Increasing Productivity by Layering Activities
With only 24 hours in a day and a vast majority of those hours being spent resting, relaxing, and eating, wouldn't it be nice to figure out a way to squeeze out a little extra productivity from ourselves?
Unfortunately, the research has shown us time and again the ill effects of multi-tasking. Fortunately, however, there is a concept of layering tasks and activities that I learned about many years ago, which can be a middle ground for us productivity hackers.
The idea behind layering is like match-making a set of tasks to be performed simultaneously and in harmony together where one task is not overpowering the other because otherwise it would be a total energy drain. (Like at the time of writing this blog, I'm keeping my newborn asleep with a chest carrier to allow my wife to rest while also preparing and eating lunch in-between.)
I like to categorize tasks and activities into three groups: Analytical, Physical, and Emotional.
Deep thinking and computing activities are focus- and energy-intensive tasks that I always make sure to allocate large blocks of time to work within. Many times, I'll set aside an entire day to warm-up to and then accomplish these activities. For example, these activities for me would be things like financial modeling, executive presentations, bookkeeping, and strategic planning.
These highly analytical activities require more than just mental processing power, they also drain a lot of physical and emotional energy. On the other hand, some activities don't require much analytical thinking like culling emails or photographs, but they still take up processing power.
So the best kinds of layered activities in these cases would be things that increase my physical and emotional well-being, such as eating regular snacks like fruits and nuts, staying hydrated with water or alert with a bit of coffee, listening to calming music or motivational music, getting a change of scenery, or having a partner in the same room for moral support or collaborative team work.
Physical activities can either be intense or relaxed, but for me, as a bicyclist, they usually help me focus and get in the zone.
Something that I started doing in 2013 when I was training 6-8 hours per day to bicycle across America (still working full time and starting my first nonprofit organization) was bicycling long hours and many miles on an indoor training bicycle while working on analytical tasks like reading books (even reading through the tax code), programming for my job, or simply enjoying emotionally enhancing activities like watching videos on YouTube or listening to music. (Shoutout to my amazing dad for building me a PVC laptop desk on casters.)
Now to be clear, I can only do the more analytical tasks while riding at an easier, constant endurance pace. While riding at higher intensities, I can only listen to music or my own thoughts.
Other physical activities easily layered into analytical tasks include standing while working, reviewing emails or social media while using the restroom, or taking care of some bookkeeping while waiting on hold on the phone. Another thing I love to do is think while outdoors, walking, running, swimming, biking, you name it.
As I've mentioned before, emotional activities can be enhancing to your other activities whether physical or analytical. However, emotional activities may also be draining, such as discussing important matters with my wife, engaging in a heated political thread on Facebook (lol just kidding), or just mourning for a loss of life, job, or other opportunity.
I learned years ago while bicycling up a windy mountain pass: When the winds of life are blowing at you, you have to slow down. Sometimes, you even have to just stop pedaling and get off the bike.
These activities may also include tasks that require a concentrated amount of emotional intelligence and attention, such as having a deep conversation with my family or an important discussion with a team member. While eating a meal, for example, I enjoy video calling my family (it's like a lunch hangout!) or catching up on the news or work status updates.
Layering It All Together
In the end, layering activities is all about striking a balance between productivity and sanity amongst analytical, physical, and emotional activities. We all do some degree of layering in our day-to-day lives, but if we can learn an intentional routine of layered activities, it'll help us get more done in the same amount of time!
Many times while working on the bike, I just didn't feel like working anymore. Some times I would stop working, other times I would stop biking, and yet other times I would stop everything altogether.
I see layering as a tool, not as a way of life. I think like everything else there is a point of diminishing returns so it should be incorporated and adapted into your own life in a manner similar to an athlete's varied training regime. Some days should be layered, others focused, but most importantly, like a true athlete, there must also be days to rest and just be normal.