Want to know one of my biggest productivity secrets? Too bad, I am not telling…
Just kidding, this is an easy one to implement despite seeming to be counter-intuitive for increased output. When you need to have high quality output for a project for example, I think this will work well for you. But you need to practice this in advance, so let’s start with that.
Time chunking is simply acknowledging that you are unlikely to be able to focus on a task that requires true focus and attention for more than a couple of hours at a time. That is ok, in fact, just assume this to be true and go with it. It is human nature for the mind to wander, which is why meditation is such a good practice for many. It teaches you to exercise some level of control over your mind and stay focused on the very present moment. The world we live in today makes prolonged focus a skill that diminishes more and more; each generation is less effective as a whole in this area because of things like social media and text messaging. We have gotten used to the idea that every few moments we will be interrupted with a text or a notification from one of our many social media apps.
For the Time Chunking to work, you need to exercise some disciplines that maybe are not currently top of mind. Here is one of my favorites that I learned from Tim Ferriss a long time ago in his book The Four Hour Work Week. It was an awesome collection of things that a lot of us do now because of COVID and other life adjustments we’ve had to make, but it was written over ten years ago. I have implemented a lot of the tricks and tips he shared in this and other books, and cannot emphasize enough how useful his books, blog and podcast are. I HIGHLY recommend you explore them all. The trick I am referring to so you can construct a time chunk is to set up an auto-reply for your email that basically reads:
Thank you for your email.
I am in the midst of a large project with a looming deadline, and I will only be checking emails at 11am and 4pm daily. If you have an urgent need, please text me at 602-XXX-XXXX. Otherwise, I will respond to your email soon.
I appreciate your understanding in this matter.
I have done this myself and it works well. I have also just waited until a set time each day to look at my email without announcing it to the world. I am continually surprised that when I answer someone within a 4 hour period of when they emailed me that they thank me for being prompt in my response. I shudder to think how many people out there are so buried in their inbox that they cannot respond in reasonable amount of time. If you are two to three days behind in responding to emails you are either inefficient with your time, or need a better system, or maybe both. Additionally, I am in sales, so rarely is there something that is truly “on fire” to the point of needing an immediate response. But it is easy to get sucked into the habit of responding to emails as soon as they pop up and this detracts from whatever I am working on. If I am looking for quality output I cannot allow my attention to be fractured, so I plan accordingly.
If I am working on an RFP (Request For Proposal) which is common in my industry, I will deploy this tactic and a few more which I’ll cover soon. These long and tedious documents are in some cases looking for a reason to exclude you from the process, such as not double spacing the responses in your Word document or not including a thumb drive with a copy of the response in digital format as well as six printed hard copies, not stapled but bound in a notebook fashion on the left side of the pages. It’s ridiculous at times, but that is the game and if I want to win I have to play by there rules. To do so, I set myself up for success by doing the following:
block out my calendar for two hours at a time to work on this project only
turn off the notifications of my email inbox
silence my phone and vow not to look at it during this two hour block of time
play music on a low volume in the background
work in a place free of distractions
go to the bathroom now instead of during the blocked time
set a timer for two hours (knowing I have an end in sight and that I don’t have to look at the clock to know when to stop is a big help on staying on task)
In this dedicated block of time I will not take a call, answer an email or look at my phone. I will work on my task that I have designated and nothing else. Yes, my largest accounts still need to leave me a voicemail or email me and I will call them back AFTER this block of time has expired. I give my task total focus and know that I am paying attention to the details that matter.
At the end of the two hour block of time my alarm will go off and I will lift my nose off the grindstone. ONLY THEN do I allow myself to get up from my desk. At this point I will need a mental break and getting up from my desk and walking around a bit will do my mind and body good. I can allow my brain muscle to relax, it having “flexed” for the past 120 minutes. I am sure that growing up hunting and fishing was a huge help in developing the skill of patience and focus for long periods of time, but also contend that anyone can learn to do this with practice. If you can play video games or scroll on social media for hours on end, you clearly possess the skill of undivided attention. But despite my ability to focus all day long if truly necessary, I know from experience that if I “batch” my attention into two hour blocks I get better quality of output and don’t drain all of my mental energy away by noon.
You have to take control of your time and your working environment. You are responsible for setting the expectations of your accessibility. If you constantly drop what you are doing to answer every email as they hit your inbox, you are setting the tone that you are ALWAYS readily available. I no longer answer calls at six in the morning from an East Coast client or check emails at night. I have a DAY JOB and I control what hours I am available to my work contacts. The rest of the hours in a day belong to me. Sounds easy enough, but I would say most people are terrible about managing their time correctly.
Become the exception.
The concept of a 40 hour work week was credited to Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company. The work week used to be six days a week, and the common thought was that if you were part of the “working class” you worked…all the time. By offering more money per day and an additional day off work each week, Ford was able to eliminate their worker shortage and increase productivity (workers were still expected to have the same output as their six days a week competitors) Before long the rest of America followed suit, and thus the 40 hour work week was born. Fast forward to today, we all have our smart phone on us all the time, and while there are conveniences because of this, it also means that you are tethered to work at all times. This means you need the discipline to NOT answer emails that hit your inbox at night or on the weekends. YOU do not have to work the same schedule your co-workers, client and prospects do. Their lack of time management skills are not your concern…go live your life. And I have clients in all 50 states, so am I expected to start my day on East Coast time and end it on Hawaii time? Of course not, but some people do think this to be true…
Treat yourself like an athlete, even if you are a desk jockey. You need to put in the work to get ahead, but you need to rest and recover as well. Athletes who don’t sleep well and do not treat their mind and body like its their biggest asset are the first ones to suffer injuries and burnout. Manage your time and energy and the results will follow. You will be happier, healthier, and more productive despite working less time. You need to chunk your time and benefit from deep, uninterrupted focus to get shit done, and then come up for air. When the work is done, go play. And I mean that, you need to offset the work time and effort with recreation to renew your mind, body, and soul. This is how you become a complete human being instead of a one-sided worker bee that has no identity and no purpose outside of your job. This is a dangerous place to be, and I am speaking from experience. Learn from my mistakes, and plenty of others who have already been down this path.
Read the Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. This is not a paid endorsement or anything like that, I am just suggesting you get a feel for an alternative look at life. Get your head right when it comes to structuring a LIFE for yourself. There is way more out there than clocking in and clocking out for a paycheck. If you happen to be someone lucky enough to love your job, that is great. But it still shouldn’t be the only thing you do; it should lend itself to you have a complete life, full of adventure and experiences that give you a database of great experiences that you can share with others. Create your own story and paint the picture the way you want it to look, not the way that society “says” you should. Break free and do your own thing, whatever the definition of that is.
I wish you luck in your endeavors.