Tag: Terry Monaghan

Work in Pulses

We’re not designed for multitasking and we’re certainly not designed to work continuously without a break.

We’re designed to pulse, that is alternate between expending energy and recovering.


(via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time)

The heart beats. The lungs breathe in and out. The brain makes waves. We wake and sleep. Even digestion is rhythmic.

We’re built the same way according to Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Schwartz told Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, that we’re not built for the modern environment.

Ignoring the Obvious

(via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time)

(Because the ideal worker is measured in hours) we tend to put in long ones, (Schwartz) said. We ignore the signs of fatigue, boredom, and distraction and just power through. But we’re hardly doing our best work.

“We’ve lost touch,” Schwartz says, “with the value of rest, renewal, recovery, quiet time, and downtime.” The pressure of long hours, in a face time world, combined with the constant bombardment of modern interruptions (think email, phone calls, texts, meetings, etc.) means that increasingly we’re not doing our best thinking at work. Maybe we should heed the advice of some famous philosophers and take a walk.


We sleep in 90-minute cycles, with our brain waves slowing and speeding, only to begin again.

Schwartz’s thinking was influenced by Anders Ericsson. Ericsson is the guy behind the 10,000-hour rule.

Here is Schulte explaining in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:

Ericsson studied young violinists at the prestigious Academy of Music in Berlin to see what it takes to be the best. Ericsson is widely credited for coming up with the theory that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice in anything to become an expert.

“That led to the assumption that the best way to get things done is to just work more hours,” Schwartz said. But that’s only part of it.

Ericsson’s study found that not only did the best violinists practice more, they also practiced more deliberately: They practiced first thing in the morning, when they were freshest, they practiced intensely without interruption in typically no more than ninety-minute increments for no more than four hours a day.

Most importantly, the top violinists rested more — napping more during the day and sleeping longer at night. Sleep is actually more important than food. “Great performers,” Schwartz wrote in Be Excellent at Anything, “work more intensely than most of us do but also recover more deeply.”

Three-hour meetings? That’s a recipe for disaster leading to subpar work and poor decisions, not to mention meeting marathons drive people to hate work.

Attention Deficit Disorder

Ed Hallowell believes our always-on environment is harmful to our ability to focus.

He’s a psychiatrist with ADD, and he spent years working on practical solutions to help people being overloaded by too many demands on their time and energy.

I read his book, CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, a few years back. He claims we have “culturally generated ADD.”

Having treated ADD since 1981, I began to see an upsurge in the mid-1990s in the number of people who complained of being chronically inattentive, disorganized, and overbooked. Many came to me wondering if they had ADD. While some did, most did not. Instead, they had what I called a severe case of modern life.

Breaks Inspire Creativity

Scientists have found that people who take time to daydream score higher on tests of creativity. And there’s a very good biochemical reason why your best ideas and those flashes of insight tend to come not when you’ve got your nose to the grindstone, oh ideal worker, but in the shower.

In a series of tests using brain imaging and electroencephalography, psychologists John Kounios and Mark Beeman have actually mapped what happens in the brain during the aha! moment, when the brain suddenly makes new connections and imagines, Kounios has said, “new and different ways to transform reality creatively into something better.” When the brain is solving a problem in a deliberate and methodical way, Kounios and Beeman found that the visual cortex, the part of the brain controlling sight, is most active. So the brain is outwardly focused. But just before a moment of insight, the brain suddenly turns inward, what the researchers called a “brain blink.” Alpha waves in the right visual cortex slow, just as when we often close our eyes in thought. Milliseconds before the insight, Kounios and Beeman recorded a burst of gamma activity in the right hemisphere in the area of the brain just above the ear, believed to be linked to our ability to process metaphors.

A positive mood heightens the chances for creative insight, as does taking time to relax, as Archimedes did in his bathtub before his eureka! moment about water displacement and as Einstein did when working out his Theory of Relatively while reportedly tootling around on his bicycle.

Working in Pulses

Terry Monaghan, a self-described productivity expert, whom we met in Work, Play, Love, encouraged Brigid Schulte to work in pulses. The idea is to chunk your time. This is why one of the single most effective changes you can make to your workday is to move your creative work to the start of the day — you give yourself a chunk of time.

Discussing this in Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Schulte writes:

The idea was to chunk my time to minimize the constant multitasking , “role switching,” and toggling back and forth between work and home stuff like a brainless flea on a hot stove. The goal was to create periods of uninterrupted time to concentrate on work— the kind of time I usually found in the middle of the night—during the day. And to be more focused and less distracted with my family.

When it was time to work, I began to shut off e-mail and turn off the phone. When it was time to be with family, I tried to do the same. I began to gather home tasks in a pile and block off one period of time every day to do them. It was easier to stay focused on work knowing I’d given myself a grace period to get to the pressing home stuff later.

The Thirty Minute Pulse

When you find yourself procrastinating, avoiding something, or otherwise stuck in a state of ambivalence, try a timer. Monaghan recommends 30 minutes then taking a break. “Your brain,” she says, “can stay focused on anything, even an unpleasant task, if it knows it will last only thirty minutes.”

I find this useful. I have a 15-minute hour-glass sitting on my desk.

Putting It All Together

Work in pulses. Chunk your time. Do a daily brain dump to get things off your mind. Keep a notebook with you. If you feel worried or stressed, write it out in your worry journal. Add more of a routine to your day to help avoid decision fatigue. When things are automatic, they don’t consume as much energy.

Don’t wake up and check your email, get to the office and check your email, and then check your email hourly throughout the day. Check your email in batches: late morning and late afternoon.

Most importantly, make time to pause and think about what is most important to you. Narrow your focus and make 80% of your time on the three big things that are important to you. Let everything else fit in the 20% of the time left. Let the truly sucky stuff fit in 5% of the time. If leisure is important to you and you can’t find time for it, schedule it in. When you wake up, do one thing that’s important to you right away.

Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

You’re busy. I get it.

But what can we do about it?

What would you do if your schedule suddenly opened up and we found we have more time? I bet you’d reply with read, travel, and maybe even sleep. Some of you would want to organize the drawers, clean off your desk, or simply watch a movie.

So where is the time for that on your schedule?

Terry Monaghan is a self-described productivity expert whom we meet in Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.

Terry Monaghan’s approach to time management is simple: You can’t manage time. Time never changes. There will always and ever be 168 hours in a week. What you can manage are the activities you choose to do in time. And what busy and overwhelmed people need to realize, she said, is that you will never be able to do everything you think you need, want, or should do. “When we die, the e-mail in-box will still be full. The to-do list will still be there. But you won’t,” she tells us. “Eighty percent of the e-mail that comes in is crap anyway, and it takes you the equivalent of nineteen and a half weeks a year just to sort through. Eighty percent of your to-do list is crap. Look, the stuff of life never ends. That is life. You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now? And realize that what’s important now may not be two years from now. It’s always changing.”

Start with what’s important.

But everything is important you say? Everything seems important: work, family, friends, community, taking out the trash, paying bills, getting the oil changed, fighting the relentless torrent of clutter …

If everything is important you might be trying to do everything all at once. A “fusion lover,” as Ellen Ernst Kossek would call it in her book CEO of Me. Kossek describes how some people seem to thrive on multitasking, which we know is an illusion at best.

You know these people, they are the ones replying to work emails while at the kids’ soccer game or calling the daycare provider to check in. But there is another layer to this, and that is the people who can’t decide what’s most pressing – they can’t focus on anything because they are driven to do everything. These people end up doing both work and home activities in a halfhearted way. This results in mediocre outcomes.

Time management gurus talk about clearing away any nagging “internal friction” that erodes the willpower and clouds the thinking before one can take off to superproductive heights. But honestly, in living in a stew of ambivalence and self-doubt, crashing between the impossible pulls of the ideal worker and ideal mother, “internal friction” doesn’t even begin to cover what’s going on inside.

Indecision about what is important and what is not important is like putting our lives on hold. We pursue both what we want and what we do not.

Psychologists say that ambivalence is, literally, being of two minds. In their labs, they have found that that nebulous feeling is far more uncomfortable and stressful on the body and mind than either embracing one position over another or merely being neutral. But the discomfort of the ambivalent soul becomes unbearable if we are forced to make a choice. In constant battle with yourself, you fight, not to truce but to a stalemate. There is no clear victor, no end in sight. It’s like living life on hold. We distract ourselves from this uneasy internal landscape with busyness, with the bustle of our to-do lists. To be ambivalent, say the psychotherapists David Hartman and Diane Zimberoff, is to be preoccupied with both what is wanted and what is not. “The opposite of ambivalence is a rigid intolerance for ambiguity, nuance or paradox,” they write. “The synthesis of the two is ‘passionate commitment in the face of ambiguity.’”

In response to this, Schulte realized:

I would never be able to schedule my way efficiently out of the overwhelm. I had to face my own ambivalence about trying to live two clashing ideals at once. There would never be enough room in a day for both. As I had been on this quest to understand the overwhelm and the way out, I watched helplessly as Jeff, one of our best friends, died suddenly and inexplicably of stomach cancer. Life is so fragile. I simply couldn’t wait, like so many people clucked, until the kids were grown and gone and the madness was over to live my best life. … I may not have the time.


But you feel overwhelmed? This comes from unrealistic expectations. When we fail to meet our lofty goals for ourselves we think “we’re doing something wrong,” rather than challenge the assumptions.

Managing the overwhelm … comes down to knowing the underlying story that’s driving those unrealistic expectations.


So what can we do about this? How can we figure out our “shreds of far-flung time confetti” and package it into something useful, something meaningful? Something that allows us to live a more fulfilling life without always focusing on what we’re not doing.

Start by asking yourself what is most important to you. Then, and here is the key, work to “create a system and routines” that help you accomplish that.

It’s not so much that they scheduled everything down to the minute, but Monaghan forced Lucchesi to take the most important pieces of her jigsaw puzzle and fix them in time on her calendar first. Everything else flowed around those big pieces.

Schedule the stuff you want to do in big bold chunks of time and let everything else fit in around it.


Some other tips:

  • Clear your desk. “We started small: by clearing my desk. “It gives your brain a rest from visual clutter.” As we worked to build systems and routines into my days, we always seemed to be coming back to my brain, and how getting a handle on the overwhelm was not just about creating more space and order on my calendar and in my office, but doing the same in my mind.”
  • Get off the worry wheel. “Right now, you need to free up all this energy that’s being consumed by worry.” She told me to take out a piece of paper, set a timer for five minutes, and write furiously about absolutely everything that was bugging me. I didn’t have to do anything about this “Worry Journal.” Just getting the ambivalence out of my head and putting it somewhere would give my brain a rest. “It’s a way off the hamster wheel.”
  • To-do lists. “We did the same with the enormous to-do list I carried around in my head like a mark of shame. Every Monday morning, I began to set aside time to plan the week. I began with a brain dump. It was the list of everything on my mind from here to eternity. The working memory can keep only about seven things in it at one time. And if the to-do list is much longer than that, the brain, worried it may forget something, will get stuck in an endless circular loop of mulling, much like a running toilet. The brain dump is like jiggling the handle. “If your to-do list lives on paper, your brain doesn’t have to expend energy to keep remembering it,” Monaghan said.


Of course, this isn’t anything new. It’s the stuff we learned in preschool. “Plan. Do. Review.” Only we lost sight of what was important to us as we became adults. Take the time to figure out what’s important for you and embrace it. Try one of these things and if it doesn’t work, ditch it and try something else. “There is no right answer,” Schulte writes. “This is life.”

Another way to think about this is backward, using inversion. What would ensure failure towards achieving our goals? Aside from the obvious, splintering our time amongst hundreds of tiny threads seems like a reasonable way to ensure you don’t really do anything. Does that look like what you’re doing with your time?

Sit down and make time for what’s important for you next week. Do it now.

Still curious? The last part of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time contains a fascinating discussion on how our minds and bodies are meant to work in pulses, to alternate between spending and recovering energy.