A soldier spends every minute from the moment he wakes up to when he goes to sleep with a single purpose: training for battle. A top-athlete is dedicating every second of the day towards maximizing her performance at her sport. How does a day dedicated to the highest performance in knowledge work look like?
I asked myself that question over some time tried out different tools and tactics, and arrived at a field-tested routine. Let’s call it Beastmode.
I turn on Beastmode when I require insanely productive sprints where I get up to 4x the gains of “normal mode”. Whenever I feel the need to go all-in on a project I turn this “Beastmode” on and apply all of those tactics at the same time.
This post is very tactical and short-term focused. For a more sustainable and principle-based approach check “5 Timeless Principles of Managing Time”.
1) Clear Scope
Know what you want to do and how to do it. It’s simple but often overlooked. One of the reasons for procrastination I noticed, is that often it’s not clear what I’m trying to do. I know what I want to achieve maybe, but I’m fuzzy about the specific actions I need to take. Usually, after some time of dicking around and mounting frustration I catch myself, stop, and sit down to scope out clearly how I’ll achieve my goal.
If you jot down from the beginning the goals, tasks, and subtasks you’ll need to get done to achieve the desired outcome, you’ll likely never get stuck and just roll on through. Even two minutes of planning can make a huge difference.
2) Long stretches of uninterrupted work
This is based on concepts such as Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) and Deep Work (Cal Newport). Two hours are worth more than two times one with a different task in the middle. Everytime you switch from one thing to another there is a cognitive cost involved. Your brain has to re-focus and re-call relevant memories when turning towards a new task. So serialize your work by doing the most important thing first, when it’s finished the next thing, then the next…
Long stretches of uninterrupted work doesn’t mean no breaks. Breaks are essential for consistent performance and you shouldn’t skip them even for work sprints. 5 to 10 minute breaks every 30 to 60 minutes help you keep energy and morale up for much longer than if you would push through.
Not a surprise to many but deadlines are great for productivity. The more people expect and rely on your results the better. Even setting artificial deadlines like “I’ll finish the draft until this evening and tomorrow the edit etc.” works to some degree to keep yourself accountable. In addition, being around other people working helps too. If the whole library is studying you automatically don’t want to be the one that is being lazy. Use your psychology to your advantage.
A company called Ultraworking has developed an approach called Work Cycles which integrates the first two points into a repeatable methodology. It has some additional parts that are helpful for performance, like energy and mood tracking. In their Work Gym, they support this approach further with video calls where people meet to work alongside each other - great for accountability.
This might be a very personal thing but I feel a boost in concentration after about 16-20 hours of fasting. I’m not entirely sure about the biochemistry behind this but I think it has something to do with ketones being released into the blood. Ketones are a cleaner energy source for the brain and hence might make concentration easier. It could also be some type of instinctive response of your body (“I’m starving and need to be focused to hunt”). Although, the second reason isn’t that convincing since it takes much longer to actually starve or have real negative effects on your body from food depletion.
Anyways, it works for me.
5) The right soundtrack
The right music works wonders on motivation and can help you get into flow. Although this too is somewhat individual there are some general things that work for most people. Choose music that has only instrumentals and some kind of beat. Classical works too for some people.
A bit more exotic are binaural beats or similar brain wave type of music. I use Brain.fm which is related to binaural beats but works differently. Listening to the focus tracks for more than 10 minutes has an immediate effect on my concentration and flow. It works absolutely reliable for me and I use it every time I need to do some high cognition work.
There are many supplements and compounds that work wonders on your focus. The one everyone knows and many love is caffeine. Coffee is the most common in the western world but I’ve found tea (green and black) to be even better since the L-Theanine contained in tea evens out the effect of the caffeine on your brain. Less crash and burn and more steady boost.
For some extra sparkles, I use MCT oil (exogenous ketones extracted from coconut oil) to take advantage of the fasting benefits quicker and a mushroom extract called Lion’s Mane. This stuff is great, since it really boosts your concentration for longer periods than tea and to a stronger degree. The effect is quite interesting and studies have suggested that it might help against amnesia and Alzheimers too.
Even if all of them appear a bit much for you, remember that any single one of those tactics improves work performance. I don’t do them all together every work session. Combining all of them is great for intense sprints but I hit a metaphorical wall after about 5 days of this. Alternating with normal low-cognition tasks and sessions is more sustainable for me in the long run.