I’ve spoken before about the importance of getting into the zone. But like all things, you can be in the zone too much. Let’s talk about maintaining a healthy balance in the face of challenging work environments, a natural inclination to go deep, and a surprising new context: quarantine.
I’ve really gone deep in the past. When I was young, I had “no problem sitting at a computer for hours”, because those “hours would go by and I would barely feel it”. But the truth is that while I didn’t notice in the middle of those long stretches, I did notice it afterwards.
I’d be dehydrated, hungry, sore, and exhausted at the end of a long session. Operating nearly purely in the mind, I had disconnected from my body’s needs for too long.
I’d feel a sense of shame as well, both because of my physical state and because it felt like I had lost time. No, I hadn’t time-traveled, but I did put more time than I wanted into the video game, the web page upgrade, or the tweaking of some Pascal program. If I had done my homework first, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad!
I’ve come a long way since then, but the truth is that I haven’t grown beyond these leanings. That most-prized thing, a long stretch of uninterrupted time, can put me in that same space. A no-meeting weekday afternoon or a Saturday with no plans can still be a trap. Even as an adult, coding or writing can suck me in like a video game.
What’s worse, YouTube and Twitter can do the same thing out of nowhere. I’ve started watching or scrolling and was shocked when I later broke out of that spell!
The solution is, surprisingly, interruptions. But instead of a disturbance that can pull you in some random direction, we want a pure reminder to climb up a few mental levels, from the details of the task at hand to a higher perspective. From the short term to the longer term.
When I’m faced with a long stretch of uninterrupted time, I break it up with timers I’ve set for myself on my phone.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the Pomodoro Technique is useful to help structure this. At a high level, the technique asks you to break your day up into 25-minute and 5-minute chunks. The larger chunk is your productive time, time on task. The smaller chunks are whatever relaxing thing you’d like: a short walk, a snack, meditation, etc.
When you start each 25-minute Pomodoro, you record a specific stated goal (I track mine with my thoughts system), and focus fully on that goal until it’s done or the time period is complete. Then you take a break. You can decide the right time to check your notifications during this rhythm. I like to do it right before starting my next chunk of work.
I’ve used this approach long enough that I’ve customized it for myself, a rhythm I call Super Pomodoros: 50 minutes on task, then a 10-minute break, almost always meditation. Earplugs, a dark room, laying down, watching breath, focusing on relaxing my face and body. Maybe you’re like me, and you sometimes scowl at your computer as you work?
You might think that all of these benefits are about your body, your health, and your mindset. You might even doubt that your productivity will go up if you’re always being interrupted. But the benefits are pretty comprehensive:
We’re not robots, though sometimes it can feel good to pretend that we are. I know that I love immersing myself into logical landscapes, whether writing, coding, or playing board games. But it’s really important to take a step back with regularity.
We’re in a truly exceptional time. Still. After more than a year and a half, we’re still wearing masks, keeping windows open, keeping air filters on high, and working from home if at all possible. For the tech industry, this seemed like a pretty natural change, but it had some unexpected implications.
In my case, I’ve been working at home for many years. Signal is a 99%-remote organization, and my contracts beforehand were almost entirely remote as well. But that’s the key, isn’t it? That 1% of in-person interaction is now gone, even for those of us who were used to remote work. It makes everything harder. An in-person kickoff is important for a remote-only team’s cohesion.
Even worse, households not really ready for remote work have been forced into it.
That 1% of in-person time was a form of break, a mindset shift. If you were not remote before, your commute was a form of break, especially if you walk or bike. In your household, time away at an office was a form of break. We’ve got no natural division between ‘being home’ and ‘working at home,’ so we have to create it ourselves.
Figure out what works for you here. Maybe you need to replicate the office experience a little more closely - you could try coffee with coworkers over video chat. Maybe you need something like your previous commute: sign off in the group chat at a certain time every day then go for a walk, work out, watch some mindless YouTube or a TV show. Set a timer, of course!
We’ve been talking about small breaks so far, but humans need longer breaks. Take a long weekend here and there, and longer full-week vacations wherever possible. Yes, you won’t be productive while you’re on vacation, but I know I have lots of energy when I come back!
The same kinds of benefits apply. You’ll break through the tunnel vision of your daily rhythms, so you can think creatively about your future. You can think about what you’d like to achieve in the next few months, or the next few years. You can let that frown on your face relax for more than a few minutes at a time!
Here is where we need to talk about the sorry state of paid leave in the United States. I realize that, with my access to multiple weeks of paid vacation time per year, I am very privileged. In the United States apparently I deserve it and others don’t, given my place in the economy. But I think everyone deserves time off. Let’s push for guaranteed vacation and sick leave time for everyone!
And eventually, maybe we can finally get down to the 15-hour workweeks predicted by John Maynard Keynes when he thought about the increases in productivity we’d see in the future!
Break up your workday with Pomodoros and Super Pomodoros. A little meditation during the workday goes a long way! You could use it on the weekends too - I often use a 50m/20m breakdown on my personal time.
Make sure there’s a clear separation between your workday and your personal time, with a system that works for you.
And finally, be sure to take vacations. Come back after a day or a week away with a fresh perspective and new energy.
Let’s mindfully manage our context!