Do you ever feel you should be further along on your goals and projects, given how much time you’ve been spending in your workspace?
To enter a state of high productivity, we know that it’s important to avoid distractions and really concentrate deeply on a task or project. You want to enter the state that Cal Newport refers to as “deep work”, and it’s best if you can maintain this state for at least a few hours at a stretch. If you can do three to five sessions of deep work per week, you’ll often achieve stronger results than you would with 40-plus hours of busywork. You’ve probably observed this pattern in your own life already. But of course the challenge is to enter this flow state consistently and to stick with it for extended periods.
The amount of time you spend working is irrelevant. It’s easy to find people semi-working for 30-60 hours per week without achieving meaningful results for their efforts. Pushing yourself to work longer hours is almost always counterproductive if you aren’t getting strong results from the time you’re already putting in.
When you work too many hours per week, you’ll almost inevitably get sucked into busywork that doesn’t move the needle forward. You’ll have that sinking feeling that weeks are passing by but your results are lagging behind.
There are many possible solutions to this situation. One is to focus on your strengths and outsource everything else you can. Another is to use goals and deadlines to enforce better focus on results. One of my favourite approaches is to “coil the spring”, because it works so consistently.
How Dare You Take a Break?
One of the biggest mistakes I made as an entrepreneur during my 20s was to work too many weeks in a row without a break. Year after year I dismissed vacations as unnecessary or unjustifiable. I often felt behind with respect to my intended schedule, so how could I ever justify taking time off? This was further exacerbated by sinking into debt. When you’re in debt (and especially if you’re married and in debt), it’s so easy to feel guilty about taking time off.
How dare you take a break when you owe money?
How dare you take a break when your spouse is counting on you?
How dare you take a break when you’re behind schedule?
Logically, we have to recognize that this line of thinking is nonsense. These are stressful and emotional thoughts, not intelligent ones. When you’re not getting the results you want, pushing harder virtually never works. Pushing harder only wastes energy and causes you to feel further behind.
Has pushing yourself harder when you’re feeling drained actually worked for you? Have you seen a consistent improvement in results when you’ve tried this approach? Or can you admit that this doesn’t work and that therefore you should stop considering it as a viable solution?
Level 10 Motivation
On a scale of 1-10, if your motivation to work was a 10, what would that look like for you? Pause for a minute, and describe this out loud. What would your behaviour look like? If we watched you working with your very best motivation, what would we see on the movie screen? How would that be different compared to seeing you work at level 7 or less?
If you saw me working with level 10 motivation, you’d see me pop out of bed at 5 a.m., exercise, shower, make a quick and healthy breakfast, and head straight to my computer to work. I’d quickly engage with my top project, and I’d keep working on it throughout the day, probably until 8 or 9 p.m. I’d take short meal breaks, or I’d sip on green smoothies while working. I’d pace around and ponder ideas aloud while thinking through some aspects. I’d use a small notebook to make short lists of next steps, and then I’d do those steps one by one. I’d only stop working when my brain felt too mushy to continue working productively. Then I might go for a walk at night to reflect upon what I’d done and what I’d like to do the next day.
I wouldn’t scatter my focus by doing many different types of tasks in a day. I’d probably stick with just one project and complete a meaningful chunk of it. I’d only spend a small amount of time on tasks not related to my core project, and probably no more than 10 minutes on email.
What does your level 10 workday look like?
When was the last time you experienced a day like that?
I don’t experience days like this all the time, but I do experience many of them each year. These are the days that move the needle forward for me. My current strategy for being more productive is to create more of these level 10 days each year. To have 100 such days in a year would be amazing.
Coiling the Spring
The mistake I used to make was trying to go from a weeks-long stretch of level 4-7 days and push myself up to level 9 or 10. I couldn’t get that to work, and I don’t recall meeting anyone who was able to succeed with that approach either. Motivation is a resource that needs time to recharge. When you squander it with wasteful busywork, you won’t have the energy and focus to push yourself to a higher state of productivity. It’s like trying to jump while your knees are locked. All you can muster is a baby jump from your ankles. If you want to jump higher, you have to bend your knees and pull your arms back first.
What I found most effective was to deliberately stop working for a while. I took some serious time off from work to give parts of my brain an extended rest. Actually, the rest isn’t the most important part. What’s important is the shift in perspective that occurs when getting away from work for a while.
I don’t find it necessary to be a total purist about this, so when I’m taking time off, I still keep up with email and other basic tasks to maintain my business, but typically this is only 10-30 minutes a day. I could probably limit it to 5-10 minutes per day if I wanted to, but answering a few emails is pretty easy and doesn’t seem to corrupt the restorative effect of taking a break from other work.
Restoring Your Ability to Prioritize
It’s tricky to see the truth that you could potentially be more productive doing 50 focused hours of deep work in a month as opposed to 200 hours of semi-focused work. This isn’t true for all types of work, but it’s often true for entrepreneurs and knowledge workers.
My 50 best articles probably produced stronger results for myself and more positive ripples for others than the next 1000 articles. Some hours of writing were far more productive than others. This has been true for many other types of work as well.
When you work continuously week after week, you lose perspective. You lose the ability to distinguish between high-priority deep work and low-priority busywork. The edges between different types of work become blurry. Taking time away from work helps you step back and see these edges more clearly. You regain the ability to classify work into different bins such as busywork and results-producing work.
Taking time off stretches your time perspective. When you don’t have any meaningful work to do today, tomorrow, this week or next week, you stop thinking about your daily to-dos. If you want to think about work, you have to use a longer time perspective, projecting forward in time to the day you’ll return to work. This shifts the way you think about work, from something immediate to something you can only ponder from a distance. This perspective has some serious benefits, not the least of which is an improvement in your ability to prioritize.
How to Stop Working
Obviously, a vacation is one way to stop working, but it isn’t the only way. Despite what I’ve learned about the importance of breaks and how effective they’ve been for me, I still sometimes find it difficult to give myself permission to take vacations. This is especially true when I’m engaged in long-term projects. Giving myself permission to take guilt-free vacations is a personal shortcoming I’m still working on. I’ve made a lot of progress, but I know that I could still improve my productivity by taking even more time off. I’m at least able to accept that working more hours doesn’t make me more productive.
To get around any negative associations to vacations, I usually frame time off as some type of personal growth exploration. I could do a deep dive into a hobby. I could travel and explore a new city or country. I could do an interesting experiment or 30-day trial.
For the second half of July, I attended the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, saw almost 40 plays and helped Rachelle with her new play. This weekend we’re in Saskatoon, attending another Fringe. It’s my first time visiting Saskatchewan, and the sixth Canadian province I’ve been to so far. Last night we spent some time hanging out with one of the performers after seeing his play.
I could frame this time as a vacation, but it’s also a deep dive into independent theatre. In one sense it’s not really work, and it certainly involves taking time off from core projects such as Conscious Growth Club, but it’s still productive for me. I gain a lot of creative ideas from seeing shows and talking to various performers, especially since there are many parallels between public speaking and theatre.
Most important, when I take these kinds of trips, it builds my motivation, like a coiled spring. By the end of such a trip, I’m itching to get back to work, and I can’t stop myself from ploughing through lots of high-priority work when I return home. Doing deep work on my projects is ridiculously easy, and I can normally sustain excellent flow for weeks before I start noticing a drop-off again.
Maintaining high productivity is a matter of repeatedly coiling and then releasing the spring. To spend more days working at level 10 motivation, I have to shift my focus away from work for an extended period.
One reason I’m writing this article now is that I can’t resist. I feel a build-up of pressure from being away from my usual work mode since mid-July, and I feel a strong desire to write as a way of releasing some of that pressure. I still have six days to go before I return home and can finally get back to doing some deep work. It’s difficult to stay away from work, especially when I have a big project like CGC to tackle. Of course, this is a great situation to be in, though. It means that when I finally do get back to work, I’ll enjoy a nice flow of that level 10 motivation for a while.
The key is to avoid pseudo-work as much as possible. It’s often much more productive in the long run to alternate between deep work and non-work. Avoid those endless weeks of busywork that don’t move the needle forward for you. Work hard until your ability to generate strong results begins to taper off, and then stop working until you feel strongly motivated to work hard once again.
To get comfortable with these alternating periods of work and non-work, I had to experiment a lot, and I suggest you do the same. This starts with acknowledging the level of results you’re currently producing in your work right now. If you’re not in the flow those level 9-10 days, why are you wasting your time with busywork? Get away from your workspace, and stay away until your spring is coiled. Go back to work when you’re ready to work at level 10 motivation.
Give yourself permission to play, explore and experiment. Dive into another mode of living. Leave your residence for a few weeks. Take in some fresh sensory input, so your brain isn’t processing the same patterns month after month. Recognize the futility of low-priority busywork, and replace it with deliberate non-work. This will coil the spring and allow you to return to deep work with energy, passion and focus. Invest your precious time and energy where you have the motivational leverage to create meaningful results.