Have you ever cast your mind back, and realised there’s nothing to distinguish the last few weeks, that you can’t be sure of what you achieved? You have simply ‘existed’, in a frantic, heart pumping kind of way. A flurry of activity, with no clear shape to it.
Meeee too. The last five weeks of grinding 3am finishes sticks in my memory like one never-ending day. (Don’t send flowers though – my grumbling, loud though it most certainly is, is tempered by the fact this only seems to happen about twice a decade).
I realised early on I had a very particular problem to solve: time was being lost to a jittery inability to focus. And the extreme of that, my own inner final boss: the jittery stress robbing me of the big picture so I couldn’t stop myself being lead down the wrong paths.
The one saving grace (other than ActiveInbox getting rebuilt better than ever before of course!), is I’ve flung myself into so many different experiments to improve my ability to focus, I’ve got some lessons to share.
Shall we dig into some answers?
It’s ‘sleep’, right? The answer is always ‘sleep’.
Sleep is the productivity world’s darling, and depending who you believe, by either getting more or less of it, it’s the ultimate super power.
Its position on the winner’s podium makes sense when you consider it has to be amazing, because evolution – so obsessed with keeping us alive – has prioritised it over leaving us utterly vulnerable to attacks from predators for a whopping 33% of our lives.
The case for the defence
Maggie Thatcher, one of the most durable British Prime Ministers at 11 years, famously claimed to only need to sleep 4 hours a night… Equally famously, she was known for requiring daily B vitamin injections, starting a war over the sovereignty of some sheep, snatching milk from children, and ultimately suffering from dementia.
What I’m getting at with this little anecdote (because its plural is not data), is there’s a ring of truth in the volumes of scientific research that prove we need abundant sleep in order to learn, have creative breakthroughs, be less stressed with our team, and to repair brain cells to prevent long term disorders (we now know that brain cells shrink during sleep – about 60% in rats – allowing cerebrospinal fluid to flow about 10 times as fast, helping to flush out built up toxic waste products and drain them into the bloodstream).
And unless you’re the Usain Bolt of the sleep world – i.e. a genetically gifted miracle – if you claim you don’t need much sleep you’re almost certainly lying to yourself. Like a drunk who’s forgotten he’s not sober, and thinks he’s perfectly capable of driving home.
(For the record I’m a big fan of a solid 9 hours, yet I feel ok when I don’t sleep… I just get irrationally angry at random moments…).
But no doubt, educated as you are, you already know all of this, and how to achieve it. Because for the last decade or two, the $20 billion dollar sleep industry has been awfully keen for you to find out that “sleep is good”.
But you see, it’s that commercial motivation for all this heralding of good news that sets my spider sense a’tingle with suspicion.
The case for the prosecution
Academics, lawyers, entrepreneurs, students, doctors and parents seem to achieve a great deal on very little sleep. They can’t all be deluding themselves, or at the very least, clearly some types of important work are doable by the sleep deprived. (Unless you believe that the Queen of England is a lizard person, in which case the ‘sleep more’ industry tycoons are still lying to you, but just so they can get ahead as you lay in bed…)
There’s also evidence that sleep deprivation is wonderful for people with certain types of depression.
In conclusion, your honour
While I’ll defend the need for getting enough sleep to the death, “getting more sleep” can be bloody hard to do, especially if you suffer from a sleep disorder or career disorder. And seemingly, it’s not even always necessary when times are hard. I wanted to find something more actionable.
What can we tweak to give us the biggest release of time?
If I’m lucky, I’ll live to 78 (anything less than 50 and I’ll be miffed), and each day we spend about 7.5 hours sleeping, 2 hours procrastinating according to a recent survey, and 2 hours eating.
Lifespan (78 years) – eating (6.5 years) – sleeping (24 years) – procrastination (6.5 years)
= 41 years to do stuff
(Note that this doesn’t consider whether we’re actually living well, it’s just the available time to actually make good or bad decisions with the opportunities life gives us. Living well requires us to throw away toxic opportunities, by knowing our values, not least according to Plato who felt nobody thinks about this enough.)
I’m not going to pick on eating. Eating is delicious, artistic, and when done socially, wholesome and educational. Nom.
But there’s a curious relationship between sleep and procrastination:
- If I procrastinate in the day, I work late, stealing sleep.
- If I’m tired my brain is less capable, so it procrastinates.
- And so it goes.
Thus if I had to choose one, I’d procrastinate less. Because as above, that naturally gives me more sleep. (Conversely, I’ll assume it’s hard to change sleep given 75% of people report they want to, but nobody feels they can).
So to give us a starting hook, why do we procrastinate?
Psychologically, our subconscious is considered to be an elephant, and our conscious merely a rider. If you’ve ever seen an elephant at full speed, you’ll realise the rider is typically the last to decide anything.
This is why we procrastinate: the elephant wants to avoid anything that makes us feel sad, such as things we perceive to be hard. It’ll pivot away from them before we’ve even realised. And when we’re stressed, it recoils even faster from those looming hard things.
(If you’re interested, the rider theory of subconscious was proven by testing our reaction times; but you’ll know it yourself if you’ve mindlessly opened a Facebook tab, and only snapped out of it when it took a few seconds longer than anticipated to load).
The crucial lesson to remember is that elephants aren’t traditionally easy to reason with. That is to say, brutal self control is tricky. Far better to tempt it with a tasty piece of vegetation.
And the winner is… headspace!
So what’s as tantalising as procrastination to our subconscious elephant? Finding work pleasurable.
Not always easy.
But given even the most boring work can be made fun if you rummage around in the details, I found the best way is to simply begin the deep dive into them, by giving myself the *feeling* I have an abundance of energy to do so.
So in the experiments I ran on myself, the variable I was trying to maximise was headspace, to boost that sought-after feeling of wakefulness and energy, and minimise the crushing feeling of stress. That desire, that excitement, to leap onto stuff and start building up my world.
The result of my attempts to increase headspace
Disclaimer #1: all my experiments are inspired by science’s current best guesses, as of May 2018. I’ve rated each one out of 10 for their perceived effectiveness over several weeks. But as I’m one person, they’re anecdata. I only hope to inform you of which experiments you can run on yourself to harness your own multiplier secrets.
Disclaimer #2: headspace has been my selfish personal mission for a long time, so it’s what permeates every ActiveInbox decision. And the new products. I anticipate I’ll name drop them, because their features are so entwined with this goal.
Launching Yourself Into The Day
The reason people sometimes say “too much sleep left me tired” is because they’re dehydrated. The first pint of water literally feels like washing cobwebs away. Although beware too much, as it can cause kidney damage.
- Alarm clock far from bed 10/10
I loathe myself when I let two hours slip by in bed in the morning while browsing the news, and this solved it by forcing myself to get moving. I swear “taking the first step” is the ultimate productivity answer to everything.
- Quickly take that first step into momentum 10/10
The best way I can describe this is the feeling of revving my brain and putting it into a high gear. If I don’t do this, if I have a lazy breakfast and do some reading before I get started, then that pattern continues all day – I never hit the high gear.
- Meditate on the big picture 8/10
Some people like to pray, others to mediate, I personally enjoy a long shower. It’s something in the full body sensation, mixed with absolutely no distraction, that lets my mind wander beyond its normal ranges. I solve gnarly coding problems, I mentally prioritise the day and week, I come out with confidence that what I’m working on is the best use of my time.
- Illuminate with bright, blue-rich white light 6/10
A trio of scientist’s recently won the Nobel Prize for finding the mechanism for controlling our circadian rhythm – including light’s central role. Light synchronises our internal clock to direct our bodies to be tired, awake, hungry or energised. Too little from the blue end of the visible spectrum in the day, or too much at night, can cause our internal clock to slip, initiating a cascade of difficulties, such as poor sleep, ill temper and worse concentration.
I tried a LED Light Therapy Lamp next to my desk for an hour when I woke up. I’ve marked it down because it’s impossible to know if it’s a placebo, but it definitely coincided with an invigorated mind.
- Wake at the same time each day 3/10
I appreciate the argument for this – it makes waking up easier. But my lifestyle naturally has variable bedtimes, and I prioritise hitting a certain number of sleep cycles (more in a bit) to be efficient, so I’m happy to let this go.
Gliding Through Gently
- Regularly walk outside to break myopic stress 10/10
This is a double whammy benefit, of natural light and vitamin D (see ‘Illuminate’ above), and forcing me to resurface from a rabbit hole to re-prioritise, before hours are wasted. Ironically, I really struggle with it despite it being so valuable for regaining perspective, because when I need it most I’ve already lost perspective. I’m thinking of trying this with a Pomodoro timer next to fix that.
- Value your own time to delegate intelligently 9/10
I’m always surprised by friends who make $100/hr resenting paying $30 to make a big problem go away. But I never recognise the pattern in myself, as my brain immediately calculates what that means over several years, and I think “gosh, I could make a solution for a fraction of the cost”. Yet in hindsight, I’ve been immensely grateful for every time I’ve paid for a solution. Doing my own always takes longer than I think, and continues to worry me at the back of my brain for years (“will I go to jail because my accounting calculations were wrong three years ago”), because unless it’s central to my business it will be put into an unloved corner to potentially wreak havoc. And not even the financial equation always makes sense: when we wrote our own stats system for ActiveInbox, it runs so slowly compared to off-the-shelf packages that we ended up paying more in server hosting each month.
- A well prioritised schedule… 9/10
I’ve found that without it stuff still gets done, but there’s no guarantee it’s the right stuff. My basic rules for prioritising are:
Pick the things that’ll move the needle in your life (I keep short lists of ‘week goals’ and ‘month goals’ to test little tasks against, and those lists are only populated with things I truly care about, after some introspection. Having belief in why you work on something is the ultimate source of motivation and productivity, and something I don’t think people talk about enough. Similarly, when delegating things I don’t like, I try to find people who will like it – because otherwise they’re not going to do a good job either).
Start the day on the task requiring most creativity, while my brain is at its freshest and most open.
Give myself blocks of time, and especially, to not begin something until I know I have time to finish it (having to restart it halfway through is incredibly mentally taxing). As I know I’m an optimist, I’ve trained myself to give things double the time that my instinct tells me.
For everything that doesn’t bring a long term gain, I try to say no. Or stick it on a ‘Some Day’ list (so my brain isn’t doggedly wasting time trying to hold onto it).
This is probably the most important thing, but I marked it down a point because it’s also a chore that I really struggle to maintain. I wish I could find a way to make it more desirably fun (ideas welcome!).
- … With no IM or email, and sometimes no WiFi 8/10
I’ve noticed, only ever in retrospect, that if I begin to procrastinate it just gets worse. Like Pringles, once you pop, you just can’t stop. I believe it’s because procrastinating a little overwhelms the brain – literally too many open tabs – which makes it harder to concentrate, making work scarier, leading to more procrastination.
- Banish the coffee (give or take a special occasion) 7/10
I accidentally gave up coffee five months ago (in much the same way Forrest Gump became a marathon runner… one day at a time), and while I miss the smell tremendously, I don’t want to go back simply because I no longer mentally crash in an explosion of irritation any more. I still consume as much caffeine through tea, but I’ve found it a gentler, more sustainable high.
- Vitamins 7/10
If I’m weary, I take B vitamins late in the day, and sometimes ginseng & gingko biloba. There’s definitely a gentle uplift – a feeling of the mind clearing – but I’ve often wondered if it’s just rehydration from the fact I take them with water. I can’t convincingly untangle them (but I’m satisfied enough to keep paying for them).
- Exercise 5/10
When I routinely lift weights, the general feeling of confidence – probably related to endorphin release – puts me in a position to take positive risks. But I struggle to return to deep focus when I get back, and I sometimes worry that the happy hormones, which give me such an easily-won reward, cause me to care less about the success of the business over the long term. More positively, a little cardio in the evening with friends breaks away the day’s stress, and seems to stop burnout over the weeks.
- Don’t get angry 6/10
Anger is supremely motivating… for doing the wrong things. I’ve lost countless hours sending emails to cold callers to berate them, that had no positive outcome. And in a team, it leads to a worse experience for all. The single most effective thing I’ve found is forcing empathy: to walk away, and imagine myself living all the constraints of the person I’ve just been irritated with, which very often leads to rapid resolution.
- Eat little & often 5/10
This isn’t controversial at all – big meals are known to take blood from your brain to your intestine – it’s more a question of whether your work environment makes it easy to have multiple meals. Also, I really like food, so I’m not a huge advocate of this.
- Brain music 4/10
There’s a concept called entrainment, where rhythmic musical stimuli synchronises our neurological firing. Proponents claim it stops the mind wandering, reduces reaction time, increases speed of pattern recognition, and increases slow wave for deeper sleep. Detractors – also known as published researchers – accept it’s measurable on an EEG, but everything else is wishful thinking.
I personally love to work with music, that I know really well (so I don’t get over excited by it), but that’s because I work in noisy environments. It’s mostly to block out distraction, and a little to boost my energy (because Bruce will do that for you!). I didn’t notice any more significant affect.
Maximising Recovery With Efficient Sleep
- Find a reason to make you stop working hours before bed 10/10
The hardest part about working late isn’t just the sloppiness of the output, it’s the fact I find it really hard to stop. I.e. if I work until 10pm, it’s likely to become 2am, ruining the next day. But despite knowing this, it’s never been easy for me to stop in the first place. This is why one of the biggest changes in my life was getting a social, physical evening hobby: it made me close the lid, and nothing beats it for transcending work to find peace. The gift is because our brains make sense of the previous day while we sleep, I feel like I wake up with a ready solution that would have taken me hours the night before. The only caveat to this if you’ll create catastrophic cascading problems by not finishing something before you sleep, such as a helping a customer in another timezone, but I’ve generally found that’s normally a punishment for poor scheduling.
- Only warm light: a nice lamp, and no laptop or iphone 9/10
This is the opposite of a Light Therapy Lamp, which along with laptops and phone screens, emit light from the blue end of the spectrum, stimulating the brain into alertness (Kindles don’t do this btw). Your brain will respond to a more candle-ish light with winding down. An easy test for me is that if I read a book, I gently drift of; whereas if I read my iPhone I find it incredibly hard to stop myself mindlessly tapping away, even if I’m not enjoying it. For the same reason, I’ve bought black out blinds as the summer sun comes up in London at 4am; although they’ve occasionally led to panic attacks due to disorientation.
- Sleep only in multiples of 1.5 hours 8/10
The most important unit in sleep is the REM cycle, which typically lasts about 1.5 hours. Sleep studies found that if we wake up in the lightest part of the cycle, we’re fresh and ready to go (rather than groggy); but if we break a cycle, it means we might as well not have had any of it. That means we should aim for 9hrs (six cycles), 7.5hrs (five cycles) or 6hrs (four cycles) a night; rather than say 8 hours, which is a waste of 30 minutes. One caveat though is that I’ve found aiming for 7.5 hours has left me tired over time, most probably because I don’t actually succeed at getting it.
- Control your breathing to stop worrying 7/10
To my shame, I picked this up on a self-hypnosis tape in my teenage years (don’t ask)… essentially, as you lie in the dark, by focusing your entire mind on very slow breathing, any worries or excitement can’t sneak in. And physiologically your brain perceives slow breathing as calming. The problem is I struggle to get over the final hurdle: I can feel myself drifting off quickly, then I lose focus as sleep almost takes hold, and some wild-eyed idea sees a chance to come screaming back into my consciousness.
- Don’t beat yourself up about sleep routines 5/10
I’m rating it low because I never really have it as a problem, but for those moments where I’ve thought “crap, I haven’t got to sleep yet, I’m going to be tired tomorrow” – and then been kept awake by the panic of it – this is still very reassuring. I’ve had night flights where I’ve not slept and got through the next day just fine; and until recently (apparently due to the mattress industry), we used to have ‘first sleeps’ and ‘second sleeps’, with the interval being used to dine & socialise. Other people swear by polyphasic sleep. Basically, life will go on!
- Schedule ‘worry time’ in the morning 4/10
When we turn out the lights, we’re defenceless – or distractionless – from the intrusions of deep worries, right at the time we can’t deal with them. A classic tip is to keep a notepad to write them down, but I find that still keeps the brain thinking of more. I instead tried making ‘worry time’ in the morning to dwell on them, when I could prioritise solutions for them, but in the end there always seemed to be more urgent things to think about.
- No sugar or salt before bed 3/10
Biologically, sugar and salt lead to you retaining water until the middle of the night… theoretically making waking up to urinate more likely (and breaking a precious sleep cycle). But for me, this simply wasn’t a significant problem in the first place.
- Comfy bed 3/10
This is the great sales pitch of the sleep industry: spend money on ‘better quality’ sleep. And just to be clear, I love a pocket sprung mattress with memory foam top and luxurious sheets. Love it. But is it good for productivity? Well, it takes a lot longer to get out of bed in the morning so… no. From a productivity point of view, as long as your bed isn’t knifing you in the hips with its springs, I think it’s ok.
Rigging the game, with kinder lifestyle design
This was my one-man mission to achieve greater personal focus… which might inspire you to also look for ways to unlock more (head) space in your day to succeed at whatever motivates you.
Next time, I’ll finish the thought by considering the bigger wholesale changes you can make with lifestyle design.
Stop Gmail eating into your headspace
If I may introduce my new little product…
I likened procrastination to the Pringle slogan, “once you pop, you just can’t stop”: as distractions begin, your mind starts getting overwhelmed, so you procrastinate more… a classic vicious cycle.
Mailtrics – a Gmail plugin we’ve been working on for a year – watches where every second goes in email, and on whom, and looks for insights to help you spend less time doing it, and be interrupted less frequently, without missing anything important.
Basically, less email (boo!), more achieving (yay!).
You can sign up a sneak preview of Mailtrics over here.
This was written by Andy Mitchell