The On/Off Principle

If you’re the kind of person who thinks outside the box when it comes to work (as most WorkAwesome readers are), then you probably know all sorts of tricks and techniques for getting the most out of the working day. Whatever your “top tips” for time management are, there’s one element which underpins them all; one fundamental ingredient which determines whether you stick to a program of time management or slip back into chaos or procrastination.

Working State

If you’ve ever read a list of tips or even a detailed manifesto like David Allen’s GTD system, you were probably sold on the principles instantly. You’d spent a couple of afternoons being productive, but then promptly fell off the wagon and straight under the crushing wheels of habitual routine.

What matters most isn’t so much your system, but rather your state of mind. You might have had days when work just happened effortlessly — like an athlete in the zone — when everything just seemed to come together. Unfortunately, if left to chance, this doesn’t happen so often.

The key to any program of self-management, self- motivation, self-improvement — call it what you will — is to take responsibility for your own brain first.

The Balance Problem

Part of the problem is the way the working day is set up. If you have to be in the office from 9 to 5, often that becomes the primary aim of the day, to spend 8 hours physically present. It’s impossible to focus intensively for eight hours straight, so you’ll find other things to distract you throughout the day.

What happens is we end up in a kind of half-on/half-off distracted state, physically at the desk, working in the background, but with countless other things going on at the same time. Web surfing isn’t quite relaxing…and it’s not quite working, either. Email as a semi-legitimate delaying tactic is nothing more than poison for the soul.

The question you need to ask yourself at any given time is, “am I on or off?”, and commit to asking it whenever you’re not sure. If I’m on, I’m focusing intently on one task and it gets done. If I’m off, I’m away from the desk.

The aim is to get stuff done, not to spend time warming the seat.

Just 30 minutes till lunch…

One of my worst habits used to be finding pointless stuff to fill up time until some predetermined break. My focus was just on “getting through” until then… checking email, news websites, whatever. I was thinking about the time I had to fill, not what I had to do; neither on nor off.

Working like this is tiring, boring, demoralising and ineffective.

My new absolute, shiny golden rule is to avoid any kind of pseudo-work until I’ve decided what I need to get done. If I can’t be bothered to do it yet, or need a break, I stay away from the desk and do nothing. I’m on or off.

This is probably why systems like The Pomodoro Technique are so effective, because they use a natural On-Off structure. If you stick to it forever, great. But I think at a fundamental level it’s important to recognize what state you’re in: on, off, or somewhere in between.

Cultivating the “On” State

What you do (or rather don’t do) when you’re “off” is vital. Prior to work, it’s about conscious preparation for action without any incoming distraction. Arriving half-asleep at the desk every day is no way to spend your life. So here are three simple tips:

  1. Get fired up. Take responsibility for your own mental state and get ready to crush your work.
  2. Know what you are going to do before you turn on the computer.
  3. Don’t make email the first thing you do.

That’s all there is to it.

(Image courtesy of .reid. under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)




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I write the Three Month Thesis website, and teach students how to work awesomely on their thesis.


  1. David Hartstein on the 25th February

    An excellent, concise article with a simple yet important message. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Specifically I agree with your point about the importance of what you do and don’t do when you are “off.” It is amazing the power of unplugging for a few minutes and totally existing in the moment, free from distractions. I’ve found it really helps me recommit to working shortly thereafter. Thanks for the post James.

  2. Marlon on the 25th February

    These are some good points, James. Gaining momentum can be hard sometimes. If you’re watching the NBA, you know how important momentum is. Momentum fires up the players – or, workers in this case. That is why your 3 tips on how to actually do it really matter.

    “Know what you do before you even turn on the computer” – definitely true. I usually have my todo list. Reviewing the list before going to bed at night can dramtically help your productivity the next day.

    “Don’t make email the first thing to do” – and, just to add to day, don’t do the voice mail either. These can easily take your focus. You want to start your day with focus. There is no perfect time as to when is the right time to check voice/email. But I usually set myself first to my day’s goal before I do emails.

    “Get ready to crush your work” – the secret to doing more work is no secret. To borrow the tagline of a famous shoe brand, just do it.

  3. James Hayton on the 25th February

    Thanks for the comments… David, unplugging is often the best thing you can do, in my opinion.

    Marlon, being English, I don’t watch NBA that much, but I know what you mean. A lot of my ideas on productivity actually came from my experience as an athlete, asking the question, “why am I focussed and dedicated in training, but so lazy and distracted at the desk?”

    I’m still finding the answers…

  4. Samar on the 26th February

    Thanks James for this geat post .. it’s really awesome .. it helped me alot .

  5. VF on the 26th February

    Just 2 weeks back, I made exactly similar decision when I started spending time to learn few new things other than my usual work. Felt it is much needed principle while spending hours on learning than working. Great article with valid points.

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