How to Manage Your Time at Work: The 90-Minute Flow

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Think Big" by Grace Lordan. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you always take more time on tasks than you expect to? What’s the key to realistic planning and higher productivity?

If you’re like most people, there’s a gap between who you are and who you want to be. You wish you could get more done in less time. Grace Lordan says that, first, you must get real when it comes to planning. Then, she recommends a work schedule that helps you take advantage of flow.

Continue reading to learn how to manage your time at work and ultimately get more done.

How to Manage Your Time at Work

Want to know how to manage your time at work? To do so, Lordan recommends that you always plan for more time than you think you need. This is because we’re subject to the planning fallacy: a chronic tendency to underestimate how long it will take to do something. To reduce its effect on your schedule, start by multiplying how much time you think something will take by 1.5, and schedule your tasks accordingly. Then, keep a record that compares how much time you thought you’d spend on a task with how much time you actually spent. Eventually, you’ll notice patterns that will indicate just how much you underestimate the time certain tasks will take and so be able to plan better.

(Shortform note: Some experts argue that it’s impossible to avoid the planning fallacy. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli says that people never get better at planning realistically because of their ego: They want to feel good about themselves, so they exaggerate their abilities. That said, Dobelli does suggest that you can mitigate the planning fallacy by avoiding the impulse to plan in detail. Narrowing your focus on details makes you more likely to be surprised by unexpected events, exacerbating the fallacy.)

That said, Lordan recommends that, if you’re planning to focus on a single task, you should generally plan to work on it for about 90 minutes at a time. You’re most productive and learn best when you achieve flow, which is when you’re so absorbed in a task that you stop paying attention to anything else and even forget about the passage of time. While you may struggle to reach flow at first, eventually, you’ll be able to work with flow for 90 minutes. That 90-minute limit also ensures that you remain productive. Flow exhausts you. So, even if you schedule more than 90 minutes, you probably won’t be able to work for more than 90 minutes.

(Shortform note: Some experts agree that you should work in 90-minute blocks because doing so helps you achieve flow. However, they specify that you should alternate between working for 90 minutes and then resting for 20 minutes. This schedule both helps you achieve flow and follows the natural rhythm of your body’s energy levels, which fluctuate throughout the day: You work for 90 minutes, when you’re productive, rest for 20 minutes when you’re tired, and then resume working as your energy levels start to rise again.)

Managing your time well doesn’t just involve scheduling time to work on your goals; it also requires that you actually work on your goals when you say you will. Lordan recommends two strategies for doing so. First, implement short-term rewards for performing your desired behavior and short-term negative consequences for not doing so. Humans tend to avoid doing things that are beneficial long-term if they’re immediately unpleasant; making the beneficial behavior pleasant in the short term circumvents this tendency. For example, you could allow yourself to watch an episode of your favorite TV show after spending one hour on a difficult task.

(Shortform note: In Atomic Habits, Clear also advocates rewarding yourself immediately after performing a desired behavior. He explains that we remember the end of a behavior more than any other part. So doing something immediately satisfying at the end of the behavior will keep you motivated in a way that delayed rewards won’t. One technique Clear recommends is to create a visual representation of your progress—like marking an X on a calendar each day you perform your desired behavior. When you can visually see your accomplishments, you’ll be motivated to continue acting.)

Second, instead of judging your output by how well you complete one task—like “create a presentation”—decide in advance how much you’d get done on a very productive, moderately productive, or slightly productive day. Then, when the day comes, tailor how much work you’ll do based on your energy levels. Even if you’re low in energy on a particular day, you’ll likely often choose the moderately productive option due to the compromise effect—our propensity to shy away from extremes. Scientists have seen this propensity when evaluating people’s purchasing decisions, but Lordan speculates that we may also prefer the middle-of-the-road option in other areas—like when choosing how much work to do.

(Shortform note: When choosing what counts as very, moderately, or slightly productive, you may be tempted to put in extreme options to nudge yourself toward a particular choice. For example, you might say that very productive is 10 hours and slightly productive is two hours in an effort to encourage yourself to work the moderately productive five hours (which is what you really want to do). If so, you would be taking advantage of the decoy effect—a psychological phenomenon similar to the compromise effect that many businesses use to sway customer choices. Businesses often sell a product (a decoy) that is generally not particularly attractive to customers but serves the purpose of making a different option more attractive to the customer.)

How to Manage Your Time at Work: The 90-Minute Flow

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Here's what you'll find in our full Think Big summary:

  • Why most of our attempts to transform our lives fail
  • How to overcome the cognitive biases that hold us back from our goals
  • How to take the necessary small steps to change your life long term

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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