Have you ever had one of those days? You have something big you need to do – prepare for an important presentation, create an outline for a critical report, or get ready for a challenging meeting. You know it’s the most important thing on your to-do list today (maybe for the whole week), but the day just gets away from you.
First, you sit down to “answer just a couple of emails.” The next time you look up, and hour has flown by. Then a colleague steps in to ask “a quick question.” That eats up another 20 minutes. Then you get called into a meeting that lasts 45 minutes and does not accomplish anything. Before you know it, half your day is gone, and you haven’t touched your priority project.
That’s the focus of Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis. He tackles the tough subject of how to get things done as a human being. Machines are so much more efficient, he says. “Computers and machines don’t get tired, so the quality of work is identical every time they are used. Using them more frequently will only lead to greater productivity and efficiency. But, of course, we’re not computers or machines. We are biological creatures. Continually demanding one kind of work—and a consistent level of effectiveness—from our brains is like continually demanding the same speed from a runner under any circumstances—whether sprinting or competing in a marathon, or whether running with no sleep after fasting for a day, jogging after recovering from a hangover, or exercising after being fed and rested.”
In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
The good news is,, we shouldn’t try to stay at maximum productivity for long periods. Davis writes that trying to be efficient all the time will block us from harnessing the vast potential we have for creative thinking. Instead, we should aim for two productive hours at a time at maximum efficiency. Then, we should take a break and move on to something else. Any time after two hours is probably wasted.
That’s the good news. The bad news is we’re really bad at managing even two productive hours in a workday.
Davis writes about science-based principles for channeling your productivity so you can get the most important things done. He spends a lot of time on decision points: those micro moments between tasks where we can keep functioning on automatic pilot or take a second to decide, purposefully and mindfully, what to do next.
Autopilot probably takes us on to the next email or phone message without thinking. Our brains are remarkably efficient; we can complete a whole grooming routine, drive home, or routine business process without much conscious thought. “Much of what we do each day is automatic and guided by habit, requiring little conscious awareness, and that’s not a bad thing…. Once you started answering e-mails, the neural routines started running and you couldn’t stop until something snapped you out of it,” Davis writes.
We waste lots of productive time because we don’t notice it passing, Davis says. “Hurrying through one decision point—in between tasks—might save five minutes. Starting on the wrong task may cost an hour. But the five minutes hurts more because we’re so aware of every second, while during the lost hour we’re mostly on autopilot, so it hurts less.”
The key to more effectiveness is to train yourself to recognize your decision points and snap yourself out of autopilot mode. Take a moment to decide what task is most important to do at that moment. Davis writes, “Being intentional about what you plan to do immediately after you finish a task makes all the difference in the world in terms of how well you use whatever amount of time you have in front of you.”