I have spent the better part of my life and far too many of these columns at war with time – and time has usually won. I’ve read countless books on the subject, and taken courses along the way….and with only a few exceptions most of it dealt with a rehash of common sense. That feeling of being overwhelmed and underproductive was relentless.
One of my biggest breakthroughs came to me years ago when I was in Admissions and we had a student with severe dyslexia ask us for help. I had no idea what would be the best course of action for this student at the time so I called an expert on learning disorders. She gave the advice to let the student take one of the exams he was struggling with, giving him short breaks every 20 minutes. Well, as you can probably guess, the student did very well. He ended up surprising himself more than we were! I admit I was intrigued.
Years later, I still often practice the 20 minute segment rule. It appeals to my ADD, my OCD and my incredible lack of patience. But it IS effective. Staff will see me close my door (which is the signal to stay away) and then about 20 minutes later, I’m out walking around and checking in with staff, before going back in again.
Here it is:
FOCUS on a task in 20-minute increments, with absolute attention, and then put it down, over and over, until you’re done. In this case, the gold really is in the details, so please follow along as closely as possible. I promise, it won’t take more than 20 minutes.
- Alert your brain that a task is coming that will require it’s recall, creativity and amazing brilliance (yes…that’s you. Thank Mom and Dad) The let some time pass. A few hours- a day perhaps.
- When you’re ready to start, set a timer for 20 minutes, such as stopwatch feature on your phone. Set the timer, turn away from email, silence all your distractions. Then hit start on the timer.
- During the ensuing 20 minutes you must focus on that task without interruption. And unless the building is bursting into flames around you, do NOTHING but work on that task until the timer goes off. You may hit a wall, but keep going. Most people can work “in the zone” until the times goes off.
- When the timer goes off, after 20 minutes, you have a choice: keep working or take a break. If you decide to keep working, reset the timer for 20 minutes and go through the process again without any interruptions at all until that 20 minutes are up. If you decide to take a break, it can be short (refill your coffee), medium (return some phone calls) or long (go to a meeting or work out or contemplate the meaning of life).
That’s it. You pick it up and then you put it down, over and over again. Some data I’ve found as well as my own experience has shown that you are much more efficient – often finishing faster (as much as 30-50%) than if you tried to do it all in one sitting. Even more surprising is that you’ll find that the quality of your work is better than if you followed Mom’s advice to “start early and just get it done.”
There are several advantages to the 20 minute rule. First, your brain is brilliant at running things in the background but is AWFUL at multi-tasking. While you’re driving to work, in the shower or answering email, your brain keeps working on the task so that when you’re ready, it’ll flow right into your fingers, your computer or notepad, for about 20 minutes. The break allows your brain to restock it’s supply of amazing brilliance. Each time you go through the process is a step up in productivity.
In truth, there are other benefits to this process too. Less stress, reduced frustration and occasionally a general feeling of accomplishment and remarkable brilliance.
Highly concentrated attention is exactly what it says it is: It's a highly focused, deeply intensive mental state of attention. It's like the state you see your children go into when they are playing video games. It's also highly explosive. It gives your personal productivity an instant kick. Highly concentrated attention is a powerful productivity thruster.
Highly concentrated attention is high-powered thinking that produces high-powered results. When your brain is in highly concentrated attention mode, or HCA for short, you can blow past obstacles and cut through a task with surgical precision. When you concentrate, your personal productivity elevates rapidly. You can accomplish twice as much in the same amount of time or accomplish the same amount in half the time, or a combination of the two. Either way, you can't go wrong. There are no negative side effects of HCA, no supreme price to pay. Highly concentrated attention is available to you any time you desire it, just for the asking.
I know of many that use this technique. It's one of the secrets of their success. You can learn to do the same. You can know exactly how to kick your brain into highly concentrated attention whenever you like. And here's what's going to happen to you as a result:
First, you'll get great ideas and solutions. The two basic tools of productivity, the hammer and screwdriver of accomplishment, are ideas and solutions. Ideas that enable you to exploit opportunities, and solutions that enable you to get past obstacles. When you're in HCA mode, you're going to think of good ideas and solutions; they'll just come to you. Not only will you have more tools than ever before, and thereby accomplish more, but you'll dazzle others who marvel at your resourcefulness. All in 20 minutes!
Secondly, you'll have more free time. Since you'll be accomplishing in less time, you'll have time remaining for other enjoyable activities. It's like creating extra time in each day.
Thirdly, you'll treat yourself to one of life's natural pleasures. The brainpower you devote to highly concentrated attention doesn’t have to be exhausting; it's exhilarating, invigorating, refreshing. It's the mental equivalent of a physical workout, beneficial and pleasurable all the way.
Fourthly, you'll advance your career. Most people don't concentrate very often. That’s more common than most think it is. Most people are moderately productive, turning in average performances. But as you spend regular amounts of time in HCA mode, your productivity will surpass that of others. Before long you'll look like a miracle worker. Whom do you think the company's going to promote?
These four benefits, thinking of ideas and solutions, more free time, exhilarating mental workout, and career advancement all result from your use of highly concentrated attention. HCA mode is the mental equivalent of physical exercise. Just as the human body is designed to engage in limited amounts of physical exertion, the brain is designed to engage in limited amounts of mental exertion.
People who engage in either physical or mental exertion regularly do so because their brain has discovered the exertion turns out to be enjoyable. When you engage in HCA regularly, you're retraining your brain to like it. You're developing a taste for it. That's why there are two extremes, the people who physically or mentally exert themselves regularly, who have trained their brains to enjoy it, even crave it, and the people who avoid any physical or mental exertion, who have never gotten past their brain's initial resistance to it.
When you first try to concentrate on something, you may find your attention wandering. You may find yourself gravitating toward other less mentally taxing activities. That's your brain resisting HCA mode. Don't let it happen. Force yourself to concentrate. Get past your brain's gravitational pull. Once you do that, concentration becomes enjoyable. And your brain will gradually cease objecting to it.
This little technique can save you hours of work and stress…and if you tie it in with an occasional “Clean-up Day”, about once a week…all of a sudden you find “life doesn’t suck!” During a Clean Up Day, you try to accomplish the myriad little tasks that keep mucking up your day and keeping you from focusing…
- Every email is answered (yes, every one-in that other email address, too).
- Every bill is paid or put in place where you’ll pay it later.
- Every piece of paper, envelope, and post-it is in a file or thrown away.
- Your system of physical files is up-to-date.
- Every text on your iPhone or BlackBerry is answered.
- Your physical desktop is clear, and your computer desktop is free of those stray files.
- Your in-box (literal and virtual) is empty.
- Everything is backed up.
Most people who’ve just had a Clean Up Day say that the feeling is-and were not exaggerating here-bliss. Others say they feel naturally creative and productive, as though someone just appointed them CEO of their life. Most people say they feel great when they’re done.
Here’s my challenge to you right now: take a task that’s nagging you and use this 20 minute process on it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
What have you got to lose besides 20 minutes? More importantly, what have you got to gain?
Thanks for reading.