Work sprints

I found myself with another short article-writing project on Wednesday, due on Friday. I am getting used to these quick-turnaround pieces, and rather enjoy them. Though the pay is not large, they are good practice for my “journalistic” style and for working with an editor.

It reminded me of a strategy I used to use when I used to procrastinate on a project, and I think I learned it from Martha Beck back in the day when I was in grad school. It involves taking a huge project and breaking it into short chunks of only 15-30 minutes at a time, especially if we are avoiding just getting started. Often, just starting and gaining  momentum is the hardest part.

Nowadays, I can usually set a timer for 60-90 minutes of uninterrupted work at a time because I have worked up to that. The idea is that you set everything else aside and just focus on that one thing. It is harder to do that in an era when we often feel tied to our inboxes and phones.

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Photo credit link

But really: email is not urgent. If someone cannot wait a day or two for a response, they should call you on the phone. We need to de-condition people to getting automatic responses from email, social media and all the other distractions.

After my 60-90 minute sprint, I typically take a break of 20-30 minutes. Research shows that few humans can focus behind 90 minutes anyway, due to our ultradian cycles. These are basic rest-activity cycles discovered in the 1950’s. When we respect these rhythms of focus and rest, we can better manage the ebbs and flows of our energy and be much more productive.

I think that is one problem with corporate work environments. Typically they are built around an 8+ hour workday, and are not sensitive to human rhythms or people’s individual chronotypes, which also influence their productivity. When I complete 3 of these focused 60-90 segments in a day I typically get a mountain of work produced, more than I ever did in a corporate day that was highly interrupted. I am so very grateful for being able to manage that and design these “work sprints” for myself.

What is your cycle for accomplishing your best work? How can you plan to incorporate that cycle into more of your days?

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Wellness Wednesday – step away from the desk

For those of you out there who work at “desk jobs” where you spend a lot of time at a computer on a typical day, this one is for you.

There are days when I am at a keyboard for a long time. Whether doing research for a client, or writing or emailing or on a teleconference, it can mean long hours of being in one position or just sitting. Most of the time, I am restless enough that sitting for more than 45-60 minutes is impossible. I get up, walk around, get some tea, stretch, take a few deep breaths.

It can be harder when you are in an office, or a space without as much privacy. When I worked at an office, there were long hallways where I could get up and take myself for a walk. I tend to drink a fair amount of water and tea in a typical day. So getting up to go to the bathroom could be a mini-break. 

Getting up and taking a break has some great benefits. For one, you will get some circulation to your brain and body. Sitting for long periods is hard on your body, so standing now and then is not a bad idea. Some people like standing desks, and I used to use one of these occasionally. For about half an hour twice a day or so I would elevate the desk (especially during conference calls, which could make me a bit edgy) and try to adopt a good posture for standing. Or I would pace a bit in and around my cube. Fortunately it did not seem to disrupt my coworkers. 

Another benefit is that you might use your break as an opportunity to make a transition between projects. I am typically juggling anywhere from 3 to 7 projects at one time. It can be difficult to pull my mind from one topic to another. So a mindful break for 10-15 minutes can be helpful to allow a “rest and digest” of the item I just finished before moving on to the next task or project.

Now that I work at home much of the time, I find that scheduling a mid-morning dance class or a mid-day yoga break can be a great opportunity to move and get away from the desk. I typically return refreshed and with new vigor toward whatever project I face. Getting out for some fresh air can be great: just a 10-20 minute walk has benefits. Since it has been a bitter cold in MN this week, I have not wanted to do that so much…

How often do you get up from your desk? Do you have particular habits that help you remember to do this at least once every 2 hours? 

cristy@meximinnesotana.com

Wellness Wednesday – plan time for fun

I mean it, schedule fun into each week, each day, maybe even in every hour if that is possible.

It is not optional. Fun feeds your creativity.

I used to take breaks to play and rest only when I had “earned” them through doing enough work. Probably that daughter-of-an-immigrant work ethic that many of us inherited. Work all day and then you can earn your fun.

But what it we turned that on its head?

Play at intervals, rest at intervals. Work deeply, but do so in a focused and paced way. 

Those of us with focus issues might prefer the “sprint/break” approach: work in 45 minute blocks with no interruptions (including email, social media or other distractions) and then get up and move, dance or walk for 15 minutes.

whimsical cat print
Whimsical cat print on Etsy

Others who like to work for longer stretches might work for 90 minutes take a 30 minute break. Most research says that the maximum focus for most humans sitting at one time without moving is about 70-80 minutes. Honor that. In the era of social media, it is likely substantially less, according to Cal Newport.

Knowledge work often requires sitting at a desk for long stretches, or enduring endless teleconferences that sometimes make you want to stab your eye out with a pencil (not speaking personally, of course).

What if you took a playful attitude toward work? You can inject a little creativity and some cartoons or funny videos into your (dreadful) required Powerpoint presentations. (I feel your pain. I have been there.)

One of my favorite wise teachers, Brene Brown says that “Creativity not expressed is not benign. It metastasizes.” Heed that wisdom. Plan some fun and some whimsy into your day. Your work will be re-energized and you will deliver at a higher level.

I dare you.

cristy@meximinnesotana.com