When it’s time to buckle down and get a task or project done, we often assume we need to work on it undistracted and without interruption until it’s done. Focus. Put in the work. Don’t stop until it’s done.
In reality, not all work works this way.
Yes, we often need stretches of uninterrupted focus time to do one task. But we need markedly different strategies the moment we think about getting work done in the long term.
How we choose to work in the long term affects both the quality and quantity of the output. Finishing a project isn’t the same as doing it well. Coming up with ideas isn’t the same as generating a very long list of ideas, with plenty of creative options among them. Writing one report and submitting it on time isn’t the same as producing great reports over the next three years that lead to a promotion.
To be productive in the sense of nurturing our ability to complete work in the long term as well as keep quality high, we need to sometimes do things that seem unproductive.
1. Take Days Off
A body of research across multiple fields shows that taking a day off keeps us productive. When people don’t have at least one day off, outputs suffer. It’s true of women who made bombs during World War I. The weeks when they worked the most number of hours were not the same weeks as when they had the greatest output. It’s true in healthcare, too. When nurses work 12- or 13-hour shifts, patient dissatisfaction is higher than when nurses work shifts of 8 to 11 hours.
If you’re lucky enough to get weekends off, don’t work during them. Or at least don’t work consistently during your time off. Playing catch-up once in a while isn’t going to ruin your productivity, but doing it over and over will.
People love to believe in whatever magic supposedly happens when they wake up up before the sun rises to squeeze in a little extra work. Not everyone needs the same number of hours of sleep, and not everyone needs to sleep at the same time of day. The majority of people, however, cannot function at their best on six or fewer hours of sleep when that behavior is consistent.
An in-depth sleep study found people who were forced to sleep less than six hours per night for two weeks straight said they felt fine but experienced a decline in their performance on cognitive tests. In fact, their scores were about as bad as another group of subjects forced to stay up for 24 hours straight.
So get the sleep you need. Some people can sleep from, say, 9:00 p.m. to 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. and those seven hours will be sufficient. Some people find they cannot even fall asleep until after midnight. When and how long you sleep is unique to you. If you want to make use of some quiet hours in the morning or late at night, however, you should make sure it doesn’t interfere with those optimal hours for your sleep. Otherwise, you could be deluding yourself into thinking you’re being productive when you’re not.
3. Enjoy Your Break Time
Powering through a lunch hour might help you meet a deadline here and there. If you’re trying to develop healthy habits at work, though, you should take a break long enough to let your mind rest and recuperate a little.
I have never come across any significant research that says an hour is the ideal amount of break time or that people need a meal (it might exist, but I’ve never seen it). What I have seen are experiments showing that when people do activities they enjoy during their time off, whether browsing online for news or sports scores, or taking a walk, or eating a meal, they recuperate better than people who don’t.
4. Invest in Your Hobbies
Spending time on a hobby can make you more productive in the sense that it improves your creativity and problem solving skills. In a study of active U.S. Air Force captains, researchers found that being creative outside of work improved their work outcomes, based on how highly their colleagues and subordinates rated them (Eschelman et al., 2014).
This link between creativity and positive outcomes at work holds true even when the skill or hobby has nothing to do with the job whatsoever. You can play a musical instrument, learn to cook, practice a standup comedy routine—the hobby itself doesn’t matter as much as working to improve it does.
5. Save Up Your Busywork
Busywork has a bad reputation. Busywork is any tedious task that isn’t central to our primary work, but that needs to get done eventually. Some examples of busywork are deleting emails, scanning papers, running maintenance on our computers, filing expense reports, or tidying up our desks. Plenty of people don’t like busywork, and some even acknowledge that their motivation for doing it is to feel productive even though it has low value.
Now, the assumption about busywork is that you shouldn’t do it when there’s a primary task to accomplish. Or, you shouldn’t do it at all and instead outsource the work to someone else, if you can afford it. Why sit around sorting through your email inbox when there’s a report to write? Busywork isn’t the enemy. Doing busy work at the wrong time is the enemy. Saying we shouldn’t do it at all is short-sighted.
So here’s the trick to making busywork more valuable: Save it for a time when you’re feeling burned out and are no longer effective at the primary task. If you work at 9-5 job, save up your busywork and do it Friday afternoons, when you’re likely feeling tired and aren’t making progress anymore with your primary tasks. Don’t do busywork when you’re feeling refreshed and ready to work. Spend those hours when your ability to concentrate is high on your primary work. When you’re starting to fade, do the busywork. It’s a much more productive way to use your time.
Eschleman, K. J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G., & Barely, A. (2014) Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance-related outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.
Image by Kent Wang, CC.