Manhattan neuroscientist Josh Davis has noticed an increasing phenomenon in his work pattern and that of people around him. We are working hard, incessantly, yet we feel bad at the end of the day because we haven't accomplished enough. Instead, we feel overwhelmed and desperate to do more.
He began to wonder what the latest neuroscience research might offer as a remedy – practical tips for overwhelmed workers. It starts with decision points and Two Awesome Hours, which happens to be the name of his recently published book bringing the advice together.
Since we're not computers or factories, we won't win this struggle by becoming more efficient and working longer. Instead, we need to focus our energies on times when we can hit peak productivity – and increase the moments when we are at high effectiveness.
He suggests aiming for periods when you achieve two awesome hours of productivity. There's nothing magical about two hours but it's a good target, achievable fairly immediately. "That doesn't mean you need to limit yourself to two. I have six awesome hours some days. Other days, only 15 minutes," he said in an interview.
The key is knowing when such moments are possible – and picking out the right work to address during that period of peak productivity. He says we innately know what's important. But in the tumult of the day we fall off track, as e-mails pour in and we want to help other people by completing work they asked for. It feels urgent, especially if the requests are social obligations, but just gets in the way.
A problem is that we operate on autopilot most of the day. Neuroscience reveals we are cognitive misers, looking for the easy route. We therefore need reminders to snap out of autopilot and focus on the important stuff. That's where decision points come in. They are transitional moments when we move from one task to another and can choose to attack the important or be carried along by the flotsam and jetsam of the day.
Decision points will occur when we return from a meeting and pick up our "real work." They may appear after the morning commute, an exercise break, or a walk to the coffee shop. Interruptions also offer us decision points.
Recognize them. And instead of plunging back into work – angry you have been interrupted or that the barista was slow – keep in mind that moving ahead without thinking is wasteful while taking time to consider the next task carefully is actually productive, not wasteful. Eventually, you will learn not only to recognize the decision points but to anticipate them. You will know that the end of every meeting affords you a decision point, and you can fritter away your time in the next period or choose two awesome hours of important work.
A related concept is to manage your mental energy. We don't have the same energy all day long. Notably, we suffer from decision fatigue: After making a lot of decisions, we get tired. And that doesn't mean huge decisions, like where to allocate our advertising budget and when best to add new staff. A half-hour of e-mail is jammed with many decisions that can sap your energy. Before a major presentation, you might want to squeeze in some e-mail time while you wait for the big moment. "That's like going for a long run before the big race," he warns. After, when you must perform at your mental peak, you are actually tired. So at decision points, check your mental energy.
Our energy can also be sapped by trying to fight distractions. Whether it's a colleague talking on the phone, hunger in our belly, or task reminders on our computer (or flashing through our mind), our instinct will be to stay the course, keeping on with the task at hand. Instead, he suggests you consider distractions a good thing, a chance to let your mind wander.
"Let your mind wander. It helps us come up with creative solutions or planning – we can sort out what needs to be done in the future. A lot of important stuff happens while we let our mind wander. You can come back to work in a few minutes, refreshed," he said. Surfing websites likely won't refresh you, though, because you aren't just letting the mind float.
Neuroscience has revealed much about the mind-body connection. He highlights the fact that while we used to consider exercise important for the future – exercise today for better health in a year's time or 10 years' time – exercise improves your concentration immediately and offers some relaxation. So if tough work is ahead for the next few hours, try some exercise. If you're feeling anxious, exercise. If he's in a hotel room preparing for a presentation, he'll jog in place for 20 minutes to boost his energy.
Finally, make your workspace work for you. In particular, keep your desk clean. Clutter is just distraction – and not good distraction, since often it's a reminder of work uncompleted. If you tend to have a messy desk, pick everything up and store it out of sight. Now get back to work, and you'll be more effective – particularly if you keep his other tips in mind.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter.