The traditional 9–5 workday is poorly structured for high productivity. Perhaps when most work was physical labor, but not in the knowledge working world we now live in.
Although this may be obvious based on people’s mediocre performance, addiction to stimulants, lack of engagement, and the fact that most people hate their jobs — now there’s loads of scientific evidence you can’t ignore.
The Myth of the 8 Hour Workday
The most productive countries in the world do not work 8 hours per day. Actually, the most productive countries have the shortest workdays.
People in countries like Luxembourg are working approximately 30 hours per week (approximately 6 hours per day, 5 days per week) and making more money on average than people working longer workweeks.
This is the average person in those countries. But what about the super-productive?
Although Gary Vaynerchuck claims to work 20 hours per day, many “highly successful” people I know work between 3–6 hours per day.
It also depends on what you’re really trying to accomplish in your life. Gary Vaynerchuck wants to own the New York Jets. He’s also fine, apparently, not spending much time with his family.
And that’s completely fine. He’s clear on his priorities.
However, you must also be clear on yours. If you’re like most people, you probably want to make a great income, doing work you love, that also provides lots of flexibility in your schedule.
If that’s your goal, this post is for you.
Quality Vs. Quantity
“Wherever you are, make sure you’re there.” — Dan Sullivan
If you’re like most people, your workday is a blend of low-velocity work mixed with continual distraction (e.g., social media and email).
Most people’s “working time” is not done at peak performance levels. When most people are working, they do so in a relaxed fashion. Makes sense, they have plenty of time to get it done.
However, when you are results-oriented, rather than “being busy,” you’re 100 percent on when you’re working and 100 percent off when you’re not. Why do anything half-way? If you’re going to work, you’re going to work.
To get the best results in your fitness, research has found that shorter but more intensive exercise is more effective than longer drawn-out exercise.
The concept is simple: Intensive activity followed by high-quality rest and recovery.
Most of the growth actually comes during the recovery process. However, the only way to truly recover is by actually pushing yourself to exhaustion during the workout.
The same concept applies to work. The best work happens in short intensive spurts. By short, I’m talking 1–3 hours. But this must be “Deep Work,” with no distractions, just like an intensive workout is non-stop. Interestingly, your best work — which for most people is thinking — will actually happen while you’re away from your work, “recovering.”
For best results: Spend 20% of your energy on your work and 80% of your energy on recovery and self-improvement. When you’re getting high-quality recovery, you’re growing. When you’re continually honing your mental-model, the quality and impact of your work continually increase. This is what psychologists call, “Deliberate Practice.” It’s not about doing more, but better training. It’s about being strategic and results-focused, not busyness-focused.
In one study, only 16 percent of respondents reported getting creative insight while at work. Ideas generally came while the person was at home, in transportation, or during recreational activity. “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor,” says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.
The reason for this is simple. When you’re working directly on a task, your mind is tightly focused on the problem at hand (i.e., direct reflection). Conversely, when you’re not working, your mind loosely wanders (i.e., indirect reflection).
While driving or doing some other form of recreation, the external stimuli in your environment (like the buildings or other landscapes around you) subconsciously prompt memories and other thoughts. Because your mind is wandering both contextually (on different subjects) and temporally between past, present, and future, your brain will make distant and distinct connections related to the problem you’re trying to solve (eureka!).
Creativity, after all, is making connections between different parts of the brain. Ideation and inspiration is a process you can perfect.
Case in point: when you’re working, be at work. When you’re not working, stop working. By taking your mind off work and actually recovering, you’ll get creative breakthroughs related to your work.
Research in several fields has found that recovery from work is a necessity for staying energetic, engaged, and healthy when facing job demands. One particular recovery strategy that is getting lots of attention in recent research is called “psychological detachment from work.”
True psychological detachment occurs when you completely refrain from work-related activities and thoughts during non-work time. Research has found that people who psychologically detach from work experience:
- Less work-related fatigue and procrastination
- Far greater engagement at work, which is defined as vigor, dedication, and absorption (i.e., “flow”)
- Greater work-life balance, which directly relates to quality of life
- Greater marital satisfaction
- Greater mental health
Optimize your life for true productivity and creativity — where you’re rested, rejuvenated, and excited — and you’ll immediately begin saving dozens of wasted hours per week, you’ll have better ideas and thinking, and you’ll create opportunities that weren’t there before.
Your First Three Hours Will Make or Break You
According to psychologist Ron Friedman, the first three hours of your day are your most precious for maximized productivity.
“Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well,” Friedman told Harvard Business Review.
This makes sense on several levels. Let’s start with sleep. Research confirms the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and readily creative immediately following sleep. Your subconscious mind has been loosely mind-wandering while you slept, making contextual and temporal connections.
So, immediately following sleep, your mind is most readily active to do thoughtful work.
So, your brain is most attuned first thing in the morning, and so are your energy levels. Consequently, the best time to do your best work is during the first three hours of your day.
I used to exercise first thing in the morning. Not anymore. I’ve found that exercising first thing in the morning actually sucks my energy, leaving me with less than I started.
Lately, I’ve been waking up at 6AM, driving to my school and walking to the library I work in. While walking from my car to the library, I drink a 250 calorie plant-based protein shake (approximately 30 grams of protein).
Donald Layman, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois, recommends consuming at least 30 grams of protein for breakfast. Similarly, Tim Ferriss, in his book, The 4-Hour Body, also recommends 30 grams of protein 30 minutes after waking.
Protein-rich foods keep you full longer than other foods because they take longer to leave the stomach. Also, protein keeps blood-sugar levels steady, which prevent spikes in hunger.
I get to the library and all set-up by around 6:30 AM. I spend a few minutes in prayer and meditation, followed by a 5–10-minute session in my journal.
The purpose of this journal session is to get clarity and focus for my day. I write down my big picture goals and my objectives for that particular day. I then write down anything that comes to my mind. Often, it relates to people I need to contact or ideas related to a project I’m working on. I purposefully keep this journal session short and focused.
By 6:45, I’m set to work on whatever project I’m working on, whether that’s writing a book or an article, working on a research paper for my doctoral research, creating an online course, etc.
Starting work this early may seem crazy to you, but I’ve been shocked by how easy it is to work for 2–5 hours straight without distractions. My mind is laser at this time of day. And I don’t rely on any stimulants at all.
Between 11 AM-noon, my mind is ready for a break, so that’s when I do my workout. Research confirms that your workout is better with food in your system. Consequently, my workouts are now a lot more productive and powerful than they were when I was exercising immediately following sleep.
After the workout, which is a great mental break, you should be fine to work a few more hours, if needed.
If your 3–5 hours before your workout was focused, you could probably be done for the day.
Protect Your Mornings
I understand that this schedule will not work for everyone. There are single-parents with kids who simply can’t do something like this.
We all need to work within the constraints of our unique contexts. However, if you work best in the morning, you gotta find a way to make it happen. This may require waking up a few extra hours earlier than you’re used to and taking a nap during the afternoon.
Or, it may require you to simply focus hardcore the moment you get to work. A common strategy for this is known as the “90–90–1” rule, where you spend the first 90 minutes of your workday on your #1 priority. I’m certain this isn’t checking your email or social media.
Whatever your situation, protect your mornings!
I’m blown away by how many people schedule things like meetings in the mornings. Nothing could be worse for peak performance and creativity.
Schedule all of your meetings for the afternoon, after lunch.
Don’t check your social media or email until after your 3 hours of deep work. Your morning time should be spent on output, not input.
If you don’t protect your mornings, a million different things will take up your time. Other people will only respect you as much as you respect yourself.
Protecting your mornings means you are literally unreachable during certain hours. Only in case of serious emergency can you be summoned from your focus-cave.
What you do outside of work is just as significant for your work-productivity as what you do while you’re working.
A March 2016 study in the online issue of Neurology found that regular exercise can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years. Loads of other research has found that people who regularly exercise are more productive at work. Your brain is, after all, part of your body. If your body is healthier, it makes sense that your brain would operate better.
If you want to operate at your highest level, you need to take a holistic approach to life. You are a system. When you change a part of any system, you simultaneously change the whole. Improve one area of your life, all other areas improve in a virtuous cycle. This is the butterfly effect in action and the basis of the book, Start with Habit, which shows that by integrating one “keystone habit,” like exercise or reading, that the positivity of that one habits ripples into all other areas of your life, eventually transforming your whole life.
Consequently, the types of foods you eat, and when you eat them, determine your ability to focus at work. Your ability to sleep well (by the way, it’s easy to sleep well when you get up early and work hard) is also essential to peak performance. Rather than managing your time, then, you should really be focused on managing your energy. Your work schedule should be scheduled around when you work best, not around social norms and expectations.
A Very Simple Technique For Building Keystone Habits
You only need one keystone habit to start. If you create one, then you’ll have built the confidence to build several more. The reason is simple: how you do anything is often how you do everything.
If you can lock in one keystone habit — particularly something that is fundamental and important like food or money or time — then you’ll have gained sufficient confidence and control in your life.
This is actually what most people don’t understand about willpower. They think willpower is about self-control when willpower is actually a matter of confidence.
If you have low willpower, it’s because you have low confidence.
You create confidence by getting small wins, which ripple into bigger wins. The more confident you are, the less willpower you need to make good choices.
So how do you build a keystone habit quick?
One answer that psychologists have hit upon is called “implementation intentions.” It’s extremely simple and easy to apply.
Basically, you create a planned response every time you’re either triggered or tempted to do something you don’t want to do.
For example, every time you get triggered to smoke a cigarette, you immediately call a friend. You can also have back-up plans if the friend doesn’t answer.
But the principle is simple: have an immediate response to a trigger so you don’t unconsciously react.
Your planned and immediate response takes willpower out of the equation because it takes choice out of the equation. Willpower is all about choice, or in reality, the lack of having made a choice. Willpower is the byproduct of not knowing exactly what the outcome will be. For instance, when you get triggered to smoke or do any other negative behavior — if willpower is part of the equation, it is because you haven’t decided beforehand what you will do. You’re still undecided. Hence, 98% commitment is much harder than 100% commitment.
True decisions mean you have cut-off alternative options. Decision is the opposite of decision fatigue, and decision fatigue is the same thing as willpower. Thus, willpower is the absence of decision, and leads to an emotional tug-of-war within yourself which generally ends in failure.
Part of the genius of implementation intentions is simply their ability to distract you from your trigger for long enough for the trigger to subside. In the brief 10–60 second window where you’re going through your pre-planned and healthy response to a trigger, your re-reminded of the decision you made and the goals you’re pursuing. The trigger and desire go away as you engage in healthy behavior and re-ignite your confidence.
I applied an implementation intention while at Disney World the other day. Instead of caving into the junk food all around me, I did a bunch of push-ups. Every time I wanted to eat snacks, I just did 10 pushups. By the end of the day, I’d done over 100.
Habit formation is about replacement more than simply removal. You can’t just create a void in your life. You need to fill it with something more congruent. Therefore, in order to build a successful implementation intention or pre-planned response— you need to establish an “if-then” response to whatever you’re trying to accomplish.
Pick the goal.
Whenever an obstacle appears, use your if-then response. Example:
- Goal: Be as healthy as possible.
- Obstacle: eating bad food.
- If-then: if I’m tempted to eat unhealthy foods in an impulsive and non-planned manner, then I will immediately drink a big glass of water and do 20 jumping-jacks.
It doesn’t really matter what your pre-planned response is, so long as you consistently do it. By consistently following through, you’ll create small wins. Small wins build self-respect and confidence, thus lowering your need for willpower. Small wins and confidence solidify the decisions you’ve made, giving you increased inner-knowing that you absolutely will achieve your goal.
Another key reason that confidence lowers the need for willpower is that the more confident you get, the more you genuinely DESIRE better results. At the heart of willpower is not actually knowing what you want. Indeed, you may actually still desire eating bad food, for example. Thus, you’re at continually battling within yourself.
This is a horrible yet common way to live.
Most people do not know what they truly want. They don’t know how to make decisions. They haven’t learned how to build genuine confidence. Most people's lives are a constant back-and-forth of indecision and lack of clarity. Yet, decision and clarity go hand-in-hand are not actually hard to build. They are skills.
You start with one simple one. And watch the ripples grow and success compound.
As you become more confident and mature as a person, your desires fundamentally change. You stop wanting stuff you used to want. You start wanting to succeed. You start loving yourself enough to win at life. You start seeing a much bigger picture for yourself. You realize increasingly more that you are the one painting the picture and actually have been the entire time.
Rather than being disappointed by your previous choices, you’re increasingly grateful for what your life is. You see increased vision and potential in everything around you.
Listen to Brain Music or Songs on Repeat
In her book, On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis explains why listening to music on repeat improves focus. When you’re listening to a song on repeat, you tend to dissolve into the song, which blocks out mind wandering (let your mind wander while you’re away from work!).
Give it a try.
You can use this website to listen to YouTube videos on repeat.
I generally listen to classical music or electronic music (like video game type music). Here are a few that have worked for me:
- One Moment by Michael Nyman
- Make Love by Daft Punk
- Tearin’ it up by Gramatik
- Terra’s theme from Final Fantasy 3
- Duel of Fates from Star Wars
- Stop crying your heart out by Oasis
- Give up by Eligah Bossenbroek (so beautiful)
- Heart by Stars
- This cover of Ellie Goulding
- Fragile by Daft Punk
- Son of Flynn by Daft Punk
- Cool by Alesso
- Sun Through the Clouds by Matthew Morgan
- Testing by CKY
- Borderline by Madonna
- Every You and Every Me by Placebo
- Main Titles composed by Alan Menken for The Little Mermaid
- Halcyon On and On by Orbital
- There Goes the Fear by Doves
- Never Follow Suit by The Radio Dept.