Work It Harder Make It Better Do It Faster Makes Us Stronger
Improving the least productive, most important, and definitely the longest part of your waking hours (your job).
By Kevin Roose
Illustrations by Giacomo Gambineri
Most people assume I’m fairly productive at work, since I typically write a non-negligible number of words every day for my job as a tech columnist at New York magazine, usually on short deadlines. But what they don’t see are the minutes I spend agonizing over a single sentence, or my gnat-like attention span when it comes to responding to e-mails, or the embarrassingly large fraction of the day I spend scanning Tweetdeck and joking around with my co-workers in Slack. I’m not unproductive on an absolute basis, and I’m good at quick turnarounds, but my pacing is less than ideal. Efficiency-wise, I’m a 1982 Cutlass Supreme masquerading as a Tesla.
Time to shape up. For this installment of Self-Bettering, I spent a month testing gadgets, talking to experts, and tweaking my habits to make my workday as happy, efficient, and fruitful as possible.
The first step in learning how to work is figuring out when to work. For most people, this is non-negotiable—your employer says you work from 9 to 5, so you do. My situation is a little more fluid, since I’m a writer who works from home in the Bay Area, 2,900 miles and three time zones away from my bosses.
I’m usually an early riser, but just to make sure I wasn’t missing out, I tried a few days of a night-owl schedule, waking up in the late morning and working until 4 or 5 a.m. There are some advantages to nocturnal working—among other things, fewer e-mails, tweets, and phone calls come in to distract me late at night. (There are also some short-term cognitive benefit—a 2009 study found that people who kept later schedules were more alert later in the day.) And I liked the fact that a nighttime schedule gave me an excuse to skip boring after-dinner events I’d otherwise feel obligated to attend.
The problem with nocturnal schedules is that they’re all or nothing. I can’t adhere to one every day because the entire American media works during the morning and afternoon, and my group of friends hangs out at night. And while some writers prefer the solitude of night—my colleague Kathryn Schultz wrote a great essay about the benefits of a nocturnal schedule—it didn’t work for me. So unless I’m prepared to abandon my social life and cut all ties with my colleagues, I’ve got to stick to a relatively normal daytime schedule. The good news is that daytime working is actually better for us—a 2014 study found that sleeping at odd hours messes with the way our bodies transcribe certain genes and possibly leads to higher incidence of diabetes, heart attacks, and cancer.
I also tried adopting a polyphasic sleep cycle, an old technique that has had a renaissance among Silicon Valley coders in recent years. Instead of sleeping at night, you nap in short intervals throughout the 24-hour day, which saves time and purportedly leaves you better rested while still getting you the same total amount of sleep. Thomas Edison reportedly preferred polyphasic sleep for its efficiency, but I found it intolerable, and only made it through only three nap cycles before giving up and falling asleep through the night.
Cris Sgrott-Wheedleton, a Virginia-based productivity consultant, gave me a bit of advice that applied no matter when I chose to wake up. When I told her that I work from home, she said: “Get up and make your bed. It gives you a sense of being on work time. You need to create an environment for yourself that creates the sense that you’re leaving personal time and entering work time.”
She also advised me to get dressed as if I were going to an office. The next morning, I put on some pressed slacks and my nicest button-down shirt, made my bed, and sat down at my desk with a new sense of purpose.
Setting Up Shop
Right now, the workplace arrangement that’s most in vogue in Silicon Valley tech companies is called “activity-based working,” or ABW. ABW was coined by a Dutch consultant who argued that people who have multiple, different workspaces are more productive than those who sit in one place all day. The idea is that you’d write e-mails at your desk, work on collaborative projects in a bench seat, answer phone calls in a corner with sofas and privacy walls, and so on.
I visited the San Francisco offices of HOK, an architecture firm that has designed spaces like the BBC’s headquarters and a terminal of Boston’s Logan Airport as well as offices for tech companies like Apple and Cisco. HOK’s director of interior design, Daniel Herriott, is an ABW advocate, and told me that I should think about segmenting my home office into differentiated spaces.
“There’s a sense of vitality created through variation,” he said. “You can’t do every task at your desk.”
In setting up these spaces, Herriott said, it’s important to make sure that each of them has the right kind of lighting, noise control, temperature, and ergonomic furniture. Later, I learned that there is actually a math equation, devised by a group of Pakistani researchers in a 2009 study, that measures the effect of all of these factors on a worker’s productivity. It looks like this:
Productivity = -0.645 + .015 F – 0.068 N + 0.739 L + 0.021 T + 0.162 SA
where F = furniture, N = noise, L = lighting, T = temperature, and SA = spatial arrangements. The higher coefficients on L, T, and N mean that those factors are more closely correlated with productivity than the others. Change a lightbulb or point a desk away from the sunlight, and you stand a greater chance of messing up someone’s productivity than if you tinker with the air conditioner.
Based on Herriott’s advice, I tried turning parts of my house into discrete workspaces, optimizing them for light, temperature, and comfort and assigning one genre of task to each. My couch became my e-mail spot. My kitchen counter became my tweeting zone. I rearranged my desk according to an expert-recommended system called the P.L.A.C.E. method. (“Purge unnecessary items, group Like with like, place groupings according to your Access needs, Contain loose items, and Evaluate how well your system works” — the acronym needs a little work.) A 2013 study in Psychological Science found that people who worked in messy rooms tended to be more creative at problem solving than those who worked in tidy spaces. But I figured a little de-cluttering couldn’t hurt, so I spent a half hour shoveling papers into boxes and taking day-old coffee cups back to the kitchen.
The ABW strategy worked well for me, though it did result in some other forms of inefficiency. For one, the time I needed to re-settle into productive work in a new space outstripped any time I might have saved on the productivity front. I also tried working in a place other than my home through a start-up called Breather, which rents spaces by the hour, Airbnb-style, for people who need a temporary place to work. Using Breather, I found an office in downtown San Francisco and rented it for an afternoon. The space was lovely—an airy, well-equipped room on the 14th floor of an office building with a sofa, a desk, and a supply of free Tootsie Rolls in a glass jar. At $25 an hour, it’s too expensive for everyday use, but it might be good for an occasional treat for your brain.
Music and Muscles
There are places around the edges of the workday where small tweaks and optimizations can have a major impact. For example, I had some luck experimenting with my soundtrack. Research has shown that for most kinds of tasks, a background of quiet, ambient music with no lyrics can boost both a listener’s mood and productivity. I typically listen to one of a few familiar pop playlists while I work, but this month, I switched to classical music—one 2009 study found that baroque classical music helped at least half of respondents work happier and more efficiently. After a few days of Bach and Vivaldi, I did find myself getting distracted less frequently, and I felt much more magisterial while I typed out blog posts.
I fared worse when I ventured into the world of ergonomics. I’ve long used a two-in-one desk I built myself that has both a standing side and a sitting side—by now, we all know that sitting is the new smoking—but when I tried more body-friendly gadgets, the results were uneven at best. I bought a yoga ball chair ($79.98 on Amazon), but it was too short to put me in a comfortable position at my desk. I installed an under-desk cycling attachment ($28.26 on Amazon) that purported to give me the exercise benefits of the treadmill desk without the balance issues, but stopped using it after the third time I banged my knee on my keyboard tray.
Weirdly enough, the worst thing I did for my productivity was the most traditional step of all: I went to work. Back in New York for a business trip, I spent a week in New York’s offices, which consist mainly of an open floor dominated by low-walled cubicles. Open-plan offices are the workplace designer’s bane. According to organizational psychologist Matthew Davis, who reviewed more than 100 studies of office plans, they sapped attention spans and depleted productivity, mostly due to the likelihood of distraction caused by all those co-workers milling around.
Maybe I’ve gotten spoiled by working from home, but I found the open office basically uninhabitable. Co-workers on phone calls. The metallic “ch-chunk” of the vending machine dispensing snacks. The patter of feet headed to and from meetings. It might be that working from home has turned me into a hermit, but I’ve never gotten less done.
Finding a Groove
After my home office was set up properly, I had to get to work. Entire library shelves have been dedicated to advice about productivity. Classics like Getting Things Done and The 4-Hour Workweek have sold millions of copies. And conflicting advice abounds. So I won’t try to recapitulate the literature.
What I will say is that, over the years, I’ve tried several of the most popular time-management techniques, with varying degrees of success. I’ve tried GTD, which involves breaking up tasks into actionable items and organizing them by priority. I’ve tried “batching” my e-mail checking into one or two dedicated sessions per day, as Tim Ferriss recommends. I’ve even enlisted the aid of a software program, Freedom, that cuts off my WiFi access for minutes or hours at a time so that I can get some distraction-free work done. (I haven’t gone as far as the author Evgeny Morozov, who somewhat famously confessed to locking his router inside a safe while he worked. But I’m tempted.)
The method that worked best for me in the past, and that I decided to revisit this month, is the Pomodoro Technique, which involves using a timer to break your workday into small, dedicated chunks of time. (Typically, the rhythm is: 25 minutes on, five minutes off, with a longer break every four mini-breaks.) The technique, invented by software developer Francesco Cirillo, is based on the theory that deadlines help us get things done, and that creating lots of little, artificial deadlines throughout the day with the aid of a timer can help regiment an otherwise messy workflow.
“Using a timer isn’t to turn you into a robot, but rather to figure out what your ideal energy patterns are, and learn to work with those rather than against them,” Natalie Houston, a productivity coach and professor at the University of Houston, told me.
At Houston’s recommendation, I tried a modified Pomodoro for a week, using the timer on my iPhone to give myself 40-minute chunks of time to get specific tasks done. During those chunks, I closed my e-mail tab, quit Tweetdeck, signed out of Slack, and focused on getting a single task done. It was occasionally frustrating—I missed a few semi-important e-mails that needed quick responses—but on the whole, the timer had the effect of a drill sergeant standing over my shoulder, yelling when I veered off-task.
I also tried a handful of productivity-focused apps—Dispatch, Any.do, Finish —but the best thing I did for my productivity was analog: I got in the habit of writing down my tasks on a yellow legal pad. I subdivided them into mini-tasks, so that instead of just seeing “file expenses” I’d see bite-sized items like “scan receipts” and “fill out template.”
It seems stupidly simple—a to-do list written by hand on a legal pad. Yet it worked better than more expensive and complicated methods.
“Your brain has an amazing capacity for processing information and creating new ideas,” Houston told me. “It’s terrible as a storage device.”
Cris Sgrott-Wheedleton, my other productivity expert, told me that I should not only build timed Pomodoro breaks into my day, but should make sure those breaks were real.
“Take a complete break from your electronics,” she said. “Go outside. Literally, go outside. Stand out there for a couple of minutes. Get some fresh air.”
She’s not wrong—disconnecting for short bursts does make me feel more refreshed than just staring at my phone while I walk to the coffee shop. The downside is that it makes me too relaxed. One afternoon, I took a break from work to sit outside on a patch of grass and rested my eyes for 15 to 30 minutes, per the Pomodoro Technique. I woke up two hours later to a half-dozen missed calls.
Emulating the Masters
Most of the productivity advice I’ve tried this month has been fairly traditional. But many of the most industrious people in history didn’t have apps or timers or self-help books. To venture further afield in search of the optimal routine, I decided to turn to some historical ideas about how best to work.
I started with a productivity tip from writer Steven Pressfield, who says in his book The War of Art that he reads Homer’s invocation of the muse aloud every morning before writing. At my desk in the morning, over my coffee, I summoned my most Morgan Freeman–ish voice and started saying the invocation out loud. (“O Divine Poesy, goddess-daughter of Zeus! / Sustain for me this song of the various-minded man!”) Nothing happened—no spark of lightning or brilliant epiphany—although I did get some funny looks from my dog.
Next, I tried a method made famous by 1920s writer Hugo Gernsback, who believed that noise and visual stimulation from the outside world inhibited his productivity. Gernsback invented a helmet called the Isolator that blocked out all sounds and sights except for what came in through two small eyeholes. Gernsback’s Isolator was soundproof and airtight (oxygen was fed in through a tube), but I didn’t have an oxygen tank, so I crafted an ersatz version out of a baseball hat, a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and a pillowcase. My makeshift Isolator wasn’t very comfortable, but after a little adjustment, it worked well enough, giving me tunnel vision and blocking out everything except the screen I was working on. (I would caution against wearing an Isolator in the office, though—unless you’re an executioner or a bank robber, it looks kind of creepy.)
On the off-chance that the answer to my workplace woes lay in an entirely different direction, I tried a productivity trick first ascribed to the Japanese engineer Yoshiro Nakamatsu. Nakamatsu, who is widely considered the most prolific inventor in history, with over three thousand patents to his name, believed that depriving the brain of oxygen by submerging himself in water for extended periods of time was key to big cognitive breakthroughs. The goal is to get as close as possible to the point of drowning, at which point your brain begins firing in unexpected ways. (“Zero-point-five seconds before death, I visualize an invention,” he has said.)
I tested out Nakamatsu’s method one day, when I was feeling stuck on an article I was writing. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I got into my bathtub, placed a notebook on the ledge with a pen, and dunked my head underwater for as long as I could. Then—at what felt like the last possible moment—I came back up for air. I tried this five times, and it didn’t work very well. (Instead of having eureka moments, I was mostly thinking, “Holy shit, I’m drowning.”) But I did get a nice bath out of it.
In the end, taking into account both the science on work methodology and my interviews with workspace experts, I decided to make a few permanent changes to my work routine.
The first is Herriott’s activity-based work system. I’ve designated four different spaces within my house, each tuned to a different task: armchair for e-mails, sofa for reading long things, kitchen table for writing long things, desk for everything else. I’ve also kept my desk tidy and made some ergonomic tweaks to my furniture. I now use a modified version of the Pomodoro technique, timers and all, and I’m going through yellow legal pads at a furious clip.
All of these things have made me feel more productive—though, with everything productivity-related, there’s a bit of an observer effect. Of course I’m more productive now, when I’m paying close attention to what I’m getting done. But when these techniques all become rote, and my mind is called back to distractions (the closet that needs cleaning, the lamp that needs fixing, the YouTube videos that need watching), will I be able to keep my focus?
One of the most unexpectedly wise pieces of advice came from Natalie Houston. She told me, “Don’t let the urgent overwhelm the important.” It’s a phrase I’ve been rolling around in my mind ever since I heard it. A little trite, sure. But whenever it pops into my head, I end up policing myself—“Do I really need to watch this 10th parkour Vine? No, no, I do not”—and getting back on track.
As a final carryover from my month of workplace experimentation, I wrote that phrase—“Don’t let the urgent overwhelm the important”—on a Post-It and stuck it on my computer monitor. It’s not the most elegant, high-tech solution, but it’s a good mantra. Sometimes the best tricks aren’t really tricks at all.