Mikael Cho
Jun 23, 2013 · 6 min read

Okay. That’s done. What’s next?

I’ve read and thought a lot about how to be productive. About 5 years ago, I picked up a copy of The 4-Hour Work Week which changed the way I thought about priorities.

There were two main reasons why I was trying to be more productive:

The first, was obviously so I could get more work done but the second was so I could spend more time with the people that I love.

It’s this second point that I would sometimes forget once I started to actually get good at being efficient.

When you become more productive, there’s sort of a high that comes along with how much you are now able to accomplish.

This means, you may end up diminishing the amount of time you spend with people you love (which is likely one of the very reasons why you are trying to be productive in the first place).

Why the obsession with productivity?

More time spent equals more work done. This was the way of thinking that I was brought up on.

I saw this working mentality in my father, who worked 16 hour days in his 40s to grow his business, but eventually the stress got to him.

He had to stop working and has since retired and is now working as an independent professional from home, making his own hours and spending more time with our family.

I know he was working hard because he wanted to support our family so that one day he could spend more time with us.

But, this way of thinking is changing.

Time spent has been the measure of productivivity because it’s easy to measure. Everyone can count the number of hours they worked on something.

Time spent is relatable because it’s easily measurable.

We try to jam more work in a day by working longer, adding task after task to feel like we’ve worked hard.

But time spent is a vanity metric when it comes to measuring productivity. We weren’t made to operate at peak performance for hours on end.

The importance of recharging your batteries is deeply rooted in your physiology when it comes to using and recovering energy.

Wasting time boosts efficiency

Your body was meant to work in rhythms and cycles.

In the 1950s, researchers found that we sleep in 90 minute cycles, moving between light and deep sleep throughout the night. A decade later, these same researchers discovered that this cycle repeats itself during waking hours.

This explains why you may wake up feeling energized and then within an hour or so start to feel fatigued or bored. This is your body telling you that you need a break.

When reseachers at Florida State University looked at the performance of elite performers, including musicians, athletes, and actors they found that the best performers practiced in uninterrupted, 90-minute sessions and they rarely worked more than four and a half hours in a day.

Dr. Ericsson, the lead researcher for the study, concluded:

To maximize gains from long-term practice, individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.

When I first saw this study, four and a half hours of work in a day seemed like slacking off, but it’s important to remember that it’s often the removal of work that allows you to actually realize the maximum potential of what you create.

When to not give a damn

Don’t try to be productive in areas of your life where you’re spending time with the people that matter to you most.

It’s these moments when you should not be looking at your phone to plan the next thing on your schedule or worry about that unanswered email.

Allow yourself to get lost in time when spending it with friends, family, and people who make you feel good.

Research shows that we become happier when we spend time with best friends, partners, and close friends and this ‘happiness effect’ can carry over to the work that we do.

That’s exactly what a study conducted at Warwick Business School found when they asked students to perform a series of of addition problems in 10 minutes.

One group of students were shown a comedy film before doing the math problems while another group were shown no film, and a third group was shown a ‘placebo’ film with no elements of comedy.

After, the researchers recorded the happiness levels of the students.

The results showed that students who reported being happier after watching the comedy movie, were more productive than students who were not shown the comedy film.

It’s not just what we experience in life that makes us happy, but who we experience those moments with. Feelings of happiness can carry over to your work and help you to be more productive.

How to do less (but get more)

I’ve been working hard to better allocate my time. I want to enjoy it with people I care about the most and improve how I work to get more done.

Here’s what’s been working for me:

  • List your 3 most important tasks. Every night, layout the top 3 tasks that are the most important to get done the next day. These three tasks should be big movers, or tasks that are the most important. They’ll make you feel more accomplished when they get done.
  • Have a 90-minute work session before 8am or after 8pm. Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, getting work done without the bustle of the day going on around you helps with focus and relieves feelings of overload that can lead to procrastination.
  • Write everything down. Don’t waste any mental energy on trying to remember what you need to get at the grocery store, upcoming meetings you have, or things you need to do. Use a system that works best for you, but keep track of everything you need to do somewhere other than your head.
  • Work no more than four 90-minute sprints per day. Your mind was not meant to run for 8, 10, or 12 hours straight. Break your day into chunks and in between your work, eat, go for a walk, workout, or just sit and do nothing.
  • Take breaks from all screens. If your work requires you to look at a computer more than you do people, make sure that when you take a break, that you aren’t looking at anything with a screen (TV, phone, laptop). Screens drain your mental energy so cut them out when you’re in recharge mode.
  • Group similar tasks together. Check email, answer tweets, or do your phone calls in bunches. This decreases the mental energy required to constantly switch between answering email and other tasks throughout the day.
  • Spend a day without email. For one day a week, don’t check your email. Even glancing at an inbox that is full of unread messages can make you feel anxious. Just leave your inbox alone for a day and you’ll feel refreshed and ready to tackle your inbox tomorrow with gumption.
  • Plan 1 night a week with friends or family. These nights are moments for you to recharge and reflect. One night like this can do wonders for new ideas, inspiration, and your happiness.
  • Put your phone on Airplane mode. When you’re out with friends, don’t check your phone. Shut it off, put it on Airplane mode, or accidently “forget” it at home. Give your full attention to the people in front of you. They deserve it.

The key is to not forget the point of why you are trying to be productive.

Whether it’s to get more work done or spend more time with the people you love, giving yourself a break from time to time will help you do better work in the long run.

Thanks to Stephanie Liverani and Divya Pahwa

    Mikael Cho

    Written by

    Founder/CEO @unsplash @mikaelcho

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