Does Less Time = Greater Productivity?

by Rebecca Fraser-Thill Optimal_Time_Crunch_Zone Have you ever noticed that the more free time you have in your day, the less you get done? If so, you're not just imagining it; many of us experience the same thing.

Does that mean we're all a bunch of lazy fools who cannot manage to get motivated without hard-and-fast deadlines nipping at our heels? Maybe. Maybe not.

Get Your Time Crunch On

Before we get into the laziness issue, let's establish why having less time tends to make us more productive:  because it stresses us out – in a good way.

We need good stress, called eustress, to perform optimally, according to an old psychology maxim called the Yerkes-Dodson law. Not enough stress and we’re like sacks of potatoes on the couch. Too much and we’re a bundle of ulcer symptoms.

But I think there’s more to our “laziness epidemic” than a lack of stress. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It all comes down to an improper understanding our “Optimal Time Crunch Zone.” (It’s not as scary as it sounds – promise!)

But how do we know how much time crunch is “too much” and how much is “not enough”?

How to Find Your "Optimal Time Crunch Zone"

What feels like a ton of free time to me (a whole HOUR today?!?) may feel like nothing to you – or vice versa. So we have to do some trial-and-error to find what amount of free time works best for each of us.

We can do that totally randomly. Or, if you’re a dork like me, you can be a bit more strategic about the process, say, like this:

1. Identify your current Time Crunch Status.

  • Signs of low Time Crunch Status = not bothering to do the things you want to be doing (e.g., the blogging, going to yoga and cleaning that you mention, Isabel), fatigue, lack of motivation
  • Signs of high Time Crunch Status = irritability, forgetfulness, exhaustion, missing deadlines, physical ailments like headaches and digestive issues (all sorts of fun!)
  • Signs of being in the "Optimal Time Crunch Zone" = You aren’t worrying about this issue at all! Things are just flowing.

2. Jot down your Time Crunch Status AND how many hours a day, on average, you currently have “free” (i.e., the hours you get to fully determine what you’re doing).

  • Put these notes somewhere you can refer back to them months – or even years – later.

3. If you’re not currently in your "Optimal Time Crunch Zone," tinker with your Time Crunch Status.

  • If you are experiencing low Time Crunch Status:  try adding a bit more requirements to your day, such as by taking on a volunteer position.
    • Notice I said “adding a BIT more” – I’ve seen many students take this too far too fast, passing right by the Optimal Time Crunch Zone into danger territory. I must admit I did this at the start of my first few semesters of college:  workload felt so light during the first two or three weeks that I signed up for a ton of activities so that I didn’t have so much free time. I’m sure you can imagine what happened to me by midterms. Ugly.
  • If you are experiencing high Time Crunch Status:  Uh, yea. This one is difficult and I’m no master here. In theory, we should list everything we have on our plate, prioritize that list based on what each brings into our lives (both extrinsically and intrinsically), and then pare off the bottom items one by one until we hit our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone." In practice…uh, yea.

4. Continue to tweak and keep track until you see your personal pattern emerging. Then you’ll know what’s too little free time for you – and how many hours is too much!

  • In my experience, our “need for time crunch” remains remarkably stable over time. When I think to my friends from high school, I can think of some people who LOVE to be crunched to an extent I couldn’t stand, and others who wouldn’t want to endure my pace. Although just about everything else about us has changed in 20 years (good bye frizzy hair!), our individual "Optimal Time Crunch Zone"s haven’t moved much at all.

The Scoop on “Laziness”

Now that we're clear on why we're more productive when we're busy, and how to optimize our productivity, let's finally tackle the laziness issue.

Although Peter from Office Space claims he’d “do nothing” if he never had to work again, I don’t believe him. Nobody is that inherently “lazy.” All humans have what psychologists call stimulus motives, which are motivations make us feel horrendous if we’re not stimulated “enough.”

I believe “laziness” arises from a simple lack of understanding of our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone."

I'm convinced this lack of understanding is epidemic. We’re a culture so obsessed with being busy, we experience tons of burnout that LOOKS like laziness.

In other words, we operate so far above our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone" for so long that when we finally get a moment to chill out, our bodies scream for us to STOP. Completely! Then we berate ourselves for not getting anything done.

Pretty ridiculous. (But I am SO a victim of this - at this very moment in time!)

Once we get clear on our "Optimal Time Crunch Zone," however, we know precisely how much we need on our plates to feel productive and energized. THEN we can work on breaking the “overly busy/overly tired” cycle by respecting our needs.

That said, the “respect” part is something I’m still very much working on! My strategy? Intentionally spending time around people who operate in their "Optimal Time Crunch Zone" on a regular basis and hoping they rub off on me. (Still hoping...)

That’s the best we can do, though:  become aware of our patterns, look for healthy models to help us break those patterns, and forgive ourselves when we (inevitably) slip up.

One day at a time. One hour as it comes. One great Time Crunch moment behind us yet again.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

How do you find the balance between being stressed and being bored?

Fraser-Thill_squareAbout Rebecca

Rebecca Fraser-Thill is the founder of Working Self, a site that helps young adults create meaningful work - that actually pays the bills! She teaches psychology and is the Director of Program Design for Purposeful Work at Bates College. Her work has been featured throughout the media, including on The Huffington Post, The Chelsea Krost Show, and Stacking Benjamins. Follow her @WorkingSelf.

Longing for the Start of School...sort of

by Rebecca Fraser-Thill grad_school_2

When you think of autumn, what springs to mind? Crisp evenings? Shortening days? Earthy scents? Halloween pranks?

Oh come on, you're holding back. Just try to convince me you don't think of school.

And no wonder you do:  after umpteen-odd years of trucking off to pencils, books, and dirty looks at the first drop of a leaf, autumn and school are strongly associated in our minds.

Which is fine and all. Until this association starts making us think we want something that we don't.

The Dangerous Fall/Grad School Link

Let's get this out of the way up front, lest I be labeled an anti-gradschoolite. There are many valid, terrific reasons to attend grad school. For instance:

  • Working toward better placement/career potential in a field in which you have proven and sustained interest
  • Increasing your knowledge of a subject about which you have proven and sustained interest
  • Engaging with the brightest minds in an area in which you have proven and sustained interest

(Sense a theme?)

If everyone were attending grad school for valid reasons, though, I wouldn't see a sudden surge in "hey former prof, I'm thinking of going to grad school!" emails every darn autumn. Which I do. Every year. The onslaught is a-coming.

To understand why the "huh, grad school is sounding good" blitz is a seasonal phenomenon, we must travel back in time to our childhood falls. In particular, to the prelude of our first day at school. (Cue the wavy lines and do-do-do-do music.)

The New-School-Year Scene:  Your mom is ironing the brand-new outfit you’ll wear on your first day, and you’re loading your crisp, clean backpack with all manner of school supplies. Your erasers are pink and four-cornered. Your pencils are sharp and smell like a day in the words. Your notebooks are ripe with blank pages so fresh and new that they stick to one another in their spiral spine.

Can you feel it?

I'll bet you can.

For twentysomethings, The New-School-Year Scene is as irresistible as the (ever so brief) 'N Sync reunion.

Why Twentysomethings Crave Autumns from the Past

Why is the draw of school in the fall so overwhelming to us when we're in our twenties (and perhaps far beyond)? Because those are the years when we're positively unmoored by the lack of what I call The 3 P’s:  possibility, predictability, and purpose.

When we conjure The New-School-Year Scene, those 3 P's become tangible all over again. We remember what it felt like to be poised on the edge of an entire new existence. Life seemed organized, opportunity-filled, and oh-so-beautifully structured.

No wonder, then, when autumn comes lugging its conditioned associations to The New School Year Scene we think:

“Oh! I could have those feelings again! I want that! I think I’ll go to grad school!”

Sorry to break it to you, but once college ends, the days of experiencing an externally-imposed sense of the 3 Ps are over. Period.

The twenties are all about accepting that very point. And then figuring out how to create our own internally-driven sense of predictability, possibility and purpose all the same.

This process is often termed "becoming an adult." And it sucks. Totally sucks. No sugarcoating there.

Thing is, going to grad school solve the underlying issue of needing to learn how to create for yourself what the world once created for you.

It only defers it.

(Full disclosure:  I write this not as someone who took my own advice, but rather as a recovering Autumn-Allure Addict. Yes, a AAA. As bad as it gets. To avoid facing the fact that my days of externally-derived 3 Ps were over, I jumped into grad school AND teaching. That's right, I'm here to scare you straight.)

The Problem With Going to Grad School To Relive the Fall of Our Childhood

Point number two why grad school is the wrong answer if the idea is only hitting you in the fall:  not only does grad school fail to provide the 3 P's for the long run, it also fails to square with nostalgia.

To see what I mean, please join me again in my time machine. This time we're traveling back to about two months into any given school year.

The Two-Months-Into-School Scenario:  You’re back to wearing hand-me-down clothes that fit awkwardly and get you teased. Your backpack’s bottom has blackened and the zippers have begun to show signs of rebellion. Your erasers have turned into dark, amorphous blobs that are inexplicably sticky. Your pencils are perpetually broken and smell of cheese puffs. And your notebooks? Oh, your notebooks. Once a stack of possibility, they now hold words and symbols you barely care to try to understand and their voluminous ranks have been decimated from notes passed to friends and paper airplanes flown at substitutes.

Had you forgotten that scene? Ours minds are convenient like that, scraping the moderately crapping portions of life from our memories. Hence the onset of Twentysomething School Nostalgia.

This delusional nostalgia is a major issue. I’d wager it causes a good portion of poor-grad-school choices, with desire to impress and social comparisons being the other major reasons. (Or you can be really "awesome" and go for the trifecta like I did!)

The reality is that grad school consists much more of the Two-Months-Into-School Scenario and barely any of the New-School-Year Scene.

In fact, you don’t even get The-New-School Scene beyond the first year of grad school - if you even get that - because you work your behind off year-round. And you’d better be damned sure that you care about the words and symbols that you’re writing in notebooks because you won’t only be jotting them down, you’ll be creating some of those jammies of your very own.

(For the record, the same could be said of teaching, so don’t even go there unless you have a “proven and sustained interest” in pedagogy. Identical urge, different cloak.)

How to Fight the Annual Siren Call to Go to Grad School

So if you now recognize that your sudden desire to go to grad school is born more of the leaves a-changing than your purpose calling to you, how can you fight the insincere urge?

1) Start by accepting what you’re actually craving each autumn:  a return to a life you’ve outgrown. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of the rhythms of childhood and the comforts those rhythms brought.

“Our twenties can be like living beyond time. There are days and weeks and months and years, but no clear way to know when or why any one thing should happen. It can be a disorienting, cavelike experience.” –Meg Jay, The Defining Decade

2) After grieving, create ways of infusing your current existence with hints of seasonality. It’ll take the edge off the false allure of autumn. For instance:

  • Schedule a day-long clothes shopping trip every fall.  Bonus:  take mom with you - nostalgia and financial support in one fell swoop!
  • Go back to using a paper planner and choose an academic year one even though you now live on a calendar – or fiscal! - year
  • Reinvigorate your office supplies every fall with a fresh infusion of pens and desk organizers. And some of those big rubber erasers. Just for kicks.

3) Make a concerted effort to construct the 3 P's – purpose, possibility, and predictability – for yourself. This is, of course, a humongous task. No wonder I've devoted an entire website to the process.

All in all, do whatever you have to do to experience the clear path, opportunities, and “my life is all in order” feeling of your childhood autumns…without jumping into grad school. At least until grad school, not nostalgia, is truly what's calling you. Your wallet, social life, and mental stability will thank you for it.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

What are you going to do to create a sense of purpose, possibilities and predictability this Fall – without entertaining the sudden notion of going back to school?

Fraser-Thill_squareAbout Rebecca

Rebecca Fraser-Thill is the founder of Working Self, a site that helps young adults create meaningful work - that actually pays the bills! She teaches psychology and is the Director of Program Design for Purposeful Work at Bates College. Her work has been featured throughout the media, including on The Huffington Post, The Chelsea Krost Show, and Stacking Benjamins. Follow her @WorkingSelf.

An All-in-One Guide to Finding a Mentor

Written by Rebecca Fraser-Thill Business man shows success abstract flow chart

What's all this hype about having a mentor?

Today we'll break it down, one question at a time.

Why Bother?

First, the obvious question:  is the "mentor search" worth the energy? In a word, yes.

People who have mentors tend to get salary increases and promotions faster than workers who don't have mentors. Graduate students in psychology report that peers who have mentors meet more influential people, move faster through the program, have a better sense of direction, and present at national conferences more often.

Although men seem to benefit from mentorship more than women do, women are in greater need of mentors because they still occupy fewer high level positions. It's a shame, then, that Levo League found 95% of Gen Y women have never looked for a mentor.

What Type of Person Isn't a Good Mentor?

Overstretched people make the worst mentors.

They may seem like they have it all - family, career, local fame - and you want to know how they do it. Since they have so much going on, though, they probably don't have the time to give you the mentoring relationship you need.

For instance, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, may seem like an interesting mentor given her high-profile career/family juggling, but with all she's got going on, how much time for mentoring does she actually have?

Who Makes a Good Mentor?

On the flipside, the best mentor may be someone who is just a few years or levels ahead of you in the industry.

You might think they don’t know “enough” but in fact they're more attuned to your needs because they just went through what you're facing. Plus, they usually have more time than more senior colleagues to devote to you.

For instance, the guy who is a late draft pick to the Patriots shouldn’t look to Tom Brady for mentoring, but rather to the guy who rode the bench "well" last season.

What Can I Expect of a Mentor?

Let's start with what NOT to expect:  weekly meetings. Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, writes about this in a chapter on mentorship in Lean In:

“That’s not a mentor, that’s a therapist.”

Instead, use your occasional time with your mentor to problem solve. Come in with a clear and specific issue you want to address and ask your mentor to help come up with possible solutions.

Also, keep in mind that you can get great problem-solving help from one-off mentors, which Jenny discusses in her post The Best Way to Thank a Mentor.

Where Can I Find a Mentor?

Look local. Often your best mentor is right in your existing network, or directly adjacent to it.

He or she may even be a relationship you’ve already built – a teacher, former boss, colleague – but that you just need to re-invigorate and label “mentor” in your own mind.

How Should I Approach a Mentor?

Don’t ever ASK for a “mentor.” Just start building a relationship!

Sheryl Sandberg writes that being asked to be someone's mentor is her big pet peeve:

“If someone has to ask the question ‘Are you my mentor?’ the answer is probably no.”

There are 3 ways to approach a mentor, depending on your situation:

  • If you're looking for an internship, ask up front whether the position will set up a mentorship for you. If not, you might look elsewhere for a better internship, or else actively negotiate the inclusion of a mentor.
  • If you're looking for a mentor in your workplace, make an effort to stop by and chat with the individual once in a while (in an unobtrusive way!) and perhaps to invite him or her to coffee or lunch - when you have a specific problem in mind that you need advice about.
  • If you're looking to change careers and want to find a mentor in another industry, informational interviewing is a good first step.

How Can I Retain a Mentor?

Once you have a mentor, how can you keep him or her active in your life? Three pieces of advice:

1.  Be your best! In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg cites research showing that mentors select mentees based on "performance and potential." This leads her to the following advice:

“Excel and you will get a mentor”

2.  Be open to feedback! If you won’t listen, a mentor will not keep working with you.

3.  Don't complain! You don't want your mentor to feel like seeing you is a drag. It's one thing to ask for advice, it's another to rehash every awful piece of workplace politics. Stay positive and you'll have a mentor who isn't just putting up with you, but who looks forward to assisting you for the long haul.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below: Do you have a mentor? If so, how did you find him or her? If not, how do you think having one might help you?

Photo Credit: ffaalumni

Fraser-Thill_squareAbout Rebecca

Rebecca Fraser-Thill is the founder of Working Self, a site that helps twentysomethings create meaningful work - that actually pays the bills!She teaches psychology at Bates College and is one half of the Life After College coaching team. Follow her @WorkingSelf.