Monotony is the enemy of productivity and innovation.
And yet it’s so easy to slip into the trap of doing the same things, the same way, over and over. We eat the same breakfast. We take the same commute. We face the same daily onslaught of texts and emails. We move through the day at the same pace. Then we wake up and do it all over again.
The deeper I slip into this state, the more rigid I become, both in mind and body. Mentally, I lose the big perspective of my life and business. Instead, I fixate on small logistical tasks like completing to-dos and getting through my inbox.
Physically, I experience the classic symptoms of white collar repetitive stress: a tight jaw, a stiff neck, and strain in my upper back.
The utter sameness of the average workday freezes the creative flow of the mind and body. Our thinking, our habits, and even our muscles harden.
Melting The Ice of Ordinary Habit
Flexibility is the opposite of this rigid state and the advantages of this state are clear. When we break out of rigidity, our experience becomes like water – dynamic and open to change. We make better decisions. We think more clearly. Our productivity becomes more explosive.
I don't think it's necessary to make an extended argument on the benefits of mental flexibility. So the real question becomes: how can we break out of the ordinary monotony of the average workday? How can we make the mind and body less like ice, more like water?
In my experience, the best system to date comes from Jim Lehr and Tony Schwartz. In their book The Power of Full Engagement, they propose a radical new model of managing energy instead of time. To do this, they encourage us to aspire toward a new kind of workday - one that oscillates between short bursts of high intensity work followed by periods of rest and recovery.
In other words, instead of treating the workday like a continuous marathon, we can become more mentally flexible by working at peak intensity for an hour or so, then recovering for a short time. We can then go back to high intensity work, recover again, and so on.
The Problem With “Sprint” and “Recover”
I love this idea. It might just be one of the most powerful techniques that I use to stay mentally flexible. But the more I’ve used this approach myself and introduced it to other busy professionals, the more I’ve observed how this method breaks down.
The problem is that many people lack the flexibility in their schedule to sprinkle in short periods of rest and recovery throughout the day. While we might have the ability to control when our day starts and ends, with back-to-back client meetings, patient exams, or work events, we often don't have the ability to carve out regular spaces during the day for recovery.
A busy physician, for example, has a long list of patients waiting. And so taking 5 to 10 minutes off after an intense patient exam to stretch or breathe deeply isn’t a viable option. Likewise, an entrepreneur with back-to-back meetings may not be able to end every other meeting early to take a leisurely stroll around the block.
The Advantage of 24-Hour Sprints
All of this has led me to begin experimenting with an alterative approach: 24-hour Oscillation Cycles. It’s a simple idea: we can enhance productivity and build mental flexibility by oscillating back and forth between higher and lower intensity days.
These daily oscillation cycles resemble an Olympic runner's approach to training for a 10K. Elite runners don't run 6 miles a day, every day, to prepare for a 6 mile race. Instead, they oscillate between hard days, with longer distances or intense interval workouts, and easier days, with slower long runs or shorter mileage.
I’m proposing that we work like Olympic athletes. You might, for instance, make Monday far more intense than a typical day. If you generally work for 8 hours, work for 10. If you take 8 meetings, try 12. Push yourself to the limits of your edge.
Then scale back on Tuesday. Schedule fewer meetings. Leave more white space in your calendar. Block out time for innovation. The basic idea here is that, instead of working at 100% intensity every day, we're better served to alternate between 120% and 80% or 130% and 70%.
And, of course, the real goal here is to break out of monotony. Using this approach, we’re pushing ourselves to the edge and then pulling back. We’re cycling between extreme intensity days and slower days with more space for contemplation and innovation.
In the process, we’re not only creating a more dynamic workday, we’re also building mental flexibility. We're training the mind and body to go beyond their ordinary limits. And then we're giving ourselves a chance to slow down and experience the benefits that arise from a more relaxed pace.