Mr. Milner is a senior director at a top firm who starts his day early at 7 AM. During the wee hours of his morning, he plans new ideas to improve business. For the next couple of hours, he follows up on the important tasks which are due completion in the upcoming days. Soon after, he attends meetings to rally people behind the vision they’re executing.
Like Milner, many others have the same problem. One of my readers named U. Srinivas emailed me asking how can a person remain in a high productivity state throughout the day. So, I decided to write a blog post explaining how I do it myself.
So let’s get started.
- Understanding mental energy
- Understanding deep work and shallow work
- The major mistake people make with deep and shallow work
- How to maintain productivity and mental energy throughout the day
Understanding mental energy
As a human being, your physical and mental energy isn’t infinite.
Your mind and body operate just like your phone does. You start the day at full capacity. Each action you perform on your phone consumes battery. The more intensive the operation, the more the charge consumed. When you’re out of battery, you need to recharge your phone before you can use it again.
Your body and mind are no different. They run out of energy as the day goes by.
The logic applies not only to normal people, but also to those at the world-class level. Imagine a scenario where Usain Bolt had to run the 100m race 25 times a day. What do you think would happen? He’d clock a time close to his best once or twice. In the rest of the rounds, his timings wouldn’t be even close.
Does that mean Usain Bolt isn’t good enough? Of course not. He is the best among the best. It’s just that he has a limited supply of energy each day.
Your brainpower works the same way. You cannot operate in a state of flow throughout the day because it’d drain your battery before the day is over.
You’re wondering “So, what’s the solution? Are you saying the more productive I am, the faster I’ll exhaust myself?” That’s where things get interesting.
If Usain Bolt had to run 100m many times a day, would he attempt to clock his best every single time? Not at all. If he had to run an important race in the evening, he would practice running during the day, and maintain the right energy for the race later.
Your mental energy follows the same pattern. If you mindlessly consume it, you’ll run out of steam long before the day is over. But if you know when to go easy and when to utilize your complete brain power, you can maintain your productive best throughout the day exactly for the right tasks.
Understanding deep work and shallow work
Cal Newport coined the terms “deep work” and “shallow work”. Even if you haven’t heard those words before you would have practiced them in your daily life.
What is deep work?
Deep work is the time you spend on an activity with full attention without any distractions and try to push your limits to do your best. Such efforts increase your skill and create new value.
Each one of us has a core area of expertise we make a living from. For me, that skill is writing and management. For you, it might be sales. We all have our specialization.
Here are some examples:
- A programmer writing code
- A writer drafting and writing content
- A salesperson making a pitch or call to a prospective client
In an ideal world, everyone should work on sharpening that skill by working on it with full focus.
What is shallow work?
Shallow works are tasks that one has to do as a part of one’s responsibilities. They do not need your utmost attention, but sooner or later you have to complete them to avoid consequences.
Here are some examples:
- Checking emails
- Attending routine repetitive meetings
- Buying groceries
The major mistake people make with deep and shallow work
Everyone has a different area of deep work. For a writer, reading books needs utmost attention and falls under deep work because it aids an improvement in writing. For a comedian, reading books is leisure. Though he might occasionally spot a joke that he can use, reading broadly falls under shallow work.
But how many people hone their core skills with deep work? Not many. Most people don’t, because applying deep work requires conscious effort and mindfulness.
Let’s talk about you. How do you approach each day in your life? Do you take things as they come or are you mindful about how you spend your day? If you don’t segregate your deep work from shallow work, you’ll have trouble maintaining focus and energy throughout the day.
Unfortunately, most people make the classic mistake – they combine all their tasks and look at them as a list to complete.
Here are some real-life scenarios where you make a mistake of combining deep and shallow work:
- Opening the notification to read a new email while you’re working on your core task
- Answering calls while you’re focusing on a task
- People walking in when you’re working on improving your skills
When you combine shallow work with deep work, you keep draining brain power little by little. The battery that powers your brain will drain out as per the image shown below.
How to maintain productivity and mental energy throughout the day
1. Plan in advance
Take a few minutes to plan when your deep work hours should be. If you spend 5-10 minutes planning in the morning before you start your day, it can go a long way.
I have a habit of sticking to the same deep work hours on all weekdays. I spend 20 minutes in the morning drafting a skeleton for an article. For the next 20 minutes, I write as many words as I can. The following 1 hour goes on reading and learning. I set aside 2 hours in the morning for shallow work such as emails and follow-up meetings.
I set aside a few free blocks of time here and there for any ad-hoc tasks that pop up. I maintain a similar mixture of deep and shallow hours post-lunch too.
2. Align deep work with your long term goals
The whole purpose of focused attention is to help you achieve your long-term goals. So, dedicate your deep working hours to take one step closer to your dreams.
But, that’s easier said than done. Some of your daily responsibilities will need your complete attention. Feel free to use your deep work hours for such tasks if you like.
As a rule of thumb, for every major task you work on each day, ask yourself, “Should I set a deep work hour for this? Does this help me achieve my long-term goals?”
The answer doesn’t always have to be yes to assign a task a deep work slot, but use your best judgment to decide which tasks require your utmost attention.
The more your deep work hours align with your long-term goals, the faster you’ll achieve them.
3. Take your deep work hours seriously
If you have to maintain your mental energy effectively throughout the day, you must pay serious attention to your deep work hours. During that time:
- Set your phone on silent or DND
- Close mailbox and chats which throw notifications to demand your attention
- Decline routine meetings
- Close doors if possible
- Use noise cancellation headphones or earplugs
- Do one thing at a time. Never multitask even if a simple task comes to your mind. Keep a note to complete it later.
Apply your own ideas to eliminate any sources of distraction you encounter in your environment no matter how small they are. Little things matter.
4. Don’t schedule your entire day
If you’re new to time blocking, you’ll want to schedule your entire day into hours of deep and shallow work. That’s a classic beginner mistake.
Allow free hours in between. No matter how well organized you are, unforeseen events inevitably occur which throw your schedule off balance. In such cases, if you have free hours in between, you can shuffle your deep work hours and complete them by end of the day.
A packed schedule will lead you to believe that the approach is too tedious to implement. But, it’s only as complicated as you make it.
Start simple and build your productivity like a house of lego blocks – one step at a time.
5. Aim for 3 deep hours a day
When you begin, aim for 3 hours of deep work a day. I know it sounds too small, but you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish in 3 hours of deep focus.
Once you get the hang of hitting 3 hours of deep work every day, you can step it up and increase them by 30 min or an hour at a time.
Resist the urge to make massive changes in your schedule within a few days. When you incrementally challenge yourself, you’ll increase your chances of sticking to the habit in the long run. Provide your mind and body time to ease into the productive habit.
6. Group your shallow work
No matter how much you value time, you’ll have chores and responsibilities to attend to. You cannot turn a blind eye towards them, can you?
So, here are a few tips to effectively manage shallow work:
- Combine all your shallow work together. For example, I set aside two hours in the morning to check emails, follow up, conduct meetings, and finish any ad-hoc work.
- Spread shallow work slots throughout the day. Keep free hours in your schedule and scatter them out throughout the day to handle unexpected events and jobs that show up.
- Multitask during your shallow hours
In addition to my two shallow hours in the morning, I keep another hour free post-lunch for any last-minute jobs. If nothing comes up, I use the shallow hours for deep work.
Allow yourself to go easy during shallow hours. Don’t try to channel all your attention on tasks that don’t require your entire focus. If you do, you’ll drain mental energy little by little. Drip, drip, drip. Before you realize, you’ll tire your brain out and run out of steam to focus on the tasks that matter.
Don’t overthink shallow tasks. Unless necessary, spend as little time as possible to get a routine task done.
People who love perfection have a habit of doing every last task with the highest quality. I have worked with many team members who spend an extraordinary time on email to make sure they get every sentence spot on. Well, you should go that extra mile only for important emails. But if try to make every email impeccable, you’ll waste your mental energy as well as your time. No one will judge you for a typo or a fragmented sentence.
Strive for perfection only on the tasks that matter.
The whole purpose of segregating shallow work is so that you those done with the most minimal effort possible. Every time you feel the itch to get every detail right, remind yourself that aiming for perfection on such tasks yields nothing other than an inflated ego.
7. Don’t spend unnecessary energy on making decisions.
Throughout your day, you’ll make one decision after another. Many of those are conscious, but another whole bunch occur without your knowledge.
Examples of your conscious choices:
- The footwear for the party
- What you eat for breakfast
- Whether you want to answer an incoming phone call
Examples of your unconscious decisions:
- Reading an email when a notification pops up
- Deciding if you should click/like/comment on a post on social media
- Processing your colleague’s words and responding
When you make decisions, you consume your brainpower. If you indulge in vigorous decision-making, you undergo decision fatigue where your brain can no longer think effectively.
Try to recall the time when you were trying to choose between multiple options like buying a TV or picking a hotel for your vacation. As you went through one choice after another to compare the benefits, your head felt heavy even though you weren’t forcing your brain to think hard. That’s because when your mind is working on the decision-making process, it uses up your mental energy. The more decisions you make, the faster you feel mentally exhausted.
To maintain your brainpower throughout the day, avoid making decisions whenever possible. You don’t have to go to the extreme of wearing the same outfit every day as Mark Zuckerberg does. But you can eliminate simpler choices like thinking too hard about your breakfast or the last details of an upcoming meeting.
Don’t aim to choose the perfect option every time, rather learn to love a good choice. Not only does it make you more open-minded, but it also uplifts your productivity.
The difference between high performance and mental exhaustion lies more in your habits than the circumstances surrounding you.
No matter what environment you’re in, various sources will claim for your attention and consume your mental energy. If you let your mind run on autopilot, you’ll deplete your energy reserves on unnecessary tasks and run on low battery on the tasks that matter.
A little mindfulness about how you spend your brainpower makes a whole lot of difference to your productivity. Therefore, if you want to conserve your mental energy and operate at the highest level of efficiency, you will have to change your schedule and habits. It’ll take efforts upfront, but the long-term results will make them worth it.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.