inbox.
4. Ensure zero interruptions – Do whatever it takes to ensure that you will not be interrupted under any circumstances during your focus block. If necessary, tell people in advance that you will not be available for the next 90 minutes; let them know that you will be available after that. Lock your door if you can. If you can’t guarantee that you won’t be interrupted in your current work environment, then do your focus block somewhere else. You’ll be much more productive and your focus will be deeper if you know for certain that you won’t be interrupted.
5. Work fast – Think fast. Move fast. Work fast. If you catch yourself going slow, speed up! Imagine that you’re in a race, and you have to maintain a strong pace for the full 90 minutes. After that you can rest. With practice this gets easier.
6. Allow no distractions – During your focus block, you must do your pre-defined work and nothing else. Keep your cell phone off. Turn off any notifications that might interrupt you. Turn off your Internet access if you won’t need it during this block. Do not check email during this time. Do not take a coffee break or snack break. Use the bathroom during this time only if you must.