There are two main types of networks that the brain switches between, a highly attentive state network and a more relaxed resting-state network. In her book A mind for numbers, Barbara Oakley names the thinking processes related to the two main types of networks the focused mode and the diffuse mode.
The focused mode is associated with the concentrating abilities of the brain. Diffuse-mode thinking happens when we relax our concentration and let our minds wander: taking breaks, doing something that relaxes us, sleep, etc. It appears we often switch between these two modes in our daily activities as we can’t be consciously in both modes simultaneously.
With this insight, I think we can approach our daily workload in a 4-step framework:
- Capture tasks
- Prioritize tasks
- Work on relevant tasks (time-blocking)
- Take breaks
Depending on the context and personal situations, each step can be done in a focused or diffuse mode. Even taking breaks such as play video games, read thought-provoking books, or having interesting conversations with friends can sometimes lead to a focused mode. There might be days when all we do is diffuse mode only (long, lazy summer days) or focused mode only (emergencies).
As David Allen puts it, “your head is not for holding ideas, is for having ideas”. Thus, it is imperative to create a second, external brain where we keep track of ideas, projects, lists, tasks. There is a crucial insight in Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy: CAPTURE EVERYTHING.
Appointments, meetings, to-do lists, ideas, book or movie recommendations, commitments, everything becomes a task because the brain tends to prioritize and focus on unfinished tasks. Why is that? Because of the Zeigarnik effect.
Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered in the 1920s that we remember more easily incomplete tasks than completed tasks. This tendency to recall unfinished or interrupted tasks in much greater detail than completed tasks is called the Zeigarnik effect. This effect is not always accurate as it depends on our motivation, how difficult we perceive that specific task, how tired we are or even the timing of the interruption from our task.
Real-life examples of the Zeigarnik effect are easy to spot. After an exam, we will remember more vividly the unfinished exercises than resolved exercises. We will recall more quickly an unresolved quarrel than all the other arguments that had emotional closure. TV series tend to conclude episodes with cliffhangers so that we are hooked and watch the next episode. Role-playing games tend to favor side quests as we will stay more in the game universe and will feel hesitant to progress to the main quest if we don’t finish all the side quests.
Also, we will recall in more depth unfinished tasks related to work, family, our well-being. Thus, it is better to capture our thoughts and ideas as we might find it easier to focus on our work.
Think of how to organize these tasks. You can use digital applications such as Todoist, Notion, Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, Google Calendar, Roam Research, Trello, etc. Other options include using analogue on paper notebooks, or a blend of digital and analogue.
Then, start with an extensive mind collection of everything you can think. Doing this activity in an intense, focused mode will help you capture tasks more efficiently. As you polish and refine your system, capture new tasks as they come.
Another rule from Allen’s GTD workflow is the two-minute rule: if you can do an action in two minutes or less, do it now, even if it is not urgent or high-priority.
I am ambivalent about this rule, as context is everything. If I am in the middle of a deep focus session, I don’t want to pay the price of mental switching from a high-intensive process to a low-priority task, even if it takes less than 2 minutes. When you finish this 2-minute interruption and return to the deep focus session, a part of your attention still lingers on the interruption (attention residue).
So, when I am entirely focused on something and have an unrelated idea, I take a note on my paper notebook to avoid being distracted by digital applications. When I take a break or at the end of the day, I review these notes and move these tasks from paper to digital in Todoist.
After implementing an external system to hold your tasks, you will no longer worry about forgetting a deadline or missing an essential appointment. Instead, you will be able to respond to incoming information calmly and prioritize your time confidently.
Based on the framing effect, you need to find a perspective that works for you.
For example, you might assign powers of 10 to life projects:
Browsing Reddit, YouTube, Facebook get a weight of 1 Reading books, planning, writing, meditating, exercise, get a weight of 100 (a steeper increase from 1 to 100 than from 1 to 10) Family time, improving technically in your domain might be a weight of 1000
Do first – important and urgent tasks. These tasks must have precise deadlines and consequences for not acting. Schedule it – important and not urgent tasks. These tasks don’t require a fixed deadline, but they move the needle closer to long-term goals. Delegate it / push back – not important and urgent tasks. These items need to be done, not necessarily by us. This category is perilous, as it is easy to lose time completing this type of busy work. In most cases, these tasks are someone’s else Do first tasks, not ours. Delete it – not important and not urgent tasks. Better to say NO to these tasks.
A well-known technique to start the day is by “eating that frog”, popularized by Brian Tracy and attributed to the French writer Nicolas Chamfort.
Swallow a toad in the morning if you want to encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day. – Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794)
In short, this technique suggests focusing first on the “frog”, the most important task that you might delay.
You can combine the frog with the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule, otherwise called “the vital few.” Regarding work, the Pareto principle states that 80% of the value you contribute to your company comes from 20% of the tasks assigned to you.
So choose your frog(s) and eat them first.
Or … not. Depending on your energy and attention levels, perhaps you might feel better starting your day with a series of quick wins of easier tasks that build morale.
Another technique to start the day is by using the Zeigarnik effect. As Ernest Hemingway used to say:
I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
It is common for writers to leave sentences half completed, ready to be written the next day. So, using the Zeigarnik effect, experiment with having tasks half-finished at the end of your day so you can easily jump straight into resolving that task the following day.
Work and breaks strategies
Now that you chose your first tasks of the day, how do you employ focused mode for these tasks?
Think about time-blocking, time-boxing, task batching, or theme days. I wrote an article that goes into more detail about how to use time blocking.
Then, perhaps Cal Newport’s words might help you:
I am going to work on this for one hour. I don’t care if I faint from the effort or make no progress, for the next hour, this is my whole world. Of course, I wouldn’t faint, and I eventually would make progress.
Newport also coined the Law of Productivity.
Work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.
On a challenging task, I can either spend
- 12 hours with a focus factor of 0.3,
- 9 hours with a focus factor of 0.4,
- 6 hours with a focus factor of 0.6, or
- 4 hours with a focus factor of 0.9.
However, as a close friend suggested, this equation is incomplete, as it doesn’t acknowledge the priority of the task (see the Eisenhower Matrix, powers of 10, or the Pareto Principle).
I rename the Law of Productivity to the Law of Efficient Productivity as such:
Work accomplished on a task = priority of task x time spent x intensity of focus.
During a working day, I can either spend
- 1 hour with a focus factor of 0.5 on a task with priority 0.8,
- 1 hour with a focus factor of 0.8 on a task with priority 0.5,
- 1 hour with a focus factor of 0.9 on a task with priority 0.9 .
We all worked those hours. Yet, intense focus and clear goals are the difference between efficiency and busyness.
Another perspective for deep work is that the focused mode resembles meditation because
In mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. This ability rapidly improves your ability to think deeply.
The main points of time-blocked focused work are:
- Force yourself to resist distractions
- If your mind wanders, return your attention repeatedly to your problem at hand.
Not all tasks can be approached in a focused manner, as the diffuse mode can be used in conjunction with task batching – where similar, smaller tasks such as life admin tasks can be grouped and processed more efficiently.
Long stretches of highly productive, intense laser-focus are not humanly possible. Remember how the brain naturally switches between focused and diffuse mode. Sometimes this switch might be unconscious as our attention dwindles and we crave an interruption: check the phone, email, news, etc.
A strategy would be to expect the diminishing returns of work and try to recharge and refresh. After intense bursts of focused mode, the rest of the moments of diffuse mode bring aha! Moments.
In her book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine writes about a Nobel laureate of medicine that said:
This apparatus … it sort of keeps all known facts afloat, waiting for them to fall in place, like a jigsaw puzzle. And if you press…if you try to permutate your knowledge, nothing comes out of it. You must give a sort of mysterious pressure, and then rest, and suddenly BING… the solution comes.
One study showed a direct correlation between the numbers of paroles to prisoners and snack breaks. Judges started the morning by granting parole to almost 65% of the prisoners. This percentage dropped to almost zero by the end of the first sessions and returned abruptly to 65% after a snack break. Breaks are not optional.
As Chris Bailey said in his book The Productivity Project, productivity is about managing time, attention, and energy.
- A lack of time management leads to procrastination.
- A lack of attention management leads to distraction.
- A lack of energy management leads to tiredness.
Controlling your time through capturing, prioritizing tasks, and time-blocking, controlling your attention through work in focused mode and controlling your energy through breaks or diffuse mode give you the unique opportunity to decide how you run your life.
There is no such thing as the correct productivity workflow.
Context is crucial because of intersectionality (how different aspects of a person’s identity combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege). E.g., men have gender privilege. White people have race privilege. Coming from the middle class is an economic privilege.
Consider the case of an upper-middle-class white father, working regular hours, with access to reliable childcare, healthcare, and housing. Strategies that will work for this person will not be that efficient for an overtired and overburdened single parent of color, working two jobs, with unreliable access to childcare, healthcare, and housing.
And yet, I believe we owe it to ourselves to try to find a productivity approach that works for us because
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up. – Anne Lamott
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/strategies-for-mindful-work/
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