Welcome to my day. At any given moment, I could be working on a myriad of tasks. Compiling research for the first draft of a web article. Writing an e-mail to a source in order to score an interview. Conducting that interview. Drafting a proposal on why a prospective client absolutely must give me her next writing project. Editing the random commas and overused “thats” out of my novel manuscript. Managing my in-box. Or, ferreting through the web to find out how the human body would react if set upon the Martian landscape without oxygen. (I’d tell you why, but then I’d have to kill you.)
Basically, I am a ping-pong ball with a keyboard.
I love being a writer. It’s one of my main reasons for living, but it’s tough sometimes. Okay, it’s tough a lot of the time. Sometimes the enemy is my own brain. Even the most facile thinker can have problems bouncing from project to project, reorienting his or her brain toward the required task. You’re tapping away at your magnum opus, when BOOM, the phone rings- your best client, who needs to talk to you right away. You scribble down notes about revisions to the project, and then go back to your computer to find fifty new e-mails waiting for you. One of those is a request for proposal for a job that’s only going to be hot for the next couple of days before the marketing manager must choose a vendor.
So how on Earth (or on Mars) can you shift your focus and apply your best self to each task?
Discipline, yes. Those things you’re supposed to do, like keeping a to-do list, blocking out spaces of time for each project, returning messages promptly… those Highly Effective Steps all of those Highly Effective People use every day.
But there’s much more to the task of balancing tasks than mere paperwork. According to Dr. Nick Hall, internationally recognized psychoneuroimmunologist, (try fitting that on a business card) we can work with our own biology to become more productive.
For instance, some studies show that our brain hemisphere activity cycles every 90 to 110 minutes. This is a brilliant method the brain uses to manage its energy throughout the day. The trick is to harness and work with the brain’s natural rhythms.
The first step is to figure out which brain hemisphere happens to be switched on. According to Dr. Hall, you only need to pay attention to your breathing. More specifically, your nostrils. Sit very quietly, inhale through your nose a few times (blow your nose if you’re congested), and note which nostril feels less constricted as you breathe. As I’m writing this, my right nostril is definitely doing more than its fair share of the work. Using Dr. Hall’s hypothesis (cribbed from ancient India), my left-brain is more active. So it’s a good thing I’m using my right-brain language skills now. And in about 90 to 110 minutes, I should switch to my left-brained tasks, like sorting out my inbox or updating my contacts list. Theoretically, this will make performing all types of tasks more efficient.
Another way Hall recommends you improve productivity is to match your breaks to your tasks. After spending 45 minutes composing a proposal (language skills), don’t hop on down to chat with your friends at the water cooler (or the virtual representation of the water cooler) for a break. This is not a break. This is a continuation of language skills. Sure, we need breaks. But if I hang out on Facebook for five or ten (okay, fifteen or twenty) minutes and then return to that proposal, my brain is already tired and hasn’t rested. Probably a better break for me at that point would have been a quieter activity like fetching a cup of tea, going for a short walk, or taking a few deep breaths. Then I can go back to my linguistic pursuits refreshed.
One method I use is to work with my unique biological rhythms. I am more energetic and more creative in the morning. That’s when I do the bulk of my writing, or tackle tasks that require more energy. After lunch, I work best at editing or revising. At around four or five o’clock, though, my energy plummets. This is when I normally exercise. And from banging my head against the wall time and time again, I’ve learned that the part of my brain that makes sentences checks out after about seven o’clock, so I have no business writing then. Better to perform a more rote task, or even better, eat dinner and relax.
You probably know when you’re at your best for certain things and not for others. It’s much easier to fit your tasks around your rhythms than trying to muscle your way through something your brain is just not up for.
But I know what you’re thinking: “I’m at work, and my report is due in two hours. According to my ‘nostril clock,’ I’m on the right side of my brain. So I’m screwed, right?”
You might not be. Some studies have suggested that you can change which side of your brain is “switched on” by closing the currently active nostril and forcing the other to do the work. I haven’t gotten this to work yet. Maybe you’ll have more success.
What are your favorite productivity tips that don’t involve your nostrils?