Most productivity and time-management methodologies help us deal with information overload. How to organize data, which tasks to prioritize, what to work on next, projects to delegate to others, and so on. While these skills are essential, our age of everything, all the time requires an approach that deals with an additional set of challenges.
How do you survive in an environment where everything and everyone is asking for your attention, all the time? How do you stay healthy (and sane!) in a world that never disconnects? How do you find time for creativity, deep thinking, and reflection, when life permanently unfolds in the fast lane? And why can’t you put down your phone for an hour, even when you’re having dinner with family and friends?
These are the questions developers, entrepreneurs, millennials, designers, students, and other modern knowledge workers struggle with in the 21st-century.
Fight complexity with simplicity
An appropriate solution for these challenges should be easy to apply to your daily life, but also have depth. It should be easy to apply because our days are already complex. Adding a complicated “fix” will only compound our problems. On the other hand, overly simplified recommendations like “get up at 5 am” or “take long walks” are fads that don’t get to the root of these issues, which is why we also need depth.
Think of the following analogy: at the start of their careers, during Training Academy, soldiers need to go through an extensive field manual, an entire book. Then before a battle commences, they get a brief of a few pages, highlighting unique aspects of the current mission. Finally, when the actual fight starts, their commander hammers home a few keywords to remember in the midst of battle that connect back to the brief.
Soldiers don’t have time to recall an entire briefing when they’re shooting or being shot at, let alone bringing to memory the full field manual from Training Academy. But five memorable keywords? Can do, sir. Those words trigger the essential elements to remember from the briefing and the manual, even in the middle of a nerve-racking battlefield.
Just like a soldier going into battle, you need a simple set of rules to guide you through your day. While your work is likely not a matter of life and death, you can’t remember all the productivity and self-improvement advice you’ve ever read while facing dozens of unanswered emails, an endless todo list, your boss on the phone, and a colleague at your desk. Like the soldier, you need some easy rules of thumb, that represent and trigger the more sophisticated theories underlying them.
The Virtuous Circle addresses these challenges with an easy-to-remember framework based on four steps. Each step represents a hook to an important concept and serves as a building block for the full Saent philosophy (our “field manual”).
These four steps form the Virtuous Circle:
- Spend time well (time)
- Focus (attention)
- Recharge and reflect (rest)
- Reward (fun)
To spend time well means to treat time like a precious resource, not something you squander as if it’s available in unlimited supply. This doesn’t just apply to work, but also to time off; taking a vacation is time very well spent.
Once you know what to spend your time on, it’s essential to focus. In our age of everything, all the time, it’s easy to try and do several things at once, to get distracted, to not be present in the current moment. This is a mistake. Not only does it lower your productivity, creativity, and quality of work, you also degrade your own human experience, never enjoying the moment, always being somewhere else with your mind. Focussing your attention is the antidote.
If you never take time to recharge and reflect, eventually you burn out. Some faster than others, but it will happen. You can’t always be on fire, aiming for efficiency and productivity non-stop, chasing your goals and dreams 24/7. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. You need time to recharge, reflect, and learn, something you can’t do on the run.
We complete our circle by remembering it’s important to reward yourself and have some fun. This is easy to forget as life’s responsibilities weigh down on us. But what’s life without fun? Without a reward when you’ve hit your goal? Fun can be motivating and increase our creativity and productivity, which is why a dose of fun is an essential component of the Virtuous Circle.
The Virtuous Circle in practice
Let’s take the example of dealing with email, something you likely do a lot. If you’re like most people, you dip into your inbox at random intervals, often because email notifications that pull you in. Some of these mailbox dips might last for a few minutes, others for hours.
A follower of Saent would approach this differently by applying the Virtuous Circle; I’ll take myself as an example.
First, I want to make sure I spend time well. This means I’m not jumping into my inbox at random. I turn off all email notifications on desktop and mobile, and check my mails at set moments during the day, for pre-determined amounts of time; I reserve a 25-minute block in the morning, and another 25-minute block in the afternoon.
Once it’s time to visit my inbox, I set a timer for 25 minutes, put my phone to Do Not Disturb, then focus exclusively on dealing with my emails for that period of time. No interruptions, no multitasking, and a clear deadline—the timer—ensure I get the optimal amount of focus out of those 25 inbox minutes.
At the end of my timed block, I take a break away from my screen to recharge and reflect. Even a pause of just a few minutes gives me a fresh perspective on everything I dealt with in my mailbox, and a clear mind to start my next block of dedicated focus.
I also deserve a reward for my efforts (the fun part!). As a user of Saent Lifeline, I receive a virtual tomato—inspired by The Pomodoro Technique—for completing 25 minutes of focus. But reaching my goal also means a small reward in the real world, like getting a cup of tea, taking a bathroom break, reading an article on Pocket, or just taking a short walk through my office.
This cycle forms the foundation for my working days. Some blocks are longer (50 or even 90 minutes), others shorter (10 minutes), but all my days follow this rhythm of focus and rest, focus and rest, focus and rest. This ritual keeps me productive, creative, and calm throughout the day.
Not just for email
The Virtuous Circle doesn’t dictate how to clear your inbox —there are plenty of systems for that, and everyone has their own preference. Instead, our framework creates a rhythm for your day and serves as a foundation for everything you do, regardless of the workflow or productivity methodology you follow. Our circle is based on principles from neuroscience, ancient philosophy, and other biological factors that apply to all of us in the same way (e.g., your energy levels, the time of day, your state of mind).
Try the Virtuous Circle for yourself
Besides a timer there’s nothing else you need to try out The Virtuous Circle for yourself. Make sure your timed blocks are at least ten minutes long, as that’s the minimum amount of time to get something meaningful done. Anything less than that is multitasking and not effective.
“You can do so much in 10 minutes time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.”– Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA Founder
To recharge after your focus, use the following rule of thumb: for every five minutes of focus, add one minute to your break time. For example, an email session like the one I did, of 25 minutes, warrants a five-minute break. If you work for 50 consecutive minutes, take a ten-minute break, and so on.
There’s more to Saent than this, and we explore each of the elements (time, focus, recharge, reward) in more detail in future articles. For now, give the Virtuous Circle a try and see how you’ll become more productive and creative, as well as a generally calmer and more fulfilled human being.
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