Highly productive people have three common practices: They can focus and do deep work; they know the best time of day to engage in this work; and they have habits that support execution. None of these practices require special skills or technology, but you must use them to acquire the benefits. The good news is that they are readily within reach of anyone, which includes educators and researchers like you.
Cal Newport wrote extensively on this topic in his very readable and accessible book, Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in a Distracted World. He explains that great thinkers throughout the ages have been productive and successful precisely because they would think deeply about a topic or issue. At this point it is easy to assume this is because they were natural geniuses. Far from it. Einstein often said he was not smarter, just willing to chew over a problem longer than others. Learning to “chew” is an acquired skill that requires far less time commitment than one might imagine.
Newport points out that those new to “deep thinking” can only engage at this level for maybe 45 to 60 minutes. Those with more experience can probably sustain deep level thinking for 2-3 hours at most and remain productive. If you think about your whole day and its demands on your time, 1-3 hours is relatively very little time, but the benefits can be astounding. Knowing you have a limited amount of time to engage deeply about a topic makes it manageable and can work to your advantage, which leads to the second point.
Timing Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing cites many studies to demonstrate how the time of day and sequence in which we do things can greatly increase, or decrease, our productivity. Again, we look at greats like Carl Jung and his work habits. Jung would have a fixed schedule in which he devoted his most intellectually demanding work -- writing -- in the morning. And he is not alone. Many great thinkers found their most productive hours to be in the morning.
Look at your own schedule and see where you feel you have the most energy, both mentally and physically. If you are like me, you find that your morning times are quite different than late afternoons when the day is winding up. Strategically planning when to do your deep thinking will yield higher results. For example, I rarely schedule heavy meetings after 3:00 pm knowing that intellectually I am less on my game having already spent the better part of my day using my brain. If I must participate in a meeting in the late afternoon, I will postpone any decision by saying, “Let me give you an answer tomorrow morning.” Almost always, after a good night’s sleep, a good idea comes to me.
Deep thinking and timing can be tied nicely together by forming a habit, as elucidated in Charles Duhigg’s accessible book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Those not accustomed to regular habits believe they constrict one’s freedom by making you conform to a schedule. But highly productive people see habits as liberating them and making them more creative. Once something becomes a habit, you no longer need to expend mental energy considering if you will do it or not; it is just something you always do like brushing your teeth before going to bed. You get the benefit without any mental exertion.
Simply creating a habit of spending 45 minutes in deep work several times a week may seem like a big ask, but if you make it a routine, the habit liberates you from deciding when to do the work and frees up your intellectual reserves for more important work. You lose mental energy deciding each time when you will do the deep work required to write a paper, do research, or figure out a particular problem. A habit frees up mental energy so you can completely focus on the work itself.
Doing deep work at a specific time of day habitually could be a combination that leads to more productivity. At least has been for geniuses and others throughout the ages. You, too, could join them.
Photo Credit: Adolfo Felix, Unsplash
Biography After Sherilyn Siy received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University, she worked as a Foreign Expert at the Xiamen Radio and Television University in Xiamen, China. Two years later, she returned to the Philippines to pursue her Master of Arts degree in Applied Social Psychology as a SYLFF (Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund) Fellow. Upon completing graduate studies, she worked at Miriam College where she designed and taught a new Environmental Psychology course and was recognized as one of the Top Ten Outstanding Teachers. She currently lives in Saitama, teaching English at an after school program for elementary school children.