Article by Amantha Imber
Andy Grove, former CEO and chairman of Intel, used to arrive at work at 8 a.m. and leave by 6 p.m. every day. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, leaves the office by 5:30 p.m. every evening so she can have dinner with her kids at 6. VMware’s CEO Pat Gelsinger is awarded “points” by his secretary for arriving home by 5 p.m.
Regardless of whether you are a high-profile business leader or a freelancer in charge of your own hours, it can be a struggle to fit in a productive day’s work and shut down your computer at a reasonable hour. However, turning your working day around might be as simple as changing just a handful of behaviors
We live in a world of distractions. Some of them are inflicted upon us through notifications that pop up on our devices. Others are self-imposed, like when Jenny checks Facebook for the 53rd time today, just in case that cute photo of her labradoodle has another like.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that because of the distractions technology imposes on us, we spend the majority of our time doing “shallow work” — work that is non-cognitively demanding. Because of the constant distractions, we have forgotten how to truly engage in “deep work” — that is, focused thinking where we make meaningful progress on our most impactful projects.
What we need to do is get “focus fit.” When we start a new exercise regimen, we don’t start by bench-pressing 100 pounds in the first session. When it comes to rebuilding your focus muscle, you need similarly to build up slowly. When I began retraining myself, I started out by doing just 30 minutes of focused work during which all notifications and distractions were switched off. Then, I built up from there.
2. Take Frequent Breaks Instead of One Long One
If you work a busy job and already put in long hours, you may regularly find yourself consumed with your busyness and “forget” to take a break. Perhaps you believe you simply don’t have time to take a break.
Unfortunately, not taking breaks puts you in a constant state of poor cognitive performance. One study showed that the most productive performers worked solidly for 52 minutes and then took a break for 17 minutes. Other research has shown that in contrast to one 30-minute break, hourly five-minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood, and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively.
To make sure I take breaks in my own working life, I have banned 60-minute meetings from my schedule. Instead, I plan what would have previously been 60-minute meetings for just 50 minutes. This gives me time for a quick walk and a few minutes to get ready for my next meeting or activity.
3. Don’t Eat Lunch at Your Desk
Did you know 62 percent of Americans eat lunch at their desk? While I am not American, I am ashamed to admit that I most definitely fell into this category of people. Surely I was being more productive by eating and working at the same time. Multitasking, right?
Research has shown that the simple act of eating lunch anywhere but at your desk leads to the ability to cope better with workplace stress and greater energy for the afternoon. Real estate company CBRE has even gone so far as to ban desk lunches in its Toronto office.
4. Park on a Downhill Slope
There is a good chance you’ve had the experience of sitting down to start or continue a project, only to feel overwhelmed by the prospect. Sometimes, it’s just hard to get started.
Even writers such as Ernest Hemingway are not immune to this. To find motivation and flow in the morning, Hemingway used to end his writing sessions mid-sentence — well, not literally. As he put it in a 1935 article, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”
This gave Hemingway an easy start the next day because he could simply pick up right where he left off and keep on going. He didn’t have to spend time pondering what came next because he already knew.
Hemingway’s technique is the writing equivalent of parking on a downhill slope. It tricks the sometimes-lazy brain into starting a task by giving it a vantage point that makes it easier to get moving.
5. Shut Down Your Day
It’s easy to leave the office only to start working again as soon as you arrive home. It’s also very easy for work-related stresses to linger in your mind well beyond 5 p.m.
To help reduce stress and provide closure on your day, author Dan Pink suggests doing a mental shutdown each day. Specifically, he recommends spending 2-3 minutes writing down what you have accomplished that day. Feeling a sense of progress has been shown in research to be the most powerful motivator at work. Then, spend 2-3 minutes planning the following day, which provides both a sense of control — another great motivator — and mental closure. If you have a spare minute left, express gratitude for someone, in the form of an email or a text message. Gratitude has been shown time and time again to be an effective mood elevator.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Dr. Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organizations can create cultures where innovation thrives.