For all of us I’d imagine, or most of us at least, the amount of work we have to do moment to moment or day to day or week to week fluctuates. We have peaks and troughs. Those peaks and troughs might span across long time periods – busy weeks or busy days – or might be much shorter – busy half days or busy hours. This will depend on the sort of work you do. But whatever you do there will be fluctuations. The troughs may not be low, like you’ve got absolutely nothing to do (unlikely!), but there will be natural fluctuations and busy periods.
Because of the way our brains work when we spot a trough we are most likely to take our foot of the gas and slow down and settle into the trough and enjoy the moment. When we hit a peak in demand we tend to then work harder (although I’m going to suggest this is impossible) or we work longer.
You can’t work harder.
It’s a fact that once you hit a certain point you can’t work any harder. Once you have hit your energy and cognitive peak you can’t push beyond it. You don’t have the mental capability to do so. There is a ceiling to what you can do cognitively (and physically to be honest) that you simply can’t exceed. You can’t write or think faster than your brain will allow. Yet this is what we do. We wallow in the troughs – and why shouldn’t we – it’s great to take a break (but taking a mindful break is different to being in a trough) – and we’ve been working hard so we deserve it. Yes, I get that. And then after wallowing we try to work harder and this ends up with us working longer because we can’t work harder. I suppose this is then about working smarter?
The smarter working I’m going to propose is work harder in the troughs so that you don’t have to work as hard in the peaks. I don’t necessarily mean work as hard as you do in the peaks but, at least, work harder than you do in the troughs. We have a tendency to procrastinate when the pressure is off. But there’s a crucial skill here. And that is workflow forecasting.
Look ahead at what’s coming and predict the peaks. This is planning. And then look at what is going on in the peaks and figure out what you can do when a trough presents itself to make that peak, well… less of a peak. Read the report ahead of the meeting, plan what you want to say for a difficult phone call, map out that report, pull together the information you need.
This might be about making the most of a 10 minute trough or spending a whole day trough (oh the luxury) in planning some months ahead. Again, your job will dictate some of this. What we are trying to do here is, during your working hours, create a work flow where the peaks and troughs are less extreme. A gently rippling river rather than tempestuous sea. Maybe you need to plan a trough into your diary if troughs don’t happen very often. A time to step back and plan. A time to look ahead and forecast. The further you can look ahead the better but even if you can only look ahead a day or two then that’s still got to help.
Make the troughs work hard for you