Josh Davis is the author of Two Awesome Hours , a book that tackles the tough subject of how to get things done as a human being. We are incredibly efficient at things we evolved to do: move, eat, reproduce, survive an existential threat. Paperwork? Not so much. Our brains are not wired to sit still for hours at a time to focus on an administrative task, no matter how important we think it is.
Davis provides tips for becoming better at sustaining relatively short periods of intense productivity – two optimal hours of performance a day that will help you achieve your most important goal. Finishing a project; editing a chapter; reviewing an important brief before a meeting. Two hours is about the maximum time we humans can stay focused and get the most form our mental energy reserves.
Here’s one of his five tips for success:
“Manage your mental energy. Tasks that need a lot of self-control or focused attention can be depleting, and tasks that make you highly emotional can throw you off your game. Schedule tasks based on their processing demand and recovery time.”
Most of us make dozens of decisions before we ever get to the office. We decide whether to hit the snooze button, how much time we have for coffee before running out the door, what to wear, what to order for breakfast, what route to work will have the least traffic, and whether to grab an umbrella as we head into the building.
Many of these tiny decisions involve self-control. I’ll wash these dishes in the sink so I won’t have to face them when I come home. I’ll order the fruit cup instead of the glazed donut. I’ll smile at Fred when he complains about the weather instead of rolling my eyes. We spend an enormous amount of mental energy on self-control, which is managed by the brain’s Executive Function. Davis explains: “Executive functions also involve inhibiting some actions, feelings, or thoughts. For example, letting personal slights from the boss go or staying focused on putting together presentation slides amid distractions like phones ringing or e-mail notifications popping up. Self-inhibition, or self-control, is one of the major executive functions the mind performs.”
So every decision we make, no matter how tiny, depletes our mental energy and our ability to focus on important tasks. How does donut selection affect your ability to focus on finishing your important report? The two seem unrelated. But not as much as you’d think.
Davis writes: “At a deeper level, being productive requires self-control because quality decisions, investments, or plans require that we deal with competing options. Whenever there are competing options, we have reasons to pursue each option, and therefore self-control is needed to say no to all but one.”
Starting a task fresh is important, so how we use our energy before sitting down to it matters. Davis says it’s as if we were a race car driver; taking our race car through city traffic to get to the race would not be the best way to guarantee a fresh start and optimal outcome.
It’s also important to recognize your emotions and how they may be priming you for performance or holding you back. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that only positive emotions will be useful to you. The next time you’re afraid to take a risk even though you know it’s the right thing to do, consider getting a little angry. Your anger may be the best way to push through doubts and fears. Think like a professional athlete gearing up for a fierce competition – then head out to the field to kick some butt.
Here are some action steps:
- Do your most important task first thing in the morning, before you have depleted your mental energy on smaller tasks and decisions.
- Make as many decisions as possible the night before your big project to conserve your mental energy. Make your lunch, lay out your outfit, have the discussion about what’s for dinner, so you start your project with the most mental energy you can.
- Practice ways to manage your emotions if they start to deplete your energy. Breathing exercises, quick breaks (or a nap) to reset your brain may give you another burst of mental focus and help you shake off emotional fatigue.