Are targets bad for your productivity?

Figuring out what you need to do, planning your time, setting a target…

These are the typical ingredients of any time management system. But you know it doesn’t always work.

And sometimes it can have the opposite effect on your motivation when you miss a target.

Targets themselves don’t seem to be an intrinsic motivator. They can be useful to sharpen your focus, but only if you’re already mentally there.

Maybe targets are a distraction. Maybe the answer is to fully engage yourself mentally with the work, for its own sake.

This train of thought was inspired by this short video. It’s only about 3 minutes long, but very interesting!

How to use your body clock to set your thesis writing routine

To finish your thesis, you’re going to have to spend a lot of days sitting writing in front of a computer screen.

But spending more hours at the desk per day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll finish any faster. You have to make sure that the time you spend there is spent well.

The 80:20 Principle

If you spend 10 hours at the desk, you might find that 80% of your productivity occurs in 2 hours, while the other 20% takes place in the remaining 8. It’s the 80:20 principle in action.

Strangely, the last 2 hours of the day can often be the most productive, even though you would think that’s when you’d be the most tired and least productive.

Circadian rhythms

Your general level of alertness naturally varies throughout the day, and for most people the pattern repeats on a daily basis- so  for example you might be sleepy in the morning and most alert between 3 and 5 pm, every day.

Short term stress can override the rhythm (like if you have an important deadline), but you’ll tend to revert to what your body is used to.

But your alertness will also depend on what your body is physically doing. Sitting behind a desk all day, your body’s core temperature will drop, your heart rate will slow and you will gradually become less alert and less capable of writing.

So it’s vital to get up and get your body working to keep your mind alert. 

What to do

You need to know what your natural rhythm is. When are you most alert during the day? And when do you just feel like sleeping?

Once you know what that rhythm is, you can start working with it, rather than against it.

  • Try to do the most mentally demanding work when you are at your peak, and do easier things when you’re not. If you peak between 6 and 8 in the evening, it makes no sense to try to be at the desk at 9am. Start later, finish later.
  • Also, try to build momentum towards your peak working time. So if it takes you time to build momentum at the start of the day, start the day with something really easy.
  • This is much easier if at the end of the day you leave yourself something easy to start the next one with.
  • Don’t rush to turn the computer on in the morning. You’ll just be on email and Facebook anyway. Take your time to prepare, have breakfast, do any miscellaneous chores and give your body time to physically wake up.
  • Only check email after you’ve achieved something for the day (no matter how small an achievement).
  • When you feel tired and feel like checking email, get away from the desk instead.

Reading email is not a break

Sitting in front of your email doesn’t count as relaxing. Physically you are doing exactly what you are when working, so there is no contrast.

Get up and stretch your legs instead. Better still, do 20 push ups and 20 sit ups. The boost will be better than a shot of espresso!


What you need to sacrifice to finish your thesis

Thesis writing isn’t easy.

Even if you write fast, it still takes months of sustained effort, and you might have to sacrifice a few things to get it done.

But just how much do you need to give up?

The worst case scenario…

The worst case scenario is the more pressure you find yourself under, the more you allow your thesis to take over your life.

You assume you aren’t doing enough, and end up in a cycle of self-punishment as you convince yourself that this is what it takes.

But there’s a better way to approach your thesis… one where you decide what you’re willing to give up, and what you’re not.

Ask yourself…

Let’s start with the assumption that you have to give up something. What’s it going to be? Internet? TV?

At the same time, what’s so important to you that are you’re not willing to give it up? Your relationship? Your social life?

You can either decide what it’s going to be in advance, or wait till you’re a train-wreck of stress and missed deadlines.

I got rid of my TV and internet connection while I worked at home, but kept my social life and was able to carry on doing sports training 4 or 5 times per week.

I gave up my two most distracting luxuries, but didn’t suffer the guilt and stress that follows procrastination.

Decide now what you’re willing to give up, and what you’re not