On New Years Day, without fail, John Grisham starts writing a new book. Five days a week, each morning at 7 a.m., he’s in the same room, sitting on the same chair, tapping away on his trusty computer, and most importantly, with the same cup of coffee. No beeps, pings, messaging, or internet for that matter — simply no distractions. And like clock work, six months later, he’s finished. He’s been performing this ritual for 30 years. That’s 30 books.
While we might not all need rituals that are this regimented, discovering and safeguarding time to do your best work is what distinguishes prolific creators from the rest of the pack.
To succeed in today’s constantly pinging world, you need to purposefully set aside periods for deep work and rest. You must protect your most creative times to ensure you keep your flow.
Like a surfer who navigates a set of waves with intense determination and explosive force, workers of tomorrow must master their deep work rhythms. If you fail to design and adopt the conditions for doing your best work, it’s likely because you didn’t deliberately choose when, where and how to do it.
If you’re one of those people who thinks scheduling leisure time is a low priority, think again. Research suggests that when you get busy (like real busy), your attention is hijacked. You simply can’t exercise good judgment on how best to spend your time. The net outcome, of course, is that you end up busy being busy and experiencing increased anxiety to boot.
Planning a recess not only boosts creativity as your mind works through problems in the background, it also reduces your feeling of time pressure all together. The creative benefits of walking, running, napping, loafing, meandering, and generally mucking about (all in good measure) are now well known. Deliberately taking time out can bring you solace as well as make you more productive at work. If history is any indication, a bit of slacking is good for the soul.
When trying to fuel your creativity, you should avoid incessant hours of toil. “Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world, we can blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative, and happier,” writes Alex Pang in his book Rest. Instead of burning the midnight oil, you might take time out to master the skill of resting, drawing in that blissful state of boredom.
This isn’t so much about organizing your time as it is about your managing your focus. Shallow work is all too familiar and entails talking or thinking about work to be done while actually doing very little of it. Shallow work is much less cognitively demanding than deep work — which requires a sustained focus and depends upon your unique skills.
Time-blocking your day can help avoid getting stuck in shallow work. Simply group your work into blocks of time, say 90 minutes, and bear in mind when it’s optimal to execute a particular activity. You can then shovel all of your shallow work into a 90-minute chunk in the late afternoon. This leaves the entire morning as well as other times of the day free to perform long stretches of focussed work. Experiment with different schedules and be sure to measure your performance to discover what works best for you. The end result is protecting your most creative times and ensuring you don’t break your groove.
Increase your output by reducing the number of projects you work on. Or in other words, forsake any time-suckers and adopt a ‘two list strategy.’ Pioneered by Warren Buffet, this simple approach reduces waste and helps you fire on all cylinders. All you do is make a list of 25 career priorities and then scrap the bottom twenty. Strictly focus on the top 5 and it becomes life changing stuff — literally.
Designing our lives to optimize for creative work means consciously using technology as a tool.
Take email for example. One U.K. study demonstrated that an average British worker thinks doing four hours of email is a productive day at work. We now spend over 60% of the workweek doing email or searching the web. And if you’re a typical office worker, according to one study, by bedtime you’ll have processed 124 emails. Everywhere one looks, a notification of some kind is lurking around the corner.
There is plenty of time (unless you’re a surgeon or some other professional who works within life-death parameters) to check email after breakfast—after accomplishing the things you intentionally set out to do. Many productive workers limit both the frequency and the time they spend doing emails. And if by chance you’re an email Filer (relying on yourself to create folders and file emails accordingly) you may consider switching teams to be a Searcher (relying on your trusty computer to do the finding for you). Because on average, finding an email by searching is achieved 41 seconds faster than locating it by folder.
Emails aside, the point is to be purposeful with technology. On the whole, technology should play the role of a great liberator, connecting you to the world on your own terms rather than a beautifully designed handcuffs, giving you a wonderful opportunity to endlessly waste time.
Work is the one thing, next to love, that you‘ll direct the most energy to. And since great work happens anywhere — staying cognizant of space, both mental and physical, is critical.
Your rituals and rhythms don’t need to be elaborate. Take Niel Wilks, a Brit in New York who hasn’t lost his love of tea. He wakes each weekday morning at 6:30 a.m. so that he can laze about the kitchen table with a cuppa in hand. The calm surroundings put him in a well chirpy mood, and he uses the time to peruse emails on his smartphone. Reading and responding on this particular device forces succinctness.
Once out the door, Wilks hops on the J Line to Manhattan and switches devices to his iPad. The welcoming confines of the train (in particular the lack of Wi-Fi) provide sacred time for more thoughtful work. He also sets time aside for unwinding every day.
Your routine might be entirely different. But being deliberate with your R&Rs lets you smoothly switch between those cognitive-pumping work sessions and restorative departures. You end up more focussed and increasingly creative. Safeguard the special work style you’ve refined, and discover you’re doing your best work with ease.
Jonas Altman is the founder of Social Fabric.