5 strategies to gain two hours of peak performance

Do you ever have days when it feels like you’ve been super busy but when you take stock you realise you haven’t accomplished anything significant? On these days, it’s as if all of your time is spent checking emails, attending meetings, responding to questions from clients and other seemingly trivial tasks that don’t really lead to progress. Between open-plan offices, telecommuting and freelancing anywhere, anytime, the modern day workplace is awash with distractions.

Time to reclaim your space and your sanity. Herein I will explain five strategies that will help you make sure that you don’t waste all of your time and mental energy on boring routines and futile decision-making. They establish some simple conditions for your day, and will teach you how to be awesomely effective with your work. This way, you’ll ensure you have at least two hours of peak performance every day. Yep, 120 minutes is all you need to make a difference. Let’s get started…

1) Manage your mental energy

It’s rare to have just one task to do at a time. In order to keep all of our responsibilities fulfilled, we’re forced to juggle them. Should you sort through your emails? Or should you prepare for today’s meeting? It’s important to choose wisely, as you only have so much mental energy to use up.

Unfortunately, the juggling act itself can reduce the amount of mental energy available to us by causing ‘mental fatigue’. This happens when we overwork our executive functions, which are the parts of our brain that help us manage, regulate and control.

If you switch off email alerts while you prepare for an up-coming meeting, you’re saved the hassle of constantly having to re-focus on the preparation, and you still have the energy to deal with a worthwhile task.

Making several decision, even those that seem unimportant or routine, can also deplete our mental energy more than we realise. Other activities commonly known to be mentally fatiguing are networking, switching back and forth between different tasks, project planning and scheduling.

Obviously it’s not possible to avoid all the activities and tasks that might fatigue your mind, but if you remain aware of those that do, it will help you spend your mental energy on the tasks that matter most.

Start by recognising the tasks that tire you out the most, and refrain from performing them right before you need to give you best effort. If finishing an important report is that task that matters most that day, then don’t begin your day by responding to emails, like you usually do. Instead, start with the report immediately.

2) Stop fighting distractions

We’ve all experienced the frustration of wanting to get work done, but finding ourselves constantly distracted by incoming emails, calls and notifications. It’s not easy to maintain focus, but there’s a good reason for that. Did you know that our brains are designed to get distracted?

Consider our prehistoric ancestors. Do you think they would have been able to survive had they failed to shift focus from the food they were gathering to the animal that was creeping up behind them? Nope! Our brains have adapted to become distracted and refocus when changed occur in our surroundings. Distractions are perfectly natural.

With that in mind, we should be better able to manage their negative impact on our work. Workspaces have several predictable sources of distraction — computers and smartphones being the biggest offenders. Even though we love and appreciate all that those devises can do for us, they also hinder our focus and productivity. That’s why turning off their distracting features, such as notifications and pop-ups is a great place to start.

But what about unpredictable distractions, like an ambulance that passes by your window? Well, not all distractions are bad. We sometimes simply have to let our minds wander in order to boost our focus. Seems like a paradox, right? But there’s truth to it. A 2010 study from the University of California revealed that when we deal with tasks such as creative problem solving, our performance level will be enhanced if we let our mind wander once in a while.

So how can you let your mind go without letting it drift off altogether? You can actively enable mind wandering by engaging in an unrelated and cognitively easy task — like tidying your desk or making lunch — after having focused on a difficult problem for a certain amount of time. You can also allow passive mind wandering, by letting yourself drift off, becoming aware that you’re distracted and returning to the task that needs your attention.

3) Recognise your decision points

Over the course of each day, you engage in all manner of habitual tasks. Think about how many times in your life you’ve hopped out of bed, gotten dressed, scanned your emails and attended weekly meetings without a second thought. In these cases, we often switch off and go into autopilot to get through our daily routine. Rarely do we stop to consider weather our routine makes sense. It may be that your daily tasks are causing you to waste a great deal of time and energy without even realising it.

Decision points are those moments in times when a given task is completed or interrupted. At a decision point, you have the opportunity to consciously choose what you do next. Let’s look at an example. Say a colleague comes to your desk and asks you to go to lunch with them. As a result, you’re interrupted in the middle of drafting a report. You then recognise that you’ve got a decision point on your hands — either decline their offer and continue your work, or take a break and get a bite to eat.

By consciously considering your options here, you’ll be better able to make a decision that benefits you and your productivity the most. As you become more aware of these points in time between tasks and make fewer impulsive decisions, you’ll be able to become more effective with your time.

4) Fuel a healthy body

We all know that exercise is vital for good physical health. But if that’s not enough to motivate you, you might be interested in the positive effects it has on your mental performance, too. These effects were revealed in a study where participants were presented with colour words written in different shade of ink (for instance, “yellow” written in green). The participants then had to say either the colour of the word (green) or what the written word was (yellow), before or after doing physical exercise. The participants who solved this task after the physical exercise gave correct answers faster, showing that physical exercise enhances the brain’s ability to make decisions and solve problems.

Another study found that physical exercise sharpness your focus. Here, participants were required to aim at a target on a screen while ignoring distracting stimuli on either side of it. After doing physical exercise, participants demonstrated an enhanced ability to focus and to ignore distractions. Therefore, it might be a good idea to reserve some time to work on your important projects just after you’re back from the gym. But what if you have not time for exercise?

Luckily, there are also certain foods that will increase your level of effectiveness too. Consider, for instance, carbohydrates and fats: research shows that immediately after eating carbs, you’ll experience improvements in your ability to focus. But it’s short-lived, and other executive functions may decline after only one hour. Surprisingly, fats might be more helpful than carbs. One study showed that certain fats are likely to improve several executive functions — even three hours after eating. People who are dehydrated will experience more fatigue and difficulties with maintaining focus, so drinking water is also crucial if you want to life your level of effectiveness.

5) Create a powerful workspace

Are you one of those people who needs complete silence while working? Do you worry that music and background noise will sabotage your concentration? In fact, noise such as intermittent speech and music inhibits your ability to perform your best at work.

Intermittent speech refers to words or sentences with pauses in-between — basically, office chatter. Several studies have shown that intermittent speech negatively affects your ability to stay focused, read and process text. So, when you want to be effective with your work, closing the door to your office or reserving a conference room might be a good idea, so that you avoid that distracting noise.

Also, certain types of light actually boost your productivity. Both blue light and bright white light positively affect your ability to stay focused, and they can help you combat mental fatigue. A study in the UK exposed two nearly identical workspaces to different light: white and bluish white. The people in the workspace exposed to the bluish-white light reposted improved concentration and work performance.

But if you aren’t able to improve the light source in your workspace, there’s still one more factor that you can control to make a world of difference: clutter. All those notes, unfilled papers, food wrappers and dirty cups fight for your attention, and thereby decrease your ability to focus on your most important work. Being unable to move around is also detrimental to your productivity. If you’ve got room to get up and walk around every now and then, you‘ll be surprised at how much you can sharpen your focus, and return to your work in a more effective mind set than before.