But when I learned how to manage my energy, in addition to my time, my productivity skyrocketed.
I finally stopped forcing myself to work hard (by chugging seven cups of coffee) and started using this productivity tip developed by neuroscientists:
I work in 90 minute intervals, then rest for 30 minutes between each interval, while listening to music optimized to boost concentration and focus.
After adopting this unusual productivity technique, I could concentrate longer, avoid distractions, maintain higher energy throughout the day, and dramatically lower my stress.
Below is a visualization of this entire methodology:
Yes, without context, that's incredibly useless. Let me explain.
You see, every day is ultimately divided into thirds — 8 hour of sleep, 8 hours of recreation, 8 hours of work. However, a common misconception is these 8-hour periods are linear intervals.
In reality, the human body operates on 120-minute biological intervals throughout the day called ultradian rhythms. These are broken into a series of peaks (when we are energized) and troughs (when we are exhausted).
This productivity method takes advantage of our natural energy AND natural exhaustion, as our body is optimized to function in a series of sprints and rests. Not fighting the exhaustion with coffee and actually taking rests drastically improves my daily energy.
Early morning grogginess? Gone. The dreaded post-lunch food coma? Gone. The 4pm slump? Gone. The inability to be productive at night? Gone.
Here's how I do it.
First, I work in 90 minute "macro-sessions" with 30 minute breaks in between.
This isn't some fancy, over hyped productivity method advocated by weirdo productivity nerds (like me) ... it's literally how our body actually functions.
An average 9-to-5 work day equates to roughly four "macro-sessions" of 90 minutes of work, followed by 30 minutes of rest. During the orange intervals, I work, because I'm naturally energized. During the gray regions, I rest, because I'm naturally exhausted.
This equates to six hours of work (the orange box) and two hours of rest (the gray box) every day. If 6 hours isn't enough, I simply add another 90 minute macro-session.
Work during macro-sessions means focusing on my most highly prioritized goals and ONLY those goals during the 90-minute period.
Rest during macro-sessions means standing up, stretching, and taking a walk. After about 10 minutes of physical movement, I usually sit back down and read my email (or check if someone opened an important email I sent), read a book, meditate, or stand up and continue to do physical activities.
Similarly, placing time limits, such as 90-minute intervals, breaks down larger, intimidating tasks (ex. write blog post) into smaller, easily digestible chunks (ex. write the outline).
It follows an adage popularized by Tim Ferriss known as Parkinson's Law - the more time you give something the more it swells in perceived importance. In other words ...
If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.
Second, inside each 90 minute interval I do three "micro-sessions," working in 25 minute intervals, with a 5 minute break in between.
Inside each 90-minute macro-session, I do three 30-minute "micro-sessions." Universally called the Pomodoro Technique, this means working for 25-minutes, then followed by a 5-minute break.
Again, in the orange blocks, I'm working. In the gray blocks, I'm resting.
This includes the small blips of gray in-between "micro-sessions," which indicate 5 minute breaks.
To easily monitor time, I use Pomodoro One for Mac and suggest Tomighty for Windows. It's literally just a desktop timer, and as easy as pressing start and stop.
While doing concentrated work for each 25-minute intervals, it's imperative to eliminate ALL distractions.
After each 25 minute micro-session, I take a 5 minute break.
Taking breaks doesn't mean skimming Facebook, Twitter or BuzzFeed. It means stand up, looking away from my computer, stretch, and walk around for 5 minutes. Excessive sitting isn't only a deadly activity, it's the fastest way to lower energy levels, rapidly reducing today's productivity.
However, the tricky part isn't taking a break (the easiest part!), rather, it's finding that "I'm in the zone" feeling, which is where Focus@Will comes in.
Third, I listen to music psychologically optimized to boost concentration, developed by neuroscientists.
Focus@Will is music optimized to boost concentration and focus, developed in partnership with leading neuroscientists Dr. Evian Gordon and Dr. Stephen Sideroff (UCLA Professor of Psychology).
It's a simple music player that has two choices.
1. What type of music do you feel like listening to?
2. What is your current energy level?
The music selection, known as "channels," are diverse, ranging from classical music to electronic music to ambient coffee shop chatter. Sometimes I'm filled with energy. Other times I'm not. Adhering to my current mood is precisely what the "energy levels" function does.
I use Focus@Will for every 25 minute micro-session, then turn it off for 5 minute breaks. During the larger, 30 minute breaks, I don't use it either. Here's our original visual again for reference:
However, don't just take my word for it.
On their homepage, Focus@Will hosts testimonials from NASA editor, Daniel Coleman, and the data scientist from Moz (the internet's most dominant SEO blog), Dr. Pete Meyers.
Using this technique of macro-sessions and micro-sessions, while using Focus@Will, is a match made in heaven.
If you struggle concentrating or "getting in the zone," I cannot suggest this combo enough.
It might change your life, too.
Originally published Feb 26, 2015 1:26:00 AM, updated August 30 2017