Working like an expert
A multitude of research has shown us that discipline is best maintained through habits, not through willpower.
According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, most people hold their productivity back by not rigidly scheduling work & rest breaks throughout the day.
Since most of us are worried about willpower, we don’t push ourselves to maximum output: instead of “giving our all” for brief sessions, we distribute our effort throughout the day, leading us back to busywork to fill our time.
What should we do instead?
Schwartz often cites a research study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration that revealed how short breaks between longer working sessions resulted in a 16% improvement in awareness & focus.
Research from Peretz Lavie on ultradian rhythms matches up with these findings: longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy level throughout the day.
Both of these studies on energy management match up with the practice schedules of the violinists: the most common regimen for the cream of the crop players was a 90-minute block of intense practice followed by a 15-minute break.
The moral of the story is that it’s hard to be productive while trying to maintain high energy levels through your entire day.
It’s much easier to work intensely when you know that a break is just around the corner, not at the end of the day. Instead of trying to conserve energy for hours, break big projects down into smaller chunks and plan a recovery period right after.
For projects done on your own time, try scheduling blocks of 90-minute work sessions with a planned cool down time of 15 minutes directly afterwards. When you know a break is on the horizon, you won’t try to pace yourself with your work, and will be more inclined to dive into the difficult stuff.
While great for tackling the toughest parts of large projects, this technique doesn’t really address many problems related to discipline, an important part of staying productive for more than just a day or two.