When he wrote his 2004 bestselling book The Power of Full Engagement, Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, wrote for 10 to 12 hours at a time, as he had done in writing his previous books.
He never finished a book in less than a year. For his new book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working, he wrote using a “pulse” method, working without interruptions for three 90 minute periods, and taking a break between each one. He had breakfast after the first session, went for a run after the second, and had lunch after the third. He wrote no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, and finished the book in less than six months.
The question, of course, is why change something that works? The short answer is in the book’s title: because his way of working wasn’t working... at least not nearly as well as it could. The longer answer is a bit more scientific.
By limiting each writing cycle to 90 minutes and building in periods of renewal, Tony was able to focus far more intensely and get more done in far less time. Again, why? Because numerous research studies show that our bodies operate by 90 minute rhythms during the day. When we’re awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes.
And here’s the thing: our bodies clearly signal that rhythm, in the form of restlessness, hunger, drowsiness and loss of focus. Generally we either ignore or override those signals, because we have a lot to do and many ways to artificially pump up our energy with various supplements. The problem is that after working at high intensity for more than 90 minutes, our brains begin to shut down. We become more reactive and less capable of thinking clearly and reflectively, or seeing the big picture.
According to Tony, the working world is facing a new kind of energy crisis—and this one’s personal. We aren’t designed to operate like computers—at high speeds, continuously, running multiple programs at the same time—but we do. The consequence is that we’re increasingly distracted, exhausted and demoralized, especially in a recession-driven world that forces us to get more done with fewer resources.
In fact, human beings are designed to pulse, to move between spending and renewing energy to meet our four key needs: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. This flies in the face of prevailing work practices, which are in reality built on a few myths, which Schwartz easily busts with research:
- Myth: Great performers get by on less sleep.
- Reality: Research suggests just the opposite. Across disparate fields, elite performers sleep an average of 8 1/2 hours a night, compared to the 6 1/2 hours that the average American sleeps.
- Myth: A little anxiety and fear help motivate us when we’re facing tough deadlines.
- Reality: In fact, negative emotions of any kind consistently undermine high performance. The better we feel, the better we perform.
- Myth: Multitasking is a key to getting more done in a world of relentless demand.
- Reality: Numerous studies have shown that when we juggle multiple activities, the time it takes to finish any given one activity increases by an average of 25 percent.
Tony argues that we “should try to get things done in bursts of intensely focused activity, interspersed with periods of rest and recovery.” Here are 10 tips for doing just that:
1. Make sufficient sleep your highest priority. After breathing, sleeping is our most fundamental need. It’s also the first thing we’re willing to give up in an effort to get more done. Begin quieting down at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep. Avoid anything stimulating, such as the Internet, mysteries, and intense conversations. Wind down with mellow music, a bath, or herbal tea.
2. Exercise begins with the First Step. If you’re struggling to find the time or motivation to start an exercise routine, buy a pedometer and record the number of steps you take every day. Shoot for 10,000—the recommended daily number of steps to ensure you are getting enough movement in your day to be fit.
3. Prioritize your tasks the night before. The number of potential distractions, interruptions, and fatigue tends to increase throughout the day. Do the most important work of your day first, before checking email, if possible.
4. Become a Type A Eater. Decide in advance what you’re going to eat, in what portions, and at what intervals. That’s the best way to avoid endless temptations, unconscious cues, and “that-looks-good!” surprises that override our self-discipline and cause us to veer off track.
5. Breathe deep. If you feel negative emotions coming on, or when you feel frustrated, annoyed, or anxious, simply take a few deep breaths. Extend the exhale to decrease your physiological arousal and quickly restore a sense of calm.
6. Give Thanks. Write a note of appreciation to someone in your life once a week. We’re far quicker to notice what’s wrong than to celebrate what’s right in others. You might be surprised to discover how energized and inspired people are when they feel recognized and appreciated.
7. Log Off Your Email. Try turning off your email completely for at least one hour a day. Use that time to devote your full attention to a significant task or larger challenge you’re facing.
8. Daydream for Breakthroughs. Schedule at least one half-hour a week to brainstorm around some issue at work. You can help access your right hemisphere by doodling, listening to instrumental music, going for a long walk—anything that lets your mind wander.
9. Take a break. Taking time to renew every 90 minutes keeps your body in alignment with its natural rhythms. Much as we cycle through stages of sleep at night, so we go through a similar cycle every 90 minutes throughout the day, moving from a state of higher energy slowly down into fatigue.
10. Accentuate the Positive. Make a list of activities that you enjoy most and that make you feel best. Intentionally schedule at least one of these activities into your life each week.
Tony argues that, “To build a competitive advantage, organizations must help employees to cultivate qualities that have never before been critical—among them authenticity, empathy, self-awareness, constant creativity, an internal sense of purpose, and, perhaps above all, resilience in the face of relentless change. And whatever our employers do, we serve ourselves well to cultivate these same qualities in order to be more effective and more satisfied, both on the job and off.”
Matthew E. May is a design and innovation strategist. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.