As a full-time lawyer who also writes 20–25 hours a week on the side for the past six months, I seem to always have an endless To-Do list and an insufficient amount of time. Even when I do sometimes sit down and write, nothing comes out. I’m tired. I’m frustrated. I’m distracted. But as time went on, I started implementing these 12 tricks and it’s helped reduce my anxiety, stay focused on the task at hand and, in general, has allowed me to not only accomplish tasks better but also accomplish more.
- Shove your phone into a drawer or, if you have an iPhone, turn on “Airplane” mode. Your phone is the #1 reason that you’re unable to perform, what Cal Newport has coined, “deep work.” He defines deep work as:
“…an activity well suited to generate a flow state. Flow state is the phrases used by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe notions of stretching your mind to its limits, concentrating, and losing yourself in an activity. All of which also describe deep work. And as we just learned, flow generates happiness. Combining these two ideas we get a powerful argument from psychology in favor of depth. Decades of research stemming from Csikszentmihalyi’s original ESM experiments validate that the act of going deep orders the consciousness in a way that makes life worthwhile.”
In order to get to this state of flow, you’re going to eliminate all distractions. Our phone is the biggest reason that we snap out of this state — every beep and ping beckons our attention. Anticipate the disturbance. Remove the possibility of such intrusion before you sit down. The adage, “out of sight, out of mind,” applies to this situation.
2. Decide how long you’re going to work for. You need to wake up each day with a game plan as to how you’re going to maximize your day. I don’t mean that you should attempt to cram as much stuff as you can into the next 24 hours but rather, you need to make sure that you will complete productive work, tend to your home affairs and ensure you have some time for self-care. Your day’s game plan must account for all facets of your life. Every single morning, I decide when I’ll be working on what projects and for how long. Unless a task has an urgent deadline, I will follow the schedule I set for myself and move on to the next task despite how much progress I’m making on the prior one. I rather stop while I’m on a roll, rather than let one task take up my entire day.
3. Schedule time for your distractions. Instead of checking every social media notification that goes off on your phone while you’re working, force yourself to take frequent breaks throughout the day. Not only can this help with decision fatigue, but you’re also welcoming interruptions. During your breaks, scroll through social media, check your email, watch cat videos, check-in with your loved ones. You no longer have to associate these actions with guilt or unproductivity. In today’s digital age, it is a tall order to ask that you eliminate these from your life. Also, technology is a wonderful tool to enable us to connect to others. But we need to use it in a way that serves us rather than hinders us.
4. Go outside for at least 30 minutes during the afternoon. In order for us to maintain our focus throughout the day, we need to recharge our batteries someway around the halfway mark. Instead of eating lunch at your cubicle or in the lunchroom, eat outside. Alternatively, go for a walk during your lunch break. Whatever you decide to do is irrelevant — being in nature, away from the computer, will rejuvenate you to get back to the grind.
5. Ergonomics matter. For the longest time, I used to suffer from serious burn out because my body was physically aching for me to stop. After I stopped working, the pain I experienced around my neck, upper back and arms carried throughout the rest of the day. I also told myself I was too busy to see a chiropractor, registered massage therapist and other health practitioners to address the pain. And then, I moved to a standing desk at work. At first, I was hesitant that I’d be able to stand for more or less eight hours, five days a week. But, after the first day, I was hooked. I also bought an ergonomic stool so that I would be able to sit when I tired of standing. Not only has this helped reduce the aches and pains I experienced from all the sitting but I also found that I’m more alert and productive. While the health benefits of a standing desk have been contested, I personally find that the benefits far outweigh the (minimal) cons.
6. Learn through different formats. Reading all day can get tiresome. That’s why, I like to switch things up and learn from different sources. I sift through recent case law. I watch more experienced colleagues conduct hearings. I listen to legal podcasts that interviews top lawyers. All of it is useful. By taking in information from different streams, and different formats, I’m able to continue learning beyond the hours of 9–5 without feeling I am really doing so.
7. Music can be distracting. Listen to white noise instead. White noise is less disruptive to your concentration while also serves to block out external sounds. There’s also growing research that suggests listening to white noise can help improve memory. I use this free web app while I work.
8. Strategize your caffeine intake. Drinking coffee is not only pleasurable but can help energize you when your cortisol levels are low. However, too much caffeine intake can cause you to crash, which will effectively render you totally unproductive. Instead, only drink coffee when your cortisol levels are low — usually from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 pm to 5:00 p.m. Most of us don’t realize that our cortisol levels are highest from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.
9. Hardest tasks first. I make it an explicit point to do the hardest tasks in the morning, using the Pomodoro method (and this tomato timer). From 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m, I always work on projects that require me to deploy my critical thinking skills. When I’m doing legal work, I devote that time to meetings, evidence review and drafting legal submissions. If it’s the weekend, I use that time to edit, research and write. No checking email. No fiddling with my website’s design.
Once I get my toughest tasks out of the way, I feel as if I’ve ‘won’ the day, regardless of how much other tasks I’m able to accomplish later that day.
10. Recognize when diminishing returns start to set in. The Law of Diminishing Returns is an economic concept that is used to refer to a point at which the level of profits gained is less than the amount of money invested.
This applies to our personal energy too.
There’s always a point in time, during the day, when irrespective of how much energy you put into your work, the output begins to be marginal in proportion to the energy you exude.
When I start to feel overwhelmed, I take a step back, shut down my laptop and try to gain perspective — does this really need to be done today? What will happen if I work on this again in the morning?
If the answer to the former is, ‘no,’ and the answer to the latter is, ‘nothing,’ then I walk away.
Part of avoiding burn out is recognizing when it’s time to quit, instead of sitting at your desk for hours, in agony, producing low quality work that you’ll most likely redo the following day.
11. For the love of god, go to sleep. I’m not just talking about 4, 5 or 6 hours. I’m talking about 7 or 8 hours. Regularly. No all-nighters. No frequent naps in lieu of actual sleep. None of the terrible habits that you’ve managed to get away with in college when you had a research paper due the following day. In order to think critically, make sound decisions and maintain laser-focused attention on one task at a time, you need to sleep. Go to bed early. Wake up early. Rinse. Repeat.
12. Is this bringing me closer to my goal? This is a question I ask myself every single time that I find myself overworked or possess little motivation. Sometimes we get caught up in the slog of our daily tasks that we forget the overall objective we’re trying to achieve. On some days, I hate spending my morning writing. I’d rather be playing with my dog, hanging out with my partner or just, quite frankly, mindlessly scrolling through social media. But if I want to establish myself as a serious writer, this is something I must do. I must practice every single day. I must practice the craft seriously. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.
We all want to optimize our waking hours in order to achieve maximum returns. But, in order to do so, you must be utterly strategic and rigorous with your time.
Implementing systems is crucial.
Developing routine is crucial.
Having an ergonomic work space is crucial.
Learn when to play on the offensive and, conversely, when to play on the defensive. You’re in it for the long haul. Act like it. Don’t focus on how much you can get done right now. Focus on how much you can get done in the next year, two years, five years and all of your life.