A culture of ‘busyness’ has led us to think that being in back-to-back meetings or squeezing in a bit more work into our day is somehow desirable or necessary in order to feel 'on top of everything'. The problem with being busy is that you often cannot account for what you have been so busy doing.
The way to make progress on your most important projects is not to work for longer or to push yourself harder. It’s to ringfence a small number of hours and allow the rest of the day to be characterised by the usual interruptions and messiness of emails, messages and meetings throughout the day. The key is not to be too rigid about when or where these hours happen - for example they needn’t be consecutive and different work can be done in different places - but to be rigorous about not interrupting them.
You almost certainly can't consistently do the kind of work that demands serious mental focus for more than about three or four hours a day. A 2019 work life balance study by RescueTime which analysed 185 million working hours of working time found that workers average just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive device time a day. Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke believes there are 5 creative hours in everyone's day, ”for creative work, you can't cheat.”
Multitasking on multiple projects costs us time and productivity
By protecting this focus time, you can reduce the cognitive load of constant change or context switching when you divert your focus from one activity, react to another, then pick up where you left off again.
The concept of context-switching is usually applied in computing, but it also pertains to human productivity. “Just like computing systems, human team members often incur overhead when context switching between multiple projects,” explains Todd Waits on the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute blog.
Recovering from context switching is a drag on productivity. RescueTime’s study found that 40% of our day is spent multitasking with communications tools. Allowing yourself to be continuously distracted, or feeling compelled to respond to the myriad of beeps and signals from different incoming messages and emails (often due to FOMO, or fear of missing out) ultimately means projects will take more time to get done.
Getting our concentration back or getting back into a workflow following an interruption also costs us time. According to research by Qatalog and Cornell University’s Idea Lab, research shows it can take up to 9.5 minutes to get back into a workflow after switching between digital apps. It also found evidence that context switching may have the biggest impact when you’re switching between tasks and topics multiple times over a single day.
Our desire to keep on top of everything often makes us fall victim to the pitfalls of context switching when we fail to ringfence focus time. Protecting focus time means that you will have no trouble accounting for the progress you are making during that time. Your ability to check out of the prevailing culture of unproductive busywork during regular focus intervals is far more critical than how long you spend on things.
Being busy confuses activity with productivity
There is plenty of literature that discusses ‘action addiction’ as an advanced sort of laziness. Being busy is no use to anyone if it’s just indiscriminate action. Being perpetually busy is akin to being sloppy with your time and is ultimately a form of laziness, says Tim Ferriss, author of the best-selling productivity book “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich.”
But a more pernicious form of busyness is procrastination. Busyness can be very costly if it keeps us at a comfortable distance from issues that we want to put off dealing with. ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ is an old adage coined by the English writer Edward Young. We all have exactly the same amount of time, “what matters is how you allocate that time that determines what your life looks like,” according to Ferriss.
While it might seem logical to increase output, our mental focus will inevitably deteriorate after a short period of concentrated effort. After that, activity is not productivity. We can actually get more done by giving ourselves less time to do it.
It’s not about how much time I have but how much time I need
Parkinson’s Law, based on the work of British author and historian C. Northcote Parkinson, is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, which causes people to just keep ‘working’ beyond the point where they cease to be productive.
When people are working on something, they often think in terms of how much time they have to complete it, rather than how much time they need to complete it, and ringfence that focus time. This mindset can cause people to spend time inefficiently, or waste it needlessly.
Working smarter is about working less and resting more
In his book,”Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less”, Silicon Valley consultant Alex Pang discusses the mistaken assumption that more hours equals more productivity and the hidden role that rest plays in the lives of creative, prolific people. Citing examples across history and creative fields, what he found over and over again was a theme of people that do great creative work for about four hours per day.
Pang also outlines how and why working better does not mean putting in longer hours: it means working less and resting better. We think of rest as a negative space because we define it by absence of work. That’s a mistake Pang argues. Rest is critical for mental agility. The most restorative types of rest happen when we are actually physically active. Things like exercise, walks or engaging hobbies provide occasion for creative reflection.
Accepting that working longer is not working smarter helps us focus our time on doing what’s important. The mental agility we need to perform effectively troughs after only a small number of hours so we need to permit ourselves to rest often in order to reflect and recharge. Feeling compelled to appear busy stems from a legacy of office presenteeism where observed effort is highly valued despite the fact that we could be doing nothing that matters a lot of the time. Allocating our time efficiently means separating what counts from what doesn’t, and worrying less about what can wait.