More often than I’d like to admit, I find myself working on a task, but not really working on the task. For instance, I’ll start a writing project on my computer, but I’ll have my Twitter feed open in a separate tab. I’ll write a bit, check Twitter, write a bit, read another tweet, write, then see an update that I absolutely have to read, and jump back to my feed.
It’s not that either activity I’m engaging in is bad — it’s just that they’re bad when mixed. I’m not being very productive with my work, and I’m not getting maximum enjoyment out of casually reading through Twitter (which is possibly my favorite leisure activity).
I call this getting stuck in the halfway zone. It’s like trying to think through a complex math problem while doing a challenging yoga pose. Both activities have benefits, but if you try to do them at the same time your performance and enjoyment will suffer across both activities.
Like most people, I find I’m at my most productive when I’m “all in,” meaning laser-focused on the task at hand. Similarly, I enjoy my leisure time more when I’m “all out,” and have nothing weighing on my mind. I’m at my most angsty when I’m in the halfway zone.
I’ve come up with eight different tactics you can implement to avoid being in that state of limbo between work and relaxation. Hopefully these can help you to get better work done and to truly enjoy your leisure time while you are off.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique was popularized back in the late 1980s as a way to do focused work, and it has fervent adherents to this day. The basic premise is that you use a timer to block out 20- to 30-minute chunks of time, during which you work on a task. Once the timer goes off, you take a five-minute break. Then you reset the timer and dive back in, repeating as necessary.
I like the regimented nature of this technique, which makes the boundary between work and rest very clear. You might be surprised at just how much you can get done in 30 minutes of effort that is 100% distraction free.
Use Distraction Blocking Apps and Extensions
Thankfully, in this world of addicting games and apps, there are also programs you can download that make it harder to procrastinate. For instance, if you tend to spend a lot of time on social media, you can get something that blocks your access to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter at certain times of the day. Similarly, you can restrict your access to games you can’t stop playing. If you want to really commit to getting work done the old fashioned way, you can even get programs that will restrict or block off your access to the internet altogether.
A web search for “distraction blockers” will yield a number of interesting options that can be tailored to your individual needs. It also might make you feel better about your procrastination problem to see that there are over 200,000 Google search results for the phrase “distraction blockers,” meaning you’re far from alone in seeking some help.
Practice Deep Work
“Deep Work,” as popularized by the book of the same name, is kind of like the Pomodoro Technique on steroids. You choose a chunk of time every day for working, usually between two and four hours, and then you sequester yourself in quiet room without distractions. For that chunk of time, you focus as hard as you can on making progress on a task.
The downside to this strategy is that it’s not very compatible with a typical 9-5 job. As much as I’d like to tell my boss, “I’ll be offline for the next three hours working on complex problems with only a pen and paper, tough luck if you want to get a hold of me,” it just wouldn’t fly. But, for an off-site freelancer or someone tackling a side project on an off day, it can be a very useful strategy for getting into a flow state.
Do a Cheat Day
Cheat days are usually associated with diets. The premise is that you follow a strict eating protocol from Monday through Saturday, and then on Sunday you get to eat whatever you want.
You could easily institute a similar protocol with your work habits. You work as much as you want, whenever you want, but once Sunday rolls around, you stop. Sundays could be for relaxation and restoration only. You can watch Netflix all day, guilt-free, if that’s what you choose.
It’s worth noting that many religions build in periods of rest on a weekly and yearly basis. There could be a deep wisdom associated with this approach, which recognizes that we’ll burn out unless we schedule in some down time.
Do a ‘No-Work Nighttime’
The most recent data on American working habits shows that one-third of Americans do some work on nights and weekends. This includes office workers who purportedly work 9-5, not just service industry employees who would be expected to work on weekends. This data shows that for many of us, work has a way of bleeding into what should be our free time.
One way to combat this is to is to block off periods of each day where you don’t use technology. This is like a mini-version of the cheat day. You could say that once 8 p.m. hits, work is done for the day. This strategy helps me to be refreshed and ready to do good work the next day.
Sometimes, on top of no work, I like to do “no-tech.” I turn my phone on airplane mode and grab a book. When my phone is on, I’m often tempted to “Google something really quick,” which can turn into checking my email, which can turn into ruminating about a message a co-worker sent. It’s just easier if to take that option off the table completely. If you want to jumpstart this process, you could try a digital detox.
Limit Yourself to Three Browser Tabs at Once
When I’m in the halfway zone, I can literally have 20 tabs open in one browser window. The news seems so compelling. I want to read all the things!
I’m ashamed to admit that as I started this paragraph, I realized I was breaking my own three tab rule. I had nine tabs open, two of which were half-finished think pieces I started reading over a week ago. Not good. I mean, if I didn’t finish them in a week, how badly do I really want to read them?
When I really want to get something done, I find it’s a lot easier if I open a new window in my computer and then open no more than three tabs. It’s all about reducing distractions.
For creative work, I also like to use full screen mode. All browsers have this option. In Google Chrome it’s under the “view” tab at the top of the screen. Going full screen helps me to eliminate temptation because all my bookmarks, which are full of fun and interesting links to distractions, disappear from view.
Try Not to Work While You’re Tired and Hungry
There are days where I skip breakfast and then end up completely unproductive in the hour before my lunch break. Every minute feels like an hour. I watch the clock and get lost in daydreams about my tasty lunch.
The problems compound when I’m tired as well as hungry. That’s when I make silly errors that I would otherwise catch. Also, being in this state makes me exponentially more likely to procrastinate.
If you’re trying to get focused work done, make sure you fuel your body properly. Have a snack before starting a big project, if you know the work will eat into your meal time. If you’re sleepy, take a cat nap if possible. Or, if you’re at the office, at least take a few moments to look away from the screen. A few deep breaths and some light stretching can do wonders for your ability to focus.
This one is tough because life happens. No one is impervious to the demands of kids, spouses, and erratic bosses. But if you can make nutrition and rest at least somewhat of a priority amidst the storm, you’ll see some good returns.
Like many people, I get into trouble when I bite off more than I can chew. For example, If I’m feeling energized in the morning, I’ll convince myself that I can complete five tough tasks in a single day. “It’s important to set lofty goals!” I’ll tell myself, while flying high on a caffeine rush.
Then, a few hours later, I’ll find myself flip-flopping between mindlessly browsing Reddit and hacking away at task three of five, already feeling mentally exhausted. If I do complete that third task, it will be in a way that is not up to my usual standards.
It would be much more efficient, and healthy, to set realistic goals. Then, I can complete my tasks and just relax.
As much as we wish it was otherwise, our brains weren’t meant to multitask. That being the case, time management is critical. Unless we find ways to separate work and leisure, they will bleed into one another. I hope the above tips can help you both get more things done and truly enjoy your time off while you are in relaxation mode.