The traditional structure of nine to five is no longer, and the average American works 47 hours a week. We’re working over the recommended limit and conversely, sleeping under the 7-9 hours per night that research suggests for optimal health. This is a tradeoff that does not have to be the norm. Who wouldn’t love a little more time to spend with the kids, read, cook, and play outside before sundown? Over the past five years of running a startup while still sleeping 8+ hours a night and working out everyday, I’ve developed a few habits to help me make every work hour count.
Pen, Paper, Priority
While technology has provided us with enough multitasking tools and productivity apps to schedule the rest of our lives, I find that my favorite productivity “app” is a pen and paper. The tip to productivity is priority. I spend each morning writing down the top three things that I want to accomplish that day, ranked in order of priority. Most people are the most productive in the morning, and I’m no exception. Instead of diving straight into my email, I pick the hardest task on my list and finish that first. I keep that list in front of me the whole day and it helps me to focus when meetings and emails try to pull me in different directions. Though many people keep lists in their notebooks, I love writing them on pieces of scratch paper so that I can cross off, crumple and slamdunk my list of tasks into the recycling bin at the end of the day.
Timeblock your Tasks
On Sunday evenings I make a list of everything I want to get done in the coming week. Then I block out times in my calendar for the larger tasks that I know will take multiple hours of focused attention. Kuli Kuli has a shared google calendar and we encourage everyone to block off time as they see fit. My team knows that if I block off “HOLD for Investor Update” in the calendar that I’ll be focusing on that task but they can schedule over it if something extremely time-sensitive comes up. I also find that these time blocks make it easier to do tasks that I have trouble making time for. For me, writing articles for Forbes or other outlets is one of those tasks that takes hours of focused attention, but it’s often an activity that’s difficult to prioritize as it never feels as urgent as the day to day fires of running a startup. However, when I have a clearly delineated time in my calendar, it feels less daunting to spend a few hours away from the emails and meetings to try something more creative. And better yet, often I finish my tasks early, leaving time for breaks!
Bursts to Breaks
I drink more tea at work than most people drink water. Part of this comes from the fact that I enjoy tea but the other, larger part is that I enjoy the ritual of heating up the water, waiting for the tea leaves to steep and then composting the leaves once the tea has reached the perfect richness. This ritual serves as the perfect 15 minute break for me and I do it 4-6 times a day. Everyone has different ways that they take breaks. There is lots of research out there about the “right” balance of focus and rest, from the Pomodoro Technique of 25 minutes of focus and 5 minutes of rest to the suggestion of many social scientists to work for 52 minutes and then play for 17. Every person is different and I suggest finding activities that you enjoy — whether its a tea/coffee break, a walk outside or a stretch — and building that into your work routine.
Work to Workout
At Kuli Kuli, we’ve built in an optional stretch break that also serves as a team bonding time. If you step into our office at 2:30pm, you’re likely to see half a dozen people doing push-ups or crunches as part of our team FitDeck stretch breaks. We also have a weekly team running club on Friday afternoons and a monthly pickup soccer game that we play against another startup. Research shows that exercising during the middle of the workday stimulates creativity, relieves stress, and increases alertness. Fitting in exercise is immensely positive in every possible way. After a workout, when I’m back at my standing desk, I’m always less antsy, less distracted, and more productive than when I started.
Eat Well, Hydrate, Meditate
Food is medicine, water is fuel and meditation brings clarity. I never understand people who say they’re too busy to eat breakfast or stop to eat lunch. I’m too busy to not eat breakfast! Staying focused, efficient, and productive is a form of being in shape, for both the body and the brain. You need stamina and nourishment to make it through your optimal work day and mental clarity to tackle each task with intention. Of course, running a moringa company means that I’m partial to superfoods but there are many different “brain foods” that can help you perform at your best. I make sure that our office is stocked with lots of healthy snacks. I also keep a water bottle (and a mug for tea) next to my desk at all times so that I stay hydrated. And of course, pee breaks are another good excuse to step away from your computer. I also spend 5-10 minutes meditating at both the beginning and end of my day, which helps me begin and end each day with intention.
Cater to your Creativity
I often like to theme my days. Mondays are my meeting days, Wednesdays are my “maker days” and Fridays are my call marathon days, which I often take while walking around the lake near our office. Though I like scheduling similar types of activities on certain days, I also leave a lot of room for flexibility. I travel around every other week and find that I often to get creative about the places and types of work that I’m doing. Often when I’m attending conferences I’ll intentionally miss the morning sessions in order to get in a run and one task finished before I engage in the sessions. With the more flexible and remote nature of many careers nowadays, it’s become easier than ever to set the work schedule that aligns with the times you’re most productive. Not every day has to be the same, and changing it up will keep you engaged and help dodge boredom and monotony. When you plan out the tasks of the day, determine which environment will foster the most creativity and efficiency so you can produce your best quality of work.
Check Out at the end of the Checklist
The above tips should help you to avoid burning out from all that great work you’ve accomplished, but there’s one more essential step – quit while you’re ahead. It’s important to leave today’s work on a high note so that you’re ready to roll tomorrow. When you’ve finished everything you’ve set out to do to the best of your ability, step away and call it a day. Have a bunch of tasks that could come next? Create tomorrow’s list and feel good about having finished today’s and taken tomorrow’s first step. By the end of the week, as long as I’ve completed all the work I set out to, I can walk away guilt-free.
Most Importantly, Actually Sleep
If you want to sleep more hours than you work, you should make sure you’re sleeping at least eight hours. But just as you can be creative with your work hours, sleeping hours don’t have to be amassed in the eight-hour blocks that we think they do. All over the world, siestas, repos, and naptimes allow adults to reach their full eight hours of shuteye and wake up feeling refreshed and refocused. Even Google offers nap rooms, recognizing it increases techie productivity! If you’re more partial to the traditional nighttime slumber however, try setting a timer rather than an alarm, counting down from an ideally uninterrupted eight hours at lights out.
After trying these steps, you might find you have more time on your hands than you did before — congratulations, taskmaster. Now, get outside and enjoy that sunshine!