I will never forget the first time I saw the movie Empire Records. Firstly, I had no idea it existed before that point, and as the credits rolled (you know where they’re all dancing on the rooftop like a 90s cinematic wet dream?), I just knew I was going to watch it several times a year for the rest of my life.
One scene in particular caught my attention. Cory (played by Liv Tyler) skips down the driveway of her two-story mansion bearing freshly baked cupcakes in honour of Rex Manning Day (‘Oh Rexy you’re so sexy!’). Gina (Renee Zellweger) quips ‘When did you have time to make these???’ to which the ever perky Cory replies ‘My father says there are 24 usable hours in every day thank you!’.
Of course, as an impressionable 15-year-old, I thought Cory was the epitome of awesome. Tall, thin, smart, the object of puppy-dog-eyed AJ’s affection and the owner of the best hair I’ve ever seen on a living human. Of course, as it turns out, Cory was a speed addict who popped pills to stay awake to study all night and presumably to retain her perfect praying mantis physique.
Yeah… fuck that. I get that Cory is fictional and everything but it was a good lesson that productivity and general success shouldn’t come at the cost of things like sleep, health and joy.
So I’ve been researching and experimenting with productivity for 15 years and here are a few things that are true.
1. You need to figure out what works for you
Not Miranda Kerr style sunrise yoga followed by an acai bowl or Mark Zuckerberg-esqe 5 am personal training. Do what works FOR YOU.
I hate meditation. I hate it. I’ve tried several times to get into the habit of doing it. There’s even a study that shows that the brains of people who meditate regularly age much slower than people who don’t meditate regularly. Lots and lots of people swear by it.
Me? It makes me sleepy and unproductive. I feel very cloudy after meditating so I don’t bloody well do it. I will likely keep trying to achieve the holy grail of finding my mind Nirvana but at this point (and at every previous point) in my life meditation has not been my friend and it doesn’t have to be.
What works for me is…
- 4 to 5 high-intensity workouts per week, first thing in the morning
- Stopping work no later than 4 pm but ideally by 3 pm – because my brain starts to shut off at midday and slowly slumps into oblivion by 4 pm
- Not drinking alcohol alone/during the week
- Eating a low carb high fat diet
- Intermittent fasting from 8 pm to midday the next day where possible (I usually only break this when we have visitors or travel, and I have a few late-night glasses of wine)
That’s it. And believe me, I’ve tried everything. Green smoothies, 5:2 fasting, counting calories, walking 10k steps every day, dry body brushing, daily 5 km runs, netty potting, meditation, tongue scraping, yoga, pilates, boxing, kickboxing, piloxing, boxercise… The things that work for me and have stuck is what’s listed above.
Try different things and see what works for you. Yoga is fantastic, and I know heaps of people who swear by it. It doesn’t work for me, never has. And that’s cool. You might be reading this thinking ‘What? Yoga is sublime you HIIT loving heathen!’. By all means, yoga it up – you do you boo. High-intensity exercise certainly doesn’t work for everyone so I’m not going to tell you to do it.
2. Quality over quantity
Make your work time count.
I once worked with a dude whose name I can’t remember, and he was the biggest time waster I’ve ever met. He’d dick around on MSN messenger all day (yes this was a VERY long time ago) and then he’d have to stay back late to get his work done.
There is nothing wrong with leaving work on time (or early!) if you’ve done your job. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to nurses/teachers/child care educators or any kind of work that’s shift-based or reliant on your presence in the workplace but for the rest of us, here are some things that lead to late nights working.
- Wasting time having long social chats with colleagues
- Taking extra long lunch breaks
- Arriving late
- Procrastination – going to the toilet, making another cup of tea, checking that there are enough paper clips in the stationary supply cupboard (I haven’t worked in a real office in a long time – are stationary supply cupboards still a thing? Do we still use paper clips? Has Front Desk Linda finally left her husband after talking about it non-stop for 6 years? Has Sexist Carl managed to put his own cup in the dishwasher yet?)
- Spending too long on emails – whack out a reply and send it – you’re not going to win a Pulitzer for an email
I work from 8 am to 3.30 pm with a half an hour break. That’s a 7 hour day, and I work hard in those 7 hours. I do work from home, but I’m very strict about preserving my work time. If someone sends me a funny video to watch, I won’t watch it until my lunch break or until I’m done with work for the day. I don’t dick around on Facebook during work hours. My day runs with ninja-like precision because I hate (and suck at) working at night. Every time I find myself wanting to engage the delivery guy in a lengthier conversation than necessary, I think about trying to get my work done at night, and it snaps me right back to reality.
Having said that, some people work really well at night. My partner does – his prime work hours are just after lunch and just before bed. He knows this so he’ll often do less work during the day, knowing he’s going to be more productive at night. His brother is even more intense – his prime work hours are from 7 pm until about 2am. There’s no right or wrong way to work it’s about the quality of the work – if you have the option and you know it works better for you, do your work at 2 am. It’s all about the quality of the work over the quantity.
3. Schedule, schedule, schedule
This point is linked to point 2, but it’s all about optimising your time and figuring out when your tank is full.
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself
- I’m terrible at exercising in the afternoon. It happens first thing in the morning or not at all.
- My prime working hours are 8am to midday, and I have a few hours after lunch when I’m at 60%, so those first 4 hours of the day are precious and crucial.
- I don’t like working evenings and weekends. I also suck at it – the work I do on a Saturday afternoon when I’d rather be doing something else is always inferior to what I can achieve on a Monday morning when I’m bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
- I work only as much as I need to (financially and also because I like it!) and the rest of the time is for my family – when I clock off at 3.30 pm I get my daughter from daycare, and I spent the whole afternoon/evening with her, and I don’t work or touch my phone.
I know schedules seem counterproductive to spontaneity and joy, but I can assure you, the opposite is true. It’s because of my heavily scheduled mornings/weekdays that I can clock off at 3pm and spend quality time with my kid. Same with weekends – I always make sure I’m done with all of my work by Friday afternoon, so I can hang out with her guilt-free all weekend.
Do what matters to you and don’t worry about the rest. I’m a very organised person, and I enjoy things being tidy but I have to confess my underwear drawer is a mess. I just chuck all my bras and undies in the drawer, and I don’t even fold them. I’ve TRIED to have an organised underwear drawer, but honestly, it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me. I also clean my shower screen way less than I should. The point is, we all compromise. You know that episode of Friends where Chandler finds Monica’s secret gross cupboard full of crap? We ALL have our secret gross cupboard of crap. Embrace it. No one is perfect.