A Deep Life is a Good Life - Part 2

Written By Jesse Schutt
Posted on

A couple weeks ago, I shared about my quest for improving the processes in my life. Being the data-loving guy I am, I tried an experiment to discover what types of things might affect my productivity.

Here’s the gist of the experiment: I gave up coffee for two weeks to find which hours of the day I was naturally most productive. In addition, I tried out a few other productivity hacks to see what types of impact they’d have. These included:

  1. Waking up naturally, without the help of an alarm
  2. Putting my phone away for 12 hours of the day
  3. Silencing work-chat, emails, and notifications during certain portions of my day

And the results are in!

What was it like?

Wow, talk about a pounding on the first sans-coffee day! Ouch! 😫

Once the headache gave way I realized that I actually missed the act of having something to drink more than the caffeine boost of coffee! So instead I found that decaf green tea was a decent substitution.

Up to the start of this experiment I had been waking up to an alarm every morning at 5. I really didn't mind getting up early since it's one of the only quiet times in my household (we have six kids!). However, during this experiment I allowed myself to wake up naturally, which ended up being between 6 and 6:30.

Typically I would check my phone right before going to bed, and again first thing in the morning, but in an attempt to break from an addictive habit, I avoided phone-time from 8 pm - 8 am.

Taking it a step further, Chris Bailey, in The Productivity Project,2 points out that even having your phone in the same room lowers your ability to concentrate, so I would leave mine at the house during my most productive hours.

The last two things that took place during the experiment was to shut off my work chat (with the Boss' permission, of course!) during certain times, as well as schedule email checking to the start/middle/end of the day.

Show me the data!

After tracking my levels every hour for two weeks3, I've identified my most productive hours lie between 8:30 am and noon, and again from 3-6 pm. According to the chart, I typically experience a slow period from 1-2:30 pm, which is likely explained by the normal sluggishness you feel after eating.

I was surprised to see the energy line tilt back upwards as it got near the end of my work day. Initially, I would have expected it to tail off as I would have put in 6+ hours of coding by that point. However, both Bailey and Newport explain it by our tendency to ramp up the intensity as we feel a deadline approaching.2 They actually suggest that you can improve your productivity by giving yourself less time to accomplish a task than you initially think you'll need!

Lifestyle mods

So what have I learned?

1. Don't make me think right after lunch

I've tried to restructure my work so I have lighter, surface tasks when I come back from lunch break. The food-coma that inevitably shows up after eating prevents me from tackling deep work during this period of the day... and that's OK.

2. Focus on deep work during my most productive hours

Now that I've established when my natural energy is at its highest I'm doubling down on identifying and tackling a specific deep task I can dive into, without worrying about what I might be missing on social media or in my inbox.

The more time, energy, and attention you invest in your most significant tasks, the more you accomplish in the same amount of time, and the more productive you become.

Chris Bailey

The Productivity Project - p.31

3. Habits are strong

Once I committed to this experiment and began to affirm the concept of deep work, I was amazed to see how quickly my brain wanted to retreat as soon as it was flexed by something difficult. Now that I'm aware of these tendencies it's easier to employ strategies to resist the temptation of circling back to shallow distractions.

It's instead the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.

Cal Newport

Deep Work, p.162

4. Ruthlessly eliminate distractions in order to maximize focus

I'm privileged to work from home and have somewhat of a flexible daily work schedule. As a result, I've completely blocked out the hours of 9am-12pm where I'm essentially "unreachable". No twitter, no Facebook, no chat, no emails4. And surprisingly, no guilt.

In summary

Now that I've experienced the productivity potential when I focus on specific deep work, remove as many distractions as possible, realize I have a limited store of energy, and work during my natural rhythms, I don't feel guilty about not being "connected" during a portion of the day. I'm able to end my day with a feeling of satisfaction; a sense that I've given it the best I've got.

However, it took something as dramatic as giving up coffee to get here, and for some, that might not be worth it. ;-)

How about you? Tweet your lifestyle productivity hacks to me @jesseschutt!

  1. The title of this article comes from Deep Work, Cal Newport p. 18
  2. The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey, p.78
  3. My energy tracking was a subjective number between 1 & 10 based on how I felt at the top of each hour, during the hours I was awake.
  4. See this interview with Professor Gloria Mark, where she discusses the impact of task-switching on productivity.