Getting more done by working less?

One of my influences in deciding to undertake this adventure was Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016). The basic idea captured by the subtitle is that working when properly rested and refreshed is far more productive than being exhausted by long hours.

Pang tells a lot of stories, mainly about intellectual workers like scientists and writers, of people who keep what seem like short hours compared to the standard working week and yet manage to produce more or better work than counterparts spending long days and nights in their labs or at their desks. Charles Darwin is a famous example, who is said to have performed what we would recognise as “work” for only four hours each morning, taking the rest of the day for a ten-mile walk around his property.

Another feature of such workers, about which Pang does not say much directly but seemed evident to me, is that they are also very disciplined. It’s not just that Darwin worked for four hours a day then went for a walk; he always worked for four hours then went for his walk. He didn’t (as I understand the story) work four hours when he felt like it, or chat with his colleagues at the next desk over before getting in the mood to start, or wait for his boss to give him something to get on with. He worked, for four full hours, full stop. I’ve heard writers tell similar stories of committing to write a thousand words every day, or write for a set block of time each day, and so on.

When I was studying for my PhD, and had to complete a large project without any particular time constraints, I fell into a pattern of starting as early in the morning as I could, working for two or three hours before breaking for morning tea, working another two hours before lunch, and finally another two hours after lunch before doing some tiding up and going home mid-afternoon. I’ve worked to a similar pattern when working or studying at home, and always felt that the hours before morning tea and the first hour after morning tea and after lunch were the most productive (the other hours were used for responding to e-mail, meetings, and the like.)

I’ve fallen away from this pattern in recent years due to having to keep to a teaching timetable, having to travel long distances to my workplace, or having to fit in with more-or-less normal office hours. I think I’ve also tended to procrastinate a bit more in reading news and e-mail first thing in the morning, going for a morning walk, and playing Solitaire or the like. I’d still like think I’ve been reasonably productive given the constraints but I also see that now would be a good time to re-evaluate my pattern of work.

The pattern that I used for my PhD is surely a good start but I’m yet to determine how I’ll use the time required to travel to and from my office, or how best to approach news and e-mail (of which there was a lot less when I was studying). Matters are complicated by the fact that on some days I’ll be travelling to my office, and on other days I’ll be working on projects at home.

Over the next few weeks I’ll experiment with different regimes for reading news and e-mail, using time on the train, shopping and performing chores, and relaxing. Within a month, I hope, I’ll have settled into a pattern that keeps me both productive and relaxed.

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