When we get things done, we’re happy. It’s why so many of us want to know how to improve productivity.
I had to learn how to be productive very early on out of circumstance. First in engineering school, when you’re sometimes in class from 8AM until 8PM with one 1.5 hour break during the day, still have lab reports to write, and have homework that needs to get done… you need to be productive. I’m not going to get into the lack of sex and a social life here though… (take the grade hit for these things, it’s worth it. Trust me!)
But I didn’t discover self-improvement and the various resources I know of now until AFTER most of my hardcore engineering work. But when I did, and after playing around a lot with some different tools, everything led to one thing:
We weren’t built for activity 24/7. You and I are built to run on cycles.
Most people HOPEFULLY know about getting sleep after a long day, but it goes further than that.
I’m not going to talk about the parts of productivity that MAKE you get things done, like overcoming your procrastination, having accountability partners and so on (you can read more about that in Mastery Of The Mind). There’s so much out there about routines, keeping your phone off and e-mail closed, etc.etc.etc. I could write an entire book on it, and there are THOUSANDS of articles about every little part of productivity.
But what I will detail is how to structure your days, weeks, and even years to get the most done, and to enjoy guilt-free relaxation at each end point. I will talk about how much work you can accomplish in a day, and why rest periods are not only important, but necessary.
By the end of reading this, you’ll have a better idea of why you feel tired at certain points during the day, and how to take advantage of the ups and downs so you can strategically work out how to get the most done in the fastest way possible.
Cycles Are Built Into Your Body
Most of us are aware of something known as the circadian rhythm. It’s any biological process or marker that seems to repeat itself at the same point within a 24 hour cycle. Everyone talks about a routine of getting up and going to bed at the same time being vital for productivity, health, stress, etc., and it’s definitely true.
But there are even more cycles that you need to be aware of.
Did you know that a human can really only sustain attention on mentally exhausting tasks for 1.5 hours and then needs (or should take) a break? That we can only output a maximum of 6 hours of productive work a day?
You were built for cycles of high output, then low output/relaxation/something that’s not “productive”. And knowing these facts will let you take advantage and work to output awesome stuff… while keeping your stress low, and kicking back at the end of the day because you’ve done as much as you can.
A Step-By-Step Breakdown Of The Cycle System
Here’s the explanation of how the cyclic productivity system works. This assumes you work best during the day/morning, but it can be easily tailored for night owls:
Each work day is broken into 90 minute splits with 30-90 minute breaks in between.
Splits are broken into 3 Pomodoros with 5 minute breaks in between them.
No work is done after the splits, but you should do things like going to the gym and seeing friends.
You take one day completely off every week.
After months of hard work, you take a mini-retirement or staycation.
Breaking down each part:
The smallest unit of work you should do is a Pomodoro (25 minutes).
One Pomodoro lasts 25 minutes. You work on any given task during a Pomodoro until either
- The task is completed.
- The Pomodoro finishes.
Once either of these things happen, you stop working and take a 5 minute break before getting back to another Pomodoro.
Read more about Pomodoros here.
A 90/100-minute split is made up of 3 Pomodoros and 3, 5 minute breaks.
After 60-90 minutes, you’ll find your attention dropping, and you’re more prone to go check out 9gag and awesome kitty pictures. This is OK on a break, but not if you spend your entire day doing it…
So work for spurts of 90 minutes.
After each 90 minute split, you take a break of 30-90 minutes.
During the break you eat, go stretch, go outside, etc. But NOT DO WORK. And preferably, don’t stare at a screen if your work involves that. Endless staring at screens can make you anxious and depressed.
You should aim for at least 3 90 minute splits a day, with a maximum of 4.
People can only do 6 hours of productive work each day, the rest is just burning oil/not using brain power well. It’s more WHAT you do versus how long you do it for. Work for work’s sake (or to fill time) doesn’t mean it’s useful work.
After all your splits, the night (or day) should be for non-work activities.
Hanging out with friends, passions, relaxing, letting your mind rot a bit in front of the TV, seeing a girlfriend/boyfriend, etc.
You should aim for the “24/6” way of thinking.
Taking one day completely off a week is one of the BEST things you can do for your health and re-setting your mental clock. Here you don’t have a schedule, you sleep in, you don’t have any rules or commitments… it’s a free day. I don’t care how busy I am, I’d rather say no to stuff and keep this day. It’s honestly sacred to me and once you start doing it (if you don’t already) trust me, you’ll see why it does amazing things for you.
A day off fights off decision fatigue and re-charges you. You do things you’re passionate about and hang out with friends and family. I wrote an entire article talking about the psychological reasons why you should be taking a day off and how it kill your anxiety while making you happier at the same time. You can read more about that here.
Every 3-6 months, you should take a mini-retirement or staycation.
This could last a few weeks or a few months (depending on how lucky you are) where you go somewhere new, or stay in town but do no work (staycation).
The point is that after a few months of working hard, no matter how you re-charge at night and over the weekend, your body will be drained. Try to time this with completing a large goal as a reward.
You enjoy some much needed fun, travel, and break from hard days at the office. You come back re-freshed and ready to tackle a new project.
How You Can Use The System In An Office (9-5) Setting And Being Flexible
Some people might argue with this system saying “I can’t do this. I don’t decide my own hours! I have to be in the office 9-5 and only have 2 weeks of vacation every year!”
Even if you can’t plan your day EXACTLY as you would like (e.g. you work in an office, have limited vacation time, etc.) you can still use almost everything I talked about, e.g. working in Pomodoros. Just having this information will help you work better.
True, you can only follow this system to a T if you work for yourself or are a freelancer, but expand your options: You could take a walk outside on a break, or go to the break room.
You might discuss this concept with your boss and suggest a trial. As Tim Ferriss suggests in The Four Hour Work Week with working from home, if you make SURE to output more work when following this system, no boss is going to say no… unless they are really closed minded or refuse to let someone work out of the “9-5” framework.
Also note: BE FLEXIBLE. Sometimes your breaks might run longer or shorter. Sometimes you’ll start a bit later… But the point is to have an overall frame work so you are organized and getting things done.
Knowing that your body runs on cycles will help you be happier and more productive as you work, and let you have your time off guilt-free. You can re-charge and get back to the important work.
Image credit: [Duncan]