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This article was originally published by Body & Soul

By Dr Amantha Imber

November 30, 2021

We speak to a behavioural science expert about how to manage your deadlines in the lead up to Christmas.

In the lead up to Christmas holidays, artificial deadlines abound. It can often feel like the work world is ending with the amount of things that Must Be Done before all offices shut down in late December.

To make it to the summer holidays with your sanity intact, it’s time to put in place strategies to help you get more done in less time, use your time more productively, and eliminate distractions that slow us down every day. Here are five strategies that can help.

Re-learn how to stay focused

We are working in the age of digital distraction, where the average worker can only stay focused for six minutes before they do a “just check” or email or messenger, according to research by Rescue Time.

This leads to workers prioritising “Shallow Work” (work that is non-cognitively demanding) over “Deep Work” (work that requires intense focus and concentration for uninterrupted periods of time). Understanding the difference between these two types of work can help you prioritise Deep Work over Shallow Work.

Work in sprints

A stereotype exists of the classic overachiever who spends 16-hour days at their desk doing nothing but focused work. I remember being a university student and trying to write a very long thesis for my PhD. I aspired to work in 16-hour marathons, but in reality, I couldn’t last more than 30 minutes without manufacturing some kind of excuse for a break.

What I later learnt is that the human brain is designed to be a sprinter, not a marathon runner. Our energy levels work in 60-90 minute cycles. So instead of aiming for a long and intensive uninterrupted day of focused work, aim for two to three 60- to 90-minute sprints instead.

Stop multitasking

Humans are chronic multitaskers, flitting between emails, Slack, working on a presentation, checking their phone, and so on. Professor David Meyer found that multitasking makes tasks take 40% longer compared to if we monotask (focus on one thing at the one time).

The next time you catch yourself multitasking or task switching, remind yourself that you are only making both tasks take 40% longer. Instead, monotask your way through the day. By making this one change to your day, you can free up two to three hours per day if your workday is the standard eight-hour day.

Structure your day according to your Chronotype

When is the best time of day to undertake certain tasks? The answer lies in working to our Chronotype (the natural peaks and troughs of our energy levels over a 24-hour period).

Larks, for example, are at their cognitive peak in the early morning. As such, Larks should schedule their most cognitively demanding Deep Work for this time of day. In contrast, Owls have their cognitive peak at night and are best served working on less cognitively demanding work during the day.

Assess your Chronotype to determine when you should be doing work that requires the most heavy lifting.

Take frequent breaks instead of one long one

If you are in a busy job and already working long hours, you may be someone who can easily get consumed with your busy-ness and “forget” to take a break. Or perhaps you believe you simply don’t have time to take a break. You are attached to your computer, lunch is eaten at your desk while checking emails (#efficiency), and you rush from one meeting to the next.

Research has shown that this style of working has a big impact on productivity. We believe that we are working more (through not taking a break), however, we are actually in a constant state of poorer cognitive performance.

One study showed that the most productive performers worked solidly for 52 minutes and then had a break for 17 minutes. Other research has shown that in contrast to one 30 minute break, hourly five minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively.

And another study found that taking a 40-second “Green Micro-break”, that is, looking at a view of greenery, increased concentration levels by 8%.