When (exactly) should you do focused work? How this AirBnB developer discovered the optimal time for deep concentration

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You spend your days working your “regular job,” clock out, come home, and get to work on something else. Maybe you call it a side hustle. Or a hobby. Whatever it is, it’s important to you.

But there’s probably a good chance you don’t get to spend enough time on it.

For designer, developer, and writer Jonathan White, this exact scenario has been a constant struggle. Between spending his days working as a developer at AirBnB and spending his ‘free’ time on side projects, essays, and designs, Jonathan found himself working longer and longer days. But not seeing the results he expected.

It’s a story we all know. You want to hit all your goals, do meaningful work, and feel productive day and night. And the only way to do it all seems to be to put in more hours.

But there’s a better way.

In this interview, Jonathan explains the process of how he shifted his mindset from effort to outcome, became more productive by working less hours, and discovered the optimal times of the day to do focused work.

Shifting your mindset from hours spent to spending time wisely

With a job at one of the world’s largest tech tech companies, a good portion of Jonathan’s time is already spoken for each day. However, this doesn’t stop him from pursuing projects outside of work. But putting so much on his own plate was starting to take a toll.

“I’d go to work, then I’d come home and work until the middle of the night,” he explains. “And while I felt like I was making progress because I has more absolute time to work, there was a serious mental and physical toll that came with it.”

Jonathan says after a few months of this schedule he started feeling tired all the time. He became moody. He wasn’t able to prioritize goals. And worst of all, he lost his creative edge. In short, he was starting to feel the effects of burnout.

“I realized that it doesn’t matter how much time you have available if your concentration is gone. So I started looking for a better way.”

His search brought him to an old friend. They both had graduated at the same time and worked similar jobs, but his friend seemed to be always be at 100% capacity. His trick? A consistent bedtime.

“It seems too basic, but once I started getting into a schedule of going to sleep at the same time every night and getting 8 hours without comprise, I started to see results. All of a sudden it felt like the veil had been lifted.”

“While I had less absolute time, I had much more time in terms of focused work.”

Why you need to focus on your inputs, not your outputs

All this got Jonathan thinking about something he had heard AirBnB founder Brian Chesky talk about.

“Basically, Brian was explaining how at Amazon, instead of trying to optimize to hit their goals, they optimize for their individual inputs.”

This means the basic fundamentals of life—water, food, shelter, sleep. With our jobs becoming more complex and demanding, these fundamentals are usually the first things to go. We prioritize working more over sleeping or exercising. Eating quick, sugar-loaded food instead of nutritious meals and plenty of water. But, according to Jonathan, this is a dangerous trade-off to be making.

“When you focus on these individual inputs, that’s what feeds the outputs—things like cognitive performance, ability to focus, and creativity,” he explains.

“The more you look into the most productive people, the more you realize they don’t just work hard, but they start off by optimizing the small things they do every single day.”

How personal data empowers you to optimize your efforts

Optimizing for inputs like this is hard because few of us are really keeping track of them. We don’t track water or food or sleep the way we track projects or time spent working. But without that kind of accurate feedback on our efforts, it’s impossible to see where you need to make improvements.

“This is where I think quantified self data is really important,” explains Jonathan. “I use my Fitbit to track sleep and a scale to track food. I have all these different ways of quantifying my inputs. Without them, you get a kind of general sense of, ‘Oh, I’m sleeping about this much. Oh, I’m eating about this much. Oh, I’m drinking about this much’ but there’s no way for you to optimize, because you can’t hit some level of consistency.”

Assumptions like this make it incredibly hard to work towards our individual goals. Rather than understand all the inputs that affect your output (and optimize for them), you’re simply saying you’re “close enough” without putting in the work to really understand what makes you have a good day.

Discovering the optimal time for focused work

Jonathan’s desk at home

So much of what we do is powered by habits, mood, and other elements we don’t have control over. And so being able to track what we’re actually doing and match it up against our intention (what we want to be doing) is a powerful tool in getting better every single day.

To track how he’s spending his time, Jonathan’s been using RescueTime to not only see exactly where his time has gone, but to identify when he’s most likely to do his best work.

“I like to check RescueTime every couple of days, because the most important thing for me to see is historic data over time. This way, I can identify trends that I wouldn’t be able to by just looking at them on a day-to-day basis.”

One trend that quickly became apparent was that he was seeing a negative return on time spent working after a certain point in the evening.

“When I first started tracking how I was spending my time using RescueTime, I focused on quantity. I’d see 10, 12, 13-hour streaks and say ‘this is awesome!’ But over time you start to realize those long streaks aren’t necessarily productive.”

“For example, I noticed that while I was getting quite a bit of work done, I was staying up later than usual to hit those targets. Which sounds fine. But looking at the time later in the evening revealed that my focus was decreasing drastically. I’d be going on Twitter or browsing Hacker News or something like that.”

“Knowing that let me choose to go to bed earlier, rather than work against my focus and not spend my time wisely.”

How to carve out consistent time for deep work

Another powerful insight that Jonathan gets from his RescueTime data is understanding when exactly he’s most likely to do productive, focused work. Looking at his productivity pulse throughout the day over a historic period let’s him optimize his day to do his most important work when he’s most likely to be focused.

My own personal data shows I’m more productive in the earlier hours of the day

“I’ve started to focus on quality—on deep work. The idea that in this age of distraction, being able to focus for a long period of time on a single task is a competitive advantage and something few people can do.”

To find that focused time, Jonathan uses a few methods:

First, remove the distractions from your environment

“I started to recognize that I was spending a scary amount of time on my phone. And not just when I was sitting in an elevator or something like that.”

“When I came up against a problem in my work, I’d start scrolling and browsing. My phone became my default for when I was uncomfortable.”

The solution, for Jonathan, was a complete physical separation. Now, when he’s working he leaves his phone in another room and has only what’s important to him in front of him.

Second, align your important work with your most productive hours

To have a better chance of finding flow in his work, Jonathan uses his RescueTime data to find the times when he was most productive, and aligned his work with them.

In practical terms, this meant blocking out a 2-hour window first-thing in the morning for working on side projects rather than only doing them after his full work day.

Lastly, break large projects up into small pieces you can complete in a day

Even when he’s distraction free and working at the optimal time, Jonathan still feels stuck at times.

“In those situations, I do one of two things. Either stop working right there and I go take a break, or I focus on a really small task, like I design a small component that contributes to the rest of the page. Completing that small task feels like it unlocks the rest of the page.”

“When it comes to side projects, when you have such a finite amount of time to work on it, dividing things up and conquering little bits and pieces of it every single day, really compounds over time. It’s like the old saying, ‘You overestimate what you can get accomplished in a week, but you really underestimate what you can get accomplished in a year.’”

Productivity goes deeper than what you do during your working hours

“Optimization doesn’t come from all these tactics you do while you’re working. A lot of it comes from what you do when you’re not working,” explains Jonathan. “Once you get a good amount of sleep or start exercising enough, you remove those as variables and can start looking at what else is slowing you down or getting in the way.”

For a lot of us, it’s hard to look past the urgent work we do every day and ask what could make us not only more productive, but happier and less stressed. But without first nailing and then optimizing the fundamentals, we’ll be stuck chasing longer days and not finding our optimal time to work.

Check out Jonathan’s writing on Medium or follow him on Twitter to find out more.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.