How you spend your days is how you spend your life. Time is the ultimate currency. We spend it on what we deem important or interesting, but sometimes it feels like we don’t gain anything in the end. Either we wasted time mindlessly watching or scrolling, got bogged down by mandatory tasks, or struggled to achieve our best.
It’s easy to get frustrated or stressed when this happens, but the only way to solve the problem is to rethink how and where we direct our time and attention. Here’s how you can start to maximise your day and get more of a return from your time.
We each get 24 hours. You can’t make more time in a day, but maybe we can structure each day so we feel accomplished without a mad rush? In their book Make Time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky explain how you can slow down your day by carving out time for things you care about. Instead of doing more, you focus on things that will bring you a sense of satisfaction.
There are four steps to making time.
Each morning choose a highlight, something that you want to focus on that day. Even if you have a day full of urgent tasks and long meetings, you should take 60-90 minutes for your highlight.
Adults spend an average of more than four hours watching TV or on social media each day, so most of us actually do have room for 60-90 minutes. Allowing your highlight to be the focal point of your day doesn’t take long, and it will give you something positive to look back on. Each day you will have done something important to you.
Avoid things that draw your attention away from your highlight. Distractions prevent you from entering a state of laser focus, so you get less of a pay-off for the time you are trying to spend on your highlight. Think about what chews up your attention when you are trying to work. Is it your smartphone, other people, background noise or discomfort? Once you’ve identified your distractions, use strategies like keeping your smartphone out of sight, putting in some headphones with white noise or choosing an environment to best suit your purpose.
Stick to daily habits that improve your physiological health. This includes eating nutritious foods, staying hydrated, being active and sleeping well. We can be quick to neglect our bodies as soon as stress piles on. Healthy habits become less of a priority, which is to the detriment of our ability to make the most of each day. When you maintain daily habits that keep your body functioning well, your mind is freed up to attend to other things. Not only can you be more productive but enjoy the rewarding feeling of having looked after yourself!
Look back on each day and learn from it. Each day provides you with data—your energy levels, emotions, appetite, productivity, interactions etc.—and you can treat the next day like an experiment based on this information.
- What factors could have been influencing you today?
- How do you think they helped or hindered you?
- What does this tell you about how you should approach tomorrow?
Taking this analytical stance is a very helpful technique to avoid feeling like your day was a total waste if things didn’t go as planned. There is always something to be learned!
Another vital part of getting the most out of your day is learning how to direct and restore your attention.
Attention restoration theory, developed by professors of environmental psychology, Rachel and Stephan Kaplan, gives us two modes of attention: Directed attention and effortless attention, also called fascination.
The Kaplans point out that our directed attention mode becomes fatigued over time. This is why a long drive can be exhausting. Even though our bodies aren’t working hard, certain day-to-day tasks require a sustained effort to focus attention on one thing and shut out other distractions.
So, how can we first maintain directed attention well enough to complete work (even the boring stuff), then rest properly when the time comes? Resolve emotional turmoil through productive reflection
Author of Focus and Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman explains that emotional turmoil is one of the biggest challenges for people trying to direct their attention. It could be an upcoming event you are stressed about, a troubling relationship or any other personal problem. According to Goleman, productive reflection is the best way to get over this hurdle and regain control of your attention.
Productive reflection means stopping, reflecting and resolving those thoughts that keep creeping in and distracting you rather than letting them continue to stew. These thoughts draw our attention because we know they need to be dealt with through action or simply processing their emotional impact. Give it a go if you find yourself struggling to be attentive; is there something that might be causing you emotional turmoil? What is the best way to move past this?
Use your rest time wisely to really rejuvenate
Do you go straight to screens when you have time to rest, watching TV and movies, scrolling social media?
Even though it doesn’t require any effort to pay attention to a TV show, spending rest time on screens will actually do nothing to reduce mental fatigue. You may be resting your body, but your mind is fully occupied for hours on end. This is called hard fascination.
Attention restoration theory tells us that there are two types of fascination: hard fascination and soft fascination. Neither states require much effort to sustain, however, hard fascination takes up all of your mental bandwidth.
On the other hand, soft fascination leaves room for reflection and contemplation. This is necessary for your mind to unwind and restore after a period of directed attention. Thoughts are able to arise and settle during rest times instead of work times.
Natural environments are recognised as a wonderful source of soft fascination as they effortlessly hold our attention while leaving room for other mental processes. Natural environments are a perfect setting for rest time because they are accessible, extensive and separate from workspaces.
Next time you feel mentally fatigued, rest by walking through a garden or park, going to a river or beach, or even just looking out the window for a few minutes! This is going to allow your attentional abilities to restore which is going to make the most of your rest time and improve your productivity later.
Sometimes it feels like we just need an extra hour or two in the day to feel satisfied with what we can get done, but that’s never going to happen. Instead, we just need to be conscious of how the use of our time influences how we feel about each day.
Your steps to maximising your day are:
- Set your highlight
- Eliminate distractions from your highlight
- Take care of your body
- Learn from each day
- Allow yourself to deal with emotional turmoil
- Rest effectively
These are all choices you can make throughout your day that will add up. Challenge yourself to make more of a return on your time and feel more satisfied at the end of each day!