Tony Schwartz: The Myths of the Overworked Creative

A few months ago I watched a presentation by Tony Schwartz about how the way we’re working (think 8+ hour shifts of continuous output) isn’t working, and it really resonated with me. I recommend that everyone give it a listen if you have a chance (it’s about 30 minutes long), but I’ll detail the main points so you can get the gist of it.

Basically, Tony’s goal is to debunk the theory that working as hard and as fast as you can is the best way to get things done. He talks about how, “We’re partially engaged in a lot of things and we’re almost never fully engaged in anything”, but how ”The most powerful way to get things done at a high level of quality and in an efficient way is to do one thing at a time in an absorbed way for a significant period of time”. Basically, the opposite of the heavily distracted and constantly interrupted way that I usually work.

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m a champion procrastinator. I work for about 5 minutes before I allow myself to get distracted with something else: checking email, texting, obsessively cleaning the house, basically anything I can find to pull me away from my original task. At one point in the presentation he says that every time you move from your primary activity (let’s say, working on my website) to another (ohhh, like checking my email perhaps?), you increase the amount of time it’ll take to finish your primary activity by 25%. So wait…the 4 times I stop to check my email in an hour doubles the time it takes me to finish my task? Great.

So what do we do? Tony suggests tapping into the natural ultradian rhythm of our bodies, the sort of waking version of our sleep cycles.

“We’re not meant to work continuously and we’re not most effective when we do and the better way to work is to build in intermittent renewal along the way…we’re designed to move between spending energy and renewing energy in a rhythmic way”.

The human mind is able to focus and concentrate for 90 minutes at a time, but at the end of those 90 minutes, your concentration begins to wane and you need to recover and renew your energy before entering the next 90 minute cycle. In short, the most effective and efficient way to get things done is to devote your undivided attention to the task at hand for 90 minutes, then take a break to recharge, and enter another 90 minute work cycle.

I’m sharing this video because this is how I’ve been working on my website (and a number of other projects as well). For someone with a short attention span who’s easily distracted, it’s worked great. I like seeing my day in chunks rather than one long stretch of time, not to mention I love being given permission to take more breaks. It’s also nice to know that it’s still worthwhile to get some work done if I only have a 90 minute block of time.

And I should probably update everyone too, but there’s pretty much no way that my site is launching by my original January 31st deadline. I thought I might be able to push through and get it done quickly, but those 10 days I missed when my computer was off being repaired definitely set me back. The new launch date is February 10th, and I’m sticking to it.

Time for a bunch more 90 minute work blocks!

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