The one question we should all ask ourselves at the end of the day

Josh Davis, Ph.D. is the author of the international bestseller, Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done, and he serves on the faculty of the Department of Psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University. He recently spoke with Caroline Webb, CEO of Sevenshift and author of How to Have a Good Day, about how to use small amounts of time for large advances in productivity.

Caroline: We’re here to talk about our how to be at our best, and specifically, how to be at our best in small amounts of time. I wrote a book, How to Have a Good Day. You wrote a book that was even more focused on a smaller amount of time — two hours. Why is it that you were so attracted to such a small amount of time?

Josh: We can be amazingly productive for a half hour, two hours, three hours — where you’re just hitting everything out of the park, figuring out exactly who needs to be on your team, how you’re going to get this project done and so on. And then, [because you’ve been so productive,] you can be worthless for three days in a row.

I have that issue. If that can happen, there must be things that we can learn about setting up those brief times when we can really be at our best. The reason why I focus on two hours is because most people, upon recognizing a few of these different ways of thinking or operating, can have two awesome hours in a day. It’s a reasonable and achievable thing that can make a very big difference.

The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives

Caroline: It’s interesting that we both chose small amounts of time where there are so many books out there about a broader span of things as they relate to your career. The first few years of my work as a management consultant, I was focusing on large-scale change: huge changes in the company level, organizational level, cultural transformation or in-performance turnaround. Often the goals were very lofty, they would try and fix morale in this whole organization and boost collaboration or innovation, [things] like that.

And so often, my work ended up coming down to the small stuff, the everyday things. In order to make these big goals happen for real, you needed to think about how you set up meetings, how you handle it when things go wrong, [what you do] when someone makes a mistake.

Over time, I found I was getting to a smaller and smaller scale, and that’s what made me interested. And then, as I started to think about the idea of a day being a building block of life, there was this quiet book that came into my field of vision, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. She said, “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.”

You need to think about how you set up meetings

Josh: When you do work with an organization or an individual, you’re thinking about long-term — in order to innovate, we need to have these kinds of priorities, think in these ways, these are going to be the challenges, etc. People understand it. They get behind it… and then it doesn’t happen.

If you start looking at your behaviors every day, that’s where you can find a lot of ways in which we get diverted or fall back into the old way of doing things.

Caroline: You talk about these decision points in your day and that they’re often when things go wrong. Could you say a bit more about that?

Josh: One of the things that’s really core is focusing on what’s important, not what’s urgent. It’s not so much a challenge, really, to know what’s important. But when I sit down to work, I’ve got a million things where I’m just being reactive. We’re on autopilot most of the time.

Autopilot is very complex — it’s not just about breathing, or lifting up a fork. It’s being an expert at running a meeting, at thinking up branding strategies. Over time, expertise means it becomes more automatic. We don’t have to think as deeply. We can recognize patterns and just go with those. Once you get into that, we’re not as aware of all the other things that are going on. Time slips by, and you start checking email or reading the paper. As you get into those autopilot modes, it’s very hard to just willfully stop yourself.

There are a few moments in the day, though, when autopilot turns off and we can learn to capture these moments and make them decision points. So autopilot turns off, essentially, when we come to a crossroads. Some researchers believe that the purpose of consciousness is to make a decision when autopilot can’t handle it.

Caroline: The master idea behind that is that the currency of your days is where you choose to put your attention. We can be absolutely on autopilot the whole time on that front, if we’re not careful.

One thing that you write about, and that I care about deeply as well, is the idea of being intentional. [Thinking,] “What is it that really deserves most of my attention today?” And then within a conversation, or a meeting, “What is it that I want to most look out for?” Knowing that if you don’t contemplate that, your attention will go wherever your autopilot decides you should go, and that’s not necessarily where you want it to go.

Stating of intentions is such an interesting thing, because it can take only a few seconds but it can really change the way that you are making decisions in the moment. What are your tricks for making sure that when you come to those decision points, your attention is top of line?

There are moments where autopilot turns off

Josh: An in-the-moment trick, when you just find yourself all of a sudden with a decision point, is to literally stand up. If you [physically] step back until you’re able to remember what is really important, you can choose to start. When you start on the right thing, you can finish the day doing the right thing.

Caroline: I love the idea of standing up because when I do that, it does really help to refocus your attention on what you really care about. It is a reset, a physical reset. I also find it helpful to ask the question, when I get to the end of day, “What will I be delighted that I’ve achieved or annoyed with myself that I’ve not achieved?”

I often have a single Post-it note. Yesterday, my mind was getting distracted in exactly the way you just described, and I was getting annoyed with it. So I wrote on a Post-it note, in huge capital letters, the thing that I needed to do next and I put it in the middle of my screen so that I couldn’t look around it. I had to stay focused on it. We’ve only got a small amount of conscious attention, and we need to spend that wisely.

The currency of your days is where you choose to put your attention

Josh: Another thing I like to do during these decision points is to check in with myself. To ask not what’s most important, but evaluate my mental energy. Am I depleted or not? I know that’s something you’ve written about quite a bit as well.

Caroline: A lot of what we’re talking about here is self-awareness and starting to notice where your mind and body are when you’re really, really busy. To actually notice, “I’m finding it harder to concentrate than I was an hour ago. My mind is scattered, or [I’m having] decision fatigue.” And then the same physically — start to be more aware of the fact that you haven’t moved in a while or had a glass of water.

Josh: I think one of the important findings from research is that we are not at our best all the time. That’s actually something useful that you can take advantage of. It means that strategically, it would make a lot of sense to think about what’s most important, what do I really want to show up for? How can I be at my best for that? Because we’re not at our best at all times, we can learn to be more at our best more often.

You [mentioned] being aware of decision fatigue — I find, at least for myself, that when I’m on autopilot, it’s actually hard for me to know that. If I’m just sitting there, I’m feeling like I can keep going. But if I actually get interrupted, and then step out and go get a glass of water, I realize, I am actually not thinking that clearly and am not at my best. Or “Yeah, I’m really good right now.”

We can learn to be more at our best more often

Caroline: I often set myself a timer to make sure that I don’t get lost in what I’m doing, and that I do stand up and stretch or go for a walk. Sometimes I set it for short periods of time if I notice that it’s really hard for me to concentrate and I just to need to figure out a way to single-task, rather than multi-task.

The other thing that I’m a fan of is zoning and batching. [For] zoning, there is some time in the day that you know that you are intellectually at your peak. It’s really great if, over time, you can start to chisel away at your calendar. It doesn’t work initially if you’ve got a lot of other people determining what happens in your day. But over time you can start to get a little bolder about protecting that time, if you know that that is the time that you do your best thinking.

For me, that has always been the late afternoon. The evidence on average, will tend to say you should do it in the morning. For me, that’s not the case. But the point is to know what your self-limit is. And then to collect together different chunks [of time,] so you’re not asking your brain to switch modes too much. Gather email together a couple of times a day, as you say. Be clear when you want to push through a bunch of calls. I have a particular time of day when I tend to meet people for coffee if I’m going to have networking chats.

Josh: For me, it was a much more sudden transformation that came about as a result of doing the research for the book. I shifted the order of things [and] noticed I was able to be present for the things that mattered and ended up spending a lot less time working overall.

You mentioned connecting; networking energizes you. Now, some people find that energizing, some people find that draining. Everyone is different — I love being on stage and presenting. Knowing which things are going to give you energy and which things are going to drain you is also useful for that planning.

Sometimes we have freedom to choose when we do things, [but] sometimes we don’t. When you don’t, there is a reset button, which is [simply] 20 minutes of moderate exercise.

End the day by looking back and saying, ‘What was good about the day?

Caroline: Absolutely. It’s the reliable boost in focus and mood, and it happens so quickly. The other thing — which I was really skeptical of initially — was the nap, the 20-minute nap. Not everybody has the opportunity to take one in the middle of the day, but naps [help particularly with] the attentional piece of things.

If you think about your own day, what is the one thing that you do every day to help keep you at your best?

Josh: I’m really fighting between two things, both of which I have mentioned already. One of them is exercise as a strategic tool. It is so powerful and so reliable that it would just be crazy not to use it.

The other one is to think about, “What is important for me today or this week?” and then to really build around that. What about for you?

Caroline: One thing that has really made a difference for me is to end the day by looking back and saying, “What was good about the day?” It’s a question of deciding where you put your attention. We have some choice on what we choose to remember. Deciding to end the day by directing attention to what was good will set off the next day positively. I think it’s made me a happier creature.

This article originally appeared on Heleo.