Staying productive without working too much

When knee-deep in a challenging project or two, my workaholic tendencies flare up. I become preoccupied with getting to done and spend more hours than I should sitting in front of a computer. Itʼs a recipe for physical discomfort with a side dish of anxiety.

The trick, for me, then is to find a way to keep my projects on track and on task, without overworking. A very busy fall presented the perfect chance to improve my work life with a few key practices.

Take short breaks

Research suggests that taking short breaks can improve your cognitive performance. You retain more. You create more. You can do more. But you have to remember to take them.

Enforce breaks with a timer. Your phoneʼs Clock app fits the bill. For me, however, unlocking my phone to reset the timer got really annoying really quickly. Plus Iʼd find myself drifting over to Twitter. So I switched to a timer cube.

How long should you work at a stretch? I limit my spurts to 30 minutes, with a 5-minute break in between. Itʼs a variation of the Pomodoro technique thatʼs also compatible with my timer.

Move around. Drink some water.

During breaks, make it a point to move around. Stretch. Get a glass of water. Even mild dehydration can affect your concentration. Walking to the kitchen or break room for a glass of water gives you a reason to move. So can going for a walk around the block, or parking lot. (Related: a regular exercise regimen helps keep stress at bay.)

Something else Iʼve added to encourage movment: an adjustable-height computer stand. When sitting becomes uncomfortable, I stand. When standing becomes uncomfortable, I sit.

Ikea sells a relatively affordable sit-stand desk. However, I went with a Varidesk Pro Plus 36 (affiliate link), because Iʼm easily manipulated by television ads. I do love it, for what itʼs worth. Varidesk also sells a more expensive, but not unreasonably-priced adjustable sit-stand desk (affiliate link).

Time box your work day

I try not to work more than 7-8 hours per day, and 35-40 hours in a week. At the start of my work day, Iʼll set a target end time. I donʼt always stick to it, but I always set it.

What Iʼve noticed is that if I try to work than 7 or 8 hours, my cognitive capacity decreases. Stuff that made sense 3 hours into my work day makes zero sense by hour 9. Iʼm more likely to introduce a bug and waste time trying to fix it. Itʼs better to avoid hitting that wall.

You can do this even if youʼre working a full-time office job. If you canʼt leave for the day, shift to tasks that donʼt require much problem solving.

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