There’s something quite special that happens when we reflect on what we’ve done.
Well, two things, actually. One is that we gain a better understanding of what we’ve done or learned. The other is that our self-efficacy improves—that is, our belief in our own abilities.
Self-efficacy is a powerful thing because the more we believe we have the ability to perform well, the more we do perform well.
Researchers have found that the practice of reflection makes what we’ve learned stick in our minds better, as well as improving our performance. In fact, there comes a point in our work or training when we’ve learned enough that reflecting on our experience can boost our performance more than further practice.
A study of customer service representatives found that those who regularly reflected on their training performed 25% better on the final test than other trainees. They also improved their chance of receiving the highest rating for their service by 20%.
The funny thing about this research, though, is that when given the choice, most people choose more practice over reflection. It seems we prefer doing to thinking.
But reflecting is good for us—whether it’s tracking our progress on goals or taking note of what we’ve learned, reflecting regularly helps us refocus and better understand ourselves.
Today I’ll look at three forms of regular reflection and how to implement them: weekly, monthly, and annual reviews. Click the links below to skip to each section:
- Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
- Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
- Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
The weekly review is a chance to tie up loose ends, prepare for the week ahead, and reflect on short-term goals.
Writer Alan Henry finds the benefits of conducting a weekly review make it worth finding the time on a regular basis:
You’ll be more organized, you’ll never wonder if there’s something you forgot to do or something you should be working on, and you’ll never be afraid you forgot about something important.
If you find it difficult to sit down every week and reflect on your progress, you’re not alone. For writer Chris Bowler, his weekly review was something to dread, because initially it just consisted of trawling through his task manager. As Bowler points out, to-do lists aren’t much fun to review because they tend to include lots of tasks we should do but don’t want to, and things we want to do but can’t right now.
Because Bowler’s to-do list was frustrating, his weekly review ended up that way, too, making it harder to do:
If [your] review is just another chance to get frustrated, you’ll let it slide more often.
Bowler was able to improve his weekly review by focusing less on his task list and more on his achievements from the past week and goals for the week ahead:
Previously, I would get frustrated with my weekly reviews as they would feel mostly useless. Now, I enjoy the process and look forward to the exercise.
Since completing weekly reviews consistently, Bowler has been able to shake bad organization habits such as setting arbitrary due dates for all his tasks so they wouldn’t be forgotten.
Since I’m bad at reviewing my projects regularly, I’ve developed this habit of setting a due date to bring a task back to my attention.
Now Bowler’s reviews include time to go over his projects and plan his tasks for the week ahead, replacing this bad habit and keeping him more organized.
What to include in your weekly review
If you’re just getting started with your own weekly review you’ll probably need to do some trial-and-error to figure out what works best for you. But to get you going, here’s a step-by-step example from author Michael Hyatt. Hyatt’s review consists of 8 steps designed to stop important tasks or appointments from being forgotten and help him stay on top of his workload.
Step 1: Sort through all loose papers. Some will need filing, others may need to be actioned, and some might simply need to be recycled.
Step 2: Sort through notes from the past week. All notes taken during the week are reviewed for action items, anything needing following up, and any information that needs to be transferred elsewhere for more permanent storage.
Step 3: Review last week’s calendar. Check for any follow-up needed for past events.
Step 4: Review annual goals. This is where you start looking ahead to the coming week. Review annual goals and ensure the next step for each goal is planned and scheduled on your to-do list or calendar.
Step 5: Review upcoming week’s calendar. Check if any coming events require preparation and schedule time to get this done.
Step 6: Review in-progress projects. Make sure the next step of each project is planned and scheduled.
Step 7: Review delegated tasks. Check anything that you’ve delegated or tasks where you’re waiting for someone else’s input and follow up if necessary.
Step 8: Review your someday/maybe list. Go through your list of projects, ideas, and tasks you’d like to do someday when you have time. This is your chance to choose something from that list and schedule it into your week.
This process might sound complicated, but with a checklist and some patience you could get through a list like this every week. Hyatt’s review not only helps him prepare for the week ahead, it also ensures nothing from the past week gets forgotten or overlooked.
Alan Henry says his weekly review helps him re-evaluate the work he does and how he plans for the week ahead:
I learned that when you take time to step back and reconnect with the things you have to do and why you have to do them, you begin to understand what’s really important, what you really have time for, what you need help with, and how much bandwidth you actually have.
Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
We all love to set big goals at the start of a new year, but they’re very likely to fail. Monthly goals, on the other hand, are easier to manage.
A monthly review gives you a chance to reflect on a longer period without being so vast it’s hard to grasp.
According to author and zen habits founder Leo Babauta, the monthly review “helps me feel like I’ve accomplished something in just a month, and it lets me take a big-picture look at my life.”
A monthly review is a good chance to set new goals, assess your behavior from the past month, and celebrate your achievements.
I’ve been writing and sharing my own monthly reviews for a couple of years and I’ve found the added transparency of sharing my reviews has helped to keep me accountable to the goals I set each month.
What to include in your monthly review
- Highlights from the past month
- His current weight and any change compared to the previous month
- The outcome of last month’s goal
- Goals (usually just one) for the month ahead
- Any changes to his codex—a list of his values and personal beliefs revisited monthly
- Books, movies, articles, podcasts, or albums enjoyed in the past month
Benson publishes his monthly reviews on Medium, so you can explore real-life examples of his template in action.
For an even simpler template, Rosetta Thurman from Happy Black Woman has you covered. Her monthly review consists of just four steps:
- List everything significant that happened last month. This doesn’t have to be just your achievements—any significant life changes or events you attended also belong here.
- Reflect on these three things from the past month:
- Your biggest personal milestone
- Your biggest professional accomplishment
- Your most valuable lesson learned
3. Choose a theme or emotion that sums up the past month for you.
4. Set goals for the month ahead.
Of course, the best monthly review template will be the one that works for you. For more inspiration, my newsletter The Monthly Review sends out various personal reviews every month. If you’ve already started your own monthly review, you can even submit it for inclusion in the newsletter.
Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
There’s nothing quite like a brand new year for reflecting and setting new goals. Annual reviews tend to be longer than monthly or weekly reviews, simply because there’s a lot more to reflect on and a bigger time period to plan ahead for.
But that doesn’t have to make your annual review overwhelming. Whether you take a week off in December to complete it like entrepreneur and author Chris Guillebeau, or wrap it up in an afternoon, your annual review only needs to cover what’s important to you.
Maybe you want to reflect on your business or career achievements of the past year. Or maybe you like to set lots of goals each year, then reflect on your progress towards them.
Or perhaps you just enjoy making a list of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows from the past year, as I do.
Like any other review, a personal annual review is for you and should include whatever you find most useful. Even if that changes from year to year.
What to include in your annual review
Celes Chua from the blog Personal Excellence provides a 6-step template for creating your own annual review:
- Reflect on your biggest accomplishments from the past year.
- Reflect on your biggest lessons learned in the past year.
- Give yourself a score for how well the past year went. You can give yourself a grade from F to A+ or a score from 1-10.
- Plan your goals for the next year by asking yourself what it would take to look back on this year as your best year ever, or to rate it 10/10.
- Plan any new habits you can build to help you achieve the goals you set in the previous step.
- Plan your immediate next steps to achieve each of the goals you set.
If you prefer more in-depth reflection on the past year, Leo Babauta has some handy suggestions for finding details of everything you did:
- Check your TripIt account, or anywhere else you record details of your travels throughout the year to remember the trips you took.
- Browse all files on your computer created in the past year to see what you spent time working on.
- Look through your Amazon order history and credit card statement to see what you spent money on.
- Read through your notes and journal entries from the past year.
You can also set your RescueTime dashboard to show all your time logged and your productivity pulse for the full year:
You may not want to dedicate a whole week of your life to your annual review as Chris Guillebeau does, but even spending an afternoon reflecting on what you achieved in the past year and where you want to be in 12 months’ time can bring clarity to your daily plans.
Guillebeau credits his annual review with much of his success as a writer and entrepreneur:
When someone asks how I can do “so much,” I always mention this week-long planning process. There is no hidden secret to working towards a lot of big goals at the same time, but taking the time to clearly define specific objectives each year has helped me more than anything else.
If you read this post thinking reviews sound like a good idea but too much hassle, you might want to try writer Laura Vanderkam’s approach of writing your review ahead of time. Writing your annual review at the start of the year tells you what to work on, she says.
I think the best approach is to plan for great things, but be open to even more wonderful things happening that you didn’t know to plan for.
Vanderkam suggests imagining it’s the end of the year right now, and the year went well. Now write down the 3-5 things that made it such a great year.
This tells you ahead of time what to work on. All you have to do is work towards making that review a reality.
… articulating what you find interesting and meaningful can help answer the question of “I have time, what should I do with it?”
If you’re ready to try your own reviews, grab one of these templates and adjust as you go. You’ll find your own needs change over time and dictate what kind of reflection is most useful.
*Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Exist.
Whenever I think about increasing my productivity I focus on things like what tools I’m using, my processes and systems, and how many tasks I’m checking off each day.
But productivity is more than just how much work we do.
Our health, our mood, our motivation and engagement in our work all affect our productivity. You can’t do your best work if you’re unwell, unhappy, and checked-out of your job.
Humans are animals
We don’t spend much time thinking about ourselves as animals these days. But we are. As advanced as we’ve made our societies, we haven’t stopped being animals with biological needs. Evolution progresses far more slowly than we do, which is why we end up with chronic stress from our natural fight-or-flight mode being activated all the time from daily work stressors, which aren’t really life-or-death situations at all.
As Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert says, “The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.”
Writer Laura Smith suggests that we’re still struggling to design a modern workspace that makes us happy, healthy, and productive all at once because “we don’t understand our primal biology.” The outdoors was our original workspace, says Smith, and while our world has evolved beyond the savannah, our biology hasn’t caught up yet.
Kellert makes an analogy that gets to the heart of what we’re doing wrong with office design. Zoos, he says, are ironic. We find it inhumane to keep animals in sterile, concrete spaces that don’t resemble their natural habitats. And yet, this is exactly what we’re doing to ourselves when we spend the majority of our time inside cubicles and offices with unnatural lighting and away from the environment we crave—nature.
Biologist E.O. Wilson says we’re drawn to nature because “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Flowers, for instance, represent fertile land. We find them beautiful, but there’s a reason we’re drawn to the beauty in nature; it’s good for us.
And yet, as Kellert says, we’re moving further away from it. More and more of us are living in dense cities with little access to natural environments and their benefits.
Nature makes us healthy
City dwellers might have more business and social opportunities, but living far from nature is damaging for our health. Various studies have found those who live in urban environments with little access to green spaces like parks are more likely to have psychological problems than people who live nearby green areas. But even with parks nearby, city dwellers in general have shown to have higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses when compared to people living outside urban areas.
It’s not just parks and major green spaces that can improve our health, though. Trees alone seem to make a big difference. A study in Toronto examined the health of the city’s residents and the number of trees planted on each block. The study found that ten extra trees on a block correlated to a one percent increase in how healthy residents said they felt. This is the equivalent, say the researchers, of each household receiving a $10,000 bonus, or every resident being seven years younger.
What’s interesting is that the most beneficial trees seemed to be those planted in front yards or streets—places where the public could enjoy them simply by walking past. Trees planted in parks or in backyards, on the other hand, had little effect on the health of residents. The researchers suggest this may be because simply seeing trees around you makes you feel healthier.
The benefits of trees on health has also been shown when trees disappear. The U.S. Forest Service did an analysis on trees that succumbed to the emerald ash borer, a pest that’s highly destructive to ash trees. The emerald ash borer has killed 100 million trees across North America, which sadly gave the U.S. Forest Service some great data to examine how removing trees affects public health.
The results weren’t good.
The Forest Service concluded that both cardiovascular and respiratory disease incidents increased where the borer had killed trees. Between 1990 and 2007 the analysis found an extra 20,000 deaths could be attributed to the borer killing trees.
If nothing else, the research shows that we’ll be healthier if we’re surrounded by nature. But bringing nature into your workspace won’t just make you and your teammates healthier—it can make you more productive, too.
How to bring nature into your workspace
Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace says redesigning our office spaces won’t make us healthier and happier on its own. The problem is more fundamental, he says: we spend all day stuck in the same place. Shorter, more flexible workdays will allow employees to spend more free time doing outdoor activities, says Saval.
We are moving closer to this solution, with more companies hiring remote workers, increasing flexibility in employee hours, and even shortening the workweek. But in the meantime most of us are still spending the majority of our time in a single place—whether that’s a cubicle in a high-rise office building or a personalized home workspace.
While we wait for the short, flexible workweek to arrive and give us all more time to spend outside, we can add a little nature into our current workdays.
Get outside for a walk
I’m going to look at how to bring nature into your workspace, but I have to start with the research on how beneficial walking in natural spaces can be. It’s easy for many of us to incorporate a walk through a park or leafy area into our lunch break, and the benefits are enormous.
Plenty of studies have looked at the benefits of walking in leafy areas. Most have found that this simple activity can improve your mood and your ability to focus—giving you a boost at work after your walk.
One study at Stanford asking participants to either walk through a lush, green area of the Stanford campus or alongside heavy traffic for the same period of time. Those who walked in the green area were both more attentive and happier afterwards.
Another Stanford study tested how walking among nature can affect our tendency to brood. Brooding, which is essentially dwelling on negative experiences or thoughts, can be a precursor to depression, and tends to be more common among city dwellers.
This study again tested walking next to a busy highway or through a park-like area of the Stanford campus. Brain scans and questionnaires before and after participants went walking found a slight decrease in brooding among those who walked in the green space.
Japanese studies have also found walking in forest areas can reduce stress, hostility, and depression, while improving sleep and vigor.
The best news is you don’t even have to like walking in nature to get the benefits. One study sent participants on a 50-minute walk through either city streets or an arboretum before testing their performance on a cognitive assessment. Those who walked through nature performed around twenty percent better on memory and attention tests, and they were in better moods after the walk.
But here’s the cool part: the researchers repeated this study in the middle of winter when walking outside was quite unpleasant. In the winter version, test scores jumped just as much as they had for the nature walkers during the warmer season.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the benefits of walking through nature tend to be highest when your attention and energy is already depleted. So walking through a park early in the morning, for instance, may not do much, since you’re probably already fresh. But at lunchtime or in the afternoon when you’re facing a slump in energy and struggling to focus, a walk through nature could be just what you need to get through the rest of your workday.
Stay inside and look at nature
Now let’s look at some ways to bring nature indoors and improve your health and productivity in-between your daily nature walk.
I mentioned earlier that the researchers who studied the health benefits of publicly-visible trees in Toronto suggested we might only need to look at trees to get the benefits of having them around us.
Other studies have taken this further, testing how simply looking at a photo of trees can affect us. One study run by researchers at the University of Melbourne gave participants a menial task that required them to concentrate. After five minutes on the task, participants were given a 40-second break to look at a picture of a rooftop. The rooftop was either plain concrete or covered in a flowering meadow.
After the break participants returned to their task and the researchers tested how their accuracy and attention was affected by the pictures they’d seen. For those who looked at a plain concrete roof, their concentration fell by eight percent and their performance was inconsistent. Those who looked at the meadow, however, made fewer errors and their concentration rose by six percent.
Kate Lee, one of the study’s researchers, says this points to “attention restoration theory”:
The theory is that because nature is effortlessly fascinating, it captures your attention without you having to consciously focus on it. It doesn’t draw on your attention control, which you use for all these daily tasks that require you to focus. So gazing at natural environments provides you with an opportunity to replenish your stores of attention control.
The great thing about this effect is how easy it is to achieve. You could simply change your desktop wallpaper to a picture of nature, or add some photos or posters of natural environments to your office areas. If you’re lucky enough to work near a window, having a view of trees could do the same thing.
So long as you take some time every now and then to relax and enjoy a view of nature, you should get a small boost in your ability to concentrate.
Add plants to your office
Another easy approach is to add pot plants to your office area. They’re small, easy to care for, and can have a big boost on performance.
Unfortunately, more office designers seem to be focusing on a “lean” approach these days—clean, minimal offices that avoid clutter. It might be nice to have a neat workspace, but research shows the trade-off of adding plants is worth it.
A study from Cardiff University examined what happened when plants were added to a “lean” office. After plants were added, the researchers found an increase in workplace satisfaction among employees, self-reported concentration levels, and perceived air quality.
And here’s the kicker: productivity in the office went up by fifteen percent.
Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis says this study shows it’s worth adding a few plants to your office:
Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.
Get more natural light
Finally, one aspect of nature that’s easy to overlook: natural daylight. Natural light, in fact, has a huge impact on how we feel and how well we work.
A study from Northwestern University in Chicago concluded that there’s a strong relationship between the amount of daylight exposure in the workplace and office workers’ sleep quality and overall quality of life. Workers in offices with windows, for instance, sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night compared to those in windowless offices.
The study also found those without windows in their offices had more problems with overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, and daytime disfunction.
Study co-author Ivy Cheung says, “the extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable.”
Natural light doesn’t only affect sleep, though. Other research has shown natural lighting in the workspace can improve employee health, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce employee turnover. It can also decrease headaches and eyestrain, which is reportedly the top health problem among office workers.
In fact, the benefits of natural lighting are so good that many European countries require workers to be within 27 feet of a window.
In the early 90s West Bend Mutual Insurance was able to test the benefits of adding more windows when the company moved to a new office building. The number of staff with a window view went from 30 percent in the old building to 96 percent after the move. Coincidentally, the company also found a 16 percent increase in productivity in the new building.
And workers seem to know instinctively that windows are beneficial. A 1975 survey of office workers found 35 percent immediately responded that lack of windows was their biggest concern with their workspace. And further research has found employees value any window they can access, regardless of the size, even more than they value office privacy.
Whether or not you agree with Laura Smith that we’re struggling to design successful office building because we’re ignoring our primal biology, you can’t ignore the proven health benefits of surrounding ourselves with nature.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to improve your workspace by adding small plants, moving closer to a window, and hanging photos or posters of nature. But don’t forget to get out of the office when you can, too, and take a walk in a leafy area. Your health and your productivity will thank you for it.
As more of us are working remotely these days, more digital task managers are offering collaborative features like sharing specific tasks, commenting on tasks, and making shared to-do lists within your team.
I’ve taken these features for granted as they’ve become more popular, but never really wondered how useful it is to share your to-do list. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to do so, so your colleagues can see what you’re working on or communicate around a shared project.
But what about when you have the option of keeping your to-do list private or making it public? Why would you want to share your tasks if you don’t have to?
Sharing your tasks lets others help you get them done
Xander Schultz believes so strongly in the benefits of sharing tasks that he created an entire app around the idea of public to-do lists. The app, Complete, sadly shut down xx date, but Schultz made a solid argument for sharing your tasks, even if you can’t use his app to do so.
Schultz says “a to-do list, in reality, is a to-do-later list.” Our to-do lists tend to be full of things we’re not ready to do yet, but hope to get to someday. This is where a public to-do list really shines, according to Schultz, because others can see what you’re planning to do sometime in the future and offer support and advice before you need it.
While sites like Yelp, Quora, and Amazon reviews are useful for gathering advice, we tend to browse these sites only when we’re ready to take action—and then get stuck for hours comparing reviews and debating what to do. Schultz says making your tasks public before you’re ready to act on them works better:
A public task allows the opportunity for people to push you the advice and motivation you need before you have to search for a solution.
Say you need to purchase a new set of headphones, for instance. That task might languish on your to-do list for months without you making any effort to get it done. When you do finally decide it’s time to get it done, you could spend hours researching different brands and models and comparing reviews.
With a public to-do list, according to Schultz, you could get recommendations from friends and followers about their favourite headphones well before you’re thinking about making the effort to find some for yourself. What could have been an hour-long task (or longer) that you put off could end up being a ten-minute task based on advice and suggestions from trusted friends.
A public to-do list can be beneficial for longer-term goals, too, says Schultz. He set a weight-loss goal that he struggled to reach by his due date, but with each new update he added about his progress, friends and followers offered support and helpful advice. Schultz says it doesn’t matter that he didn’t reach that goal, because sharing his progress along the way and receiving help to keep going was worth having a public goal that he didn’t complete.
Making your to-do list public will make it better for you
When software developer Joe Reddington made his to-do list public, he thought it would be a small, simple step towards personal transparency. He’s committed to being transparent and wanted to take a further step to prove that commitment.
He had no idea how big an impact that decision would make on his productivity.
Making your to-do list public, says Reddington, forces you to write a better to-do list than you would have otherwise:
… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.
As soon as he made his to-do list public, Reddington noticed several issues with it: duplicate tasks, tasks written as questions, and tasks that were simply poorly-written. Reddington took some time to clean up his list and rewrite most of his tasks so they made sense to anyone reading the list. Doing so made each task easier to get started and easier to finish, so Reddington is now more productive simply because his to-do list is written more carefully.
I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.
Reddington says it doesn’t matter who looks at his public list, or even if anyone looks at it. Simply making it public does the trick:
… the number of people looking at it makes very little difference—all that I need to know is that someone might and that’s enough for me.
Sharing your goals makes you more likely to achieve them
Finally, something we can all agree on: whether you’re sharing simple tasks or long-term goals, you probably want to get them done. That’s the whole reason for putting them on your to-do list in the first place, right?
Well, here’s the good news: sharing big tasks and goals makes you more likely to accomplish them.
In a study of 267 people, participants were split into groups, each given different instructions for approaching a goal they wanted to achieve. Some simply kept their goal to themselves and worked towards it privately. Others wrote down a commitment to take action on that goal and shared their commitment with a friend. A final group shared their commitment with a friend but also sent that friend weekly progress updates.
Of the 149 participants who completed the full study, 70% in the weekly updates group either completed their goal or made it further than halfway to completion. 65% of those who shared just an action commitment with a friend also made it past the halfway mark or completed their goal by the study’s end.
But of those who kept their goals private, only 35% were able to get past the halfway mark.
This isn’t the only study to show this effect, either. A 2016 review of 138 different studies found that we tend to do more of what we’ve planned when others can track our progress.
There is a caveat to this effect, though. It works best for action goals, where the focus is completing a task or doing something. For identity-based goals, where the focus is on changing the kind of person you are, or being different, sharing your goals can backfire.
When we tell a friend about a goal we have to be different—for instance, to be a better friend—we tend to feel like we’ve made progress towards our goal simply by talking about it. Which, unfortunately, makes us less likely to take real action towards that goal.
So double-check what type of goals you have before discussing them, but if you have an action-based goal or a big task to complete, sharing your progress can help you get it done.
You may not be ready to share your entire to-do list with the world as Joe Reddington did, but simply sharing a goal or task with a friend can be just as beneficial.
Sharing your to-do list makes you rethink how it’s written, and gives you some accountability for your progress. It also opens up the possibility for others to share their advice and experiences with you to help you accomplish what you’ve planned.
Focus is something I struggle with a lot. In my freelance writing work I have to spend hours at a time researching, writing, and editing. When I’m working on Exist, my company’s personal analytics app, I sometimes spend whole days writing blog posts, or working on our iOS app.
With so many different types of work on my schedule every week, I find it hard to stick to one task until it’s done. Too often I pick up my phone or start browsing Facebook without even thinking about it. Before I know it, I’m struggling to even remember what I was doing before.
I’m not the only one, either. A study from the University of California at Irvine found that the participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted, on average. What’s worse is that it took them 25 minutes to regain their focus.
25 minutes for every distraction can quickly add up. For work like writing and software development, your best work can only be done in a state of deep focus, since you need to keep a lot of information in your head as you work. If you’re only doing 11 minutes of work every time you hit your stride, and taking another 25 minutes to get your focus back, you won’t have much to show for your efforts after a full day of work.
So what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from holding us back from productivity? According to science, there are quite a few actions we can take to improve our ability to focus for longer periods.
Take breaks more often, and get away from your computer
Looking at Facebook or checking your email isn’t a real break. Taking real breaks means leaving your computer, standing up, maybe even going outside or walking around your workspace. A real break takes your mind away from what you’re doing completely, giving it the ability to reset before you hit the desk again.
Research shows the kind of unfocused, free-form thinking we do during breaks helps the brain to recharge.
If you find it difficult to fit in real breaks, try scheduling ten-minute meetings with yourself throughout the day.
Spend more time near trees
Spending time in nature is great for your brain. When I say nature, I don’t mean the nearest city street. I mean somewhere green and leafy. And, in particular, somewhere with lots of trees.
While walking is a healthy activity, when we walk in busy areas like an urban street, our brains have to stay switched on to keep us safe. There’s a lot of stimuli demanding our attention in this kind of environment—advertising, stores announcing sales, other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and maybe even trams.
When we walk in a natural area like a park, the peaceful surroundings allow the brain to relax, which helps us recharge our ability to focus. But more importantly, make sure there are some trees around. Trees don’t just add to the natural vibe, they also do something special to the brain. Research has shown just seeing trees is enough to improve our health.
Spend time on a hobby you enjoy
If taking a walk outside isn’t your thing, or you’ve already tried it an need another option, finding a hobby you enjoy could do the trick.
Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favourite meal could work. It needs to be an activity that keeps your attention, but doesn’t work your brain too hard beyond that.
The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive. — Daniel Goleman
Goleman says this type of activity can give the brain a chance to recharge. By staying passively focused on what you’re doing, you’ll stop yourself from continuing to think about work. If you don’t already have a go-to hobby that fits the bill, you could try cycling, knitting, drawing, or even colouring in.
Move your desk
For those times when you can’t leave the office, or you need to push through without a break but you’re struggling to focus, this may be the most simple change you can make. Research has shown working in natural light can improve productivity and decrease how many sick days employees take.
Unfortunately, most of us work in offices with artificial lighting that can cause eye fatigue and make it harder to focus. If you can, try moving your desk closer to a window so you can get more natural light during the day.
Take a flow day
Author, university professor, and productivity expert Cal Newport says the idea of batching similar tasks together sounds useful, but rarely works. This process introduces more complexity, says Newport, and “most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult.”
Newport tried a day of batching tasks himself, to see how it affected his productivity and focus. He established firm rules and stuck to them for an entire work day. The rules stated all work had to be done in 30-minute blocks.
If he needed to do a small task that would only take a few minutes, he had to spend that entire 30-minute block doing small tasks. If he needed to check something in an email, he had to spend a full 30-minute block on processing and replying to emails.
Newport concluded after his experiment that the type of strict rules he used are necessary for batching tasks to work. But he also found these kind of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult.”
There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.
This is a pain in the ass.
Despite the extra effort and frustration that came with the experiment, Newport found his day was more focused and more productive than normal:
Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.
Most importantly, Newport found he was able to find more of that elusive “flow state” than he usually would. “Flow” being that state of getting so caught up in what you’re doing that time passes without you realizing it. Newport found the 30-minute block rule helped him achieve this by making small distractions a non-option:
…the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.
Since the strict rules can add effort and complications to your day, it might be best to save this approach for those rare times when you really need to spend a whole day focused on one big project. Scheduling a “flow day” once a month or so may help you get more done than you thought was possible.
It might sound strange, but research shows chewing gum can boost mental performance. Gum has been shown to improve cognitive abilities more than caffeine, but the improvement seems to be short-lived. One study found gum-chewers only performed better than those not chewing for around 20 minutes, after which they stopped seeing any benefit.
Researchers have tested gum that includes sugar and is sugar-free, but glucose content doesn’t seem to have any affect on performance. The best suggestion of why this happens seems to be something called “mastication-induced arousal,” which just means that the act of chewing wakes us up and makes us focus.
If you’re not a fan of gum, you could try this trick from author Gretchen Rubin: chew on plastic stirrers or straws. Rubin says the act of chewing helps her focus while writing.
It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish this article, thanks to constant distractions. With this list handy, next time I’m struggling I’ll have a few options to try that may just improve how much I can get done in a day.
Working late at night is sort of great. There are no distractions, fewer obligations, it even feels sort of weird to send someone an email once it gets too late. It’s a fantastic time to focus.
But if I get carried away with it, I really end up paying for it the next day. The satisfaction of a late-night work binge is a lot less awesome when I’m dragging through work like a zombie. Sleep-debt is real and it hits me hard.
But I’ve found a great way to make sure I don’t let myself get completely consumed with work late at night.
I scare the hell out of myself with an automated phone call after I’ve done more than 30 minutes of productive work after midnight.
“Hi! RescueTime has a message for you: What the hell are you doing working so late! Go to bed!”
The phone call works because of the timing. Phone calls during the day, whatever, kind of annoying, actually. But a phone call in the middle of the night is really jarring, no matter what. It freaks me out. “What the hell? Who’s calling me? What’s wrong!? Oh yeah, It’s just me working too late.” Even though I snap back to reality and realize what it is pretty quickly, it’s just enough of a jolt to knock me out of the hole I’ve fallen down.
It’s scary, and that’s why it works. 😈
You can set the specific details to suit your needs. This is your rational self sending a message to your preoccupied future self, so adjust the message accordingly (My personal message is more aggressive than the one in the template 🙂 ).
Step Two – Option A: Use this Zap on Zapier
Hope that helps those of you with workaholic tendencies spook yourself into less long nights! Happy Halloween y’all!
Email is a fast and convenient way to communicate with coworkers and family. When email first became popular, it was because the recipient could respond to the email at their leisure rather than right away. More urgent matters could be managed with a telephone call.
However, checking and replying to email has replaced simple and quick calls to those same people. It has become the standard for urgency given the immediacy of delivery. Where once it helped to expedite work production at the office, it now consumes over a quarter of an average employee’s work week according to McKinsey Global Institute. Some companies are trying to reduce time spent reading emails by including email management in their time management workshops. Others have gone as far as axing company email altogether. And then there are those who either see no problem or have given up and accepted it as a necessary evil.
Email Overload and Addiction
Our internal data at SaneBox shows a twenty percent increase over the past few years of the amount of unimportant emails in the average user’s mailbox. Workers are copied on emails that do not require them to take action, the amount of promotional and cold sales emails continue to rise, and people are sending emails when they should be calling or saying nothing at all. Reading and deciding what to do with these emails is an incredible drain on workers’ productivity. The Danwood Group study published in 2015 reported that it takes approximately a minute to process the email interruption and return to the flow of work. This interruption dramatically decreases productivity.
Studies are being conducted around the globe relating to the amount of stress induced by email access. In the U.S., study participants wearing heart rate monitors were discovered to have reduced stress when given limited access to emails. This same study also showed that participant focus on tasks was higher in the group that had limited access to emails as opposed to those that had unlimited access. This shows an absolute correlation between unlimited access to emails and decreased physical health.
France recently passed a law that included a right to disconnect amendment. This portion of the new labor law was designed to help workers achieve a work-life balance and separation by urging companies to limit the amount of work done during off hours and at home. Workers worldwide are struggling to balance their private and professional lives because of technology, and now France has potentially set a precedent for other countries to follow.
But are policy changes the best course of action? And whether they are or not, what good will future regulations do to help us today?
Strategies to Help
For those in search of a more efficient, less stressful, and overall better email environment today, look no further than these strategies.
- Don’t get stuck doing email—use the Scan-Block-Ask system to keep yourself honest. Its steps include a) scanning for urgent items that need attention now, b) establishing scheduled blocks of time to tackle less urgent and less important email, and c) when you get sucked into your inbox, asking yourself if that’s the best use of your time l right now.
- Notify colleagues and clients that you value their communication but have to limit responding to emails to certain times of day. Stick with that time. By establishing and sticking to a schedule, you help others break the horrible habit of using email for urgent matters. In general, responses required within an hour should get a phone call or face-to-face visit; those requiring a response within a few hours can be addressed via text or instant message; and those needed within 12 to 24 hours can be emailed.
- Turn off mobile and desktop notifications to save yourself from continuous distractions. If you don’t know that you received an email, you can remain focused on the task at hand. If you hear that ding or see that push notification, your brain will be pulled in a different direction even if you don’t act on the new message at that time. Over the course of a day, these disruptions add up.
- Move your email app off of your phone’s home screen. As with notifications, simply seeing the app icon can distract you or incite you to check your email. Removing the visual cue, like removing junk food from the house when you are dieting, can prevent you from checking email out of boredom, habit, or mental weakness.
- Stop responding to every email. Not every message needs an answer and most do not need an answer right now. Some emails are sent to you for informational purposes only while many others are spam, bacn, or solicitations. Aside from saving time by writing fewer emails, sending fewer emails has the amazing added benefit of receiving fewer (and therefore reading fewer) emails.
- Adopt an email system with automated and intelligent filtering. This can be one that you create yourself by setting up rules within your client or can be an email program. When only important emails arrive in your inbox, you save an incredible amount of time and boost your clarity and focus.
- Keep yourself accountable by tracking and even preventing your time in email. We at SaneBox have been big fans of RescueTime for a while now for this reason. Anecdotally, it’s easy to feel that you are spending too much time in email, but seeing actual numbers and trends over time is impactful in a way that prompts better choices. Beyond the data, blocking distractions is paramount for times of weakness that occur when you need to get things done.
- Remember that it’s important to disconnect to recharge. Constantly being plugged in can have emotional, physical, and psychological consequences that compound over time. When you are stressed, distracted, and overwhelmed, your work-life happiness and output suffer. Take time for yourself, away from digital devices, to reset and recharge. Your sanity and your career will thank you for it.
Recognizing that you have an addiction to email is the biggest step in breaking the cycle. Adapting your work and off-work habits can help reduce your stress, increase your focus, and achieve a better work-life balance. Adopting an email management strategy also will help you save time.
There are many other ways to eliminate email addiction and increase your focus and productivity at work—which strategies are missing?
Remember when email used to help your productivity, not hurt it? SaneBox gets you back to those days again with intelligent filtering, one-click unsubscribe, follow-up reminders, and much more. Start your 14-day free trial today, then enjoy an additional $20 off for being a member of the RescueTime community. Clean up your inbox »
We just made some exciting new updates to the RescueTime IFTTT channel. You can now use weekly summary reports in your Recipes and log offline time from other apps (like your Google Calendar).
IFTTT is a service that connects hundreds of applications via simple connections that let one application respond to actions in another. You can use the RescueTime IFTTT channel to connect to hundreds of apps to automatically log time, export data for reports, respond to alerts, and add daily highlights. You can even use it to control your FocusTime sessions!
Here are some of the things you can do:
Log Offline Time
This is something a lot of people have asked for. You can connect your Calendar (or any other app that exports events with a start / stop time) and automatically log offline time.
Export Weekly / Daily Summaries
Every day at midnight a new summary is available with details of your time. Use this to construct your own custom email reports, log time in a spreadsheet, or update a personal dashboard.
FocusTime just got a LOT more powerful. Mute your phone, or post a do-not-disturb note on your calendar. You can also control FocusTime from other apps. Like starting a FocusTime session when you park your car at the office in the morning.
Respond to Alerts
Whenever your RescueTime alerts are triggered, you can respond by taking an action in another app.
Log Daily Highlights / Action Datapoints
Daily Highlights and Actions help you keep track of your accomplishments. Any trigger from another app can automatically log a highlight or action in RescueTime.
Check out the RescueTime channel page on IFTTT.com to learn more. There are literally thousands of possibilities. Please let us know your favorites in the comments!