The amount of work I get done in the last hour or two of my work day is impressive. Or perhaps it is actually pathetic; it is often markedly different than the level of productivity I exhibit during the rest of the day.
I would feel more self-critical about being most productive in the last hour of my work day if my work habits weren't really similar to those of highly compensated athletes. Think of those fourth quarter - two minute warning - bottom of the ninth experiences. Who is to say those moments are much different than me kicking into high gear at 3pm after spending too much time on facebook and craigslist?
Recently, I've had a few conversations about productivity. Colleagues are feeling overwhelmed by the pressures to do something to revive slow law practices. Business owners spin their wheels trying to find new ways to make a profit. Spouses feel helpless and unable to do enough to keep their families secure. Often our conversations are about how we feel stuck, unable to be productive and get things done. We end up going to the gym, going to the grocery store, having conversations with people at the grocery store, etc. instead of getting something done.
When I had been practicing as an attorney for just a few weeks, one of the partners at my law firm paid me a visit. We were chit chatting about whatever, and I mentioned how I was adjusting - not smoothly - to timekeeping. It was the first time I'd ever been involved with billing my time, and I was WAY too involved in the machinations of my little desk-top timer thingy - a widget (not sure if I'm using that term correctly) that allowed me to set up separate timers for each client, and then click the stop and start buttons to keep track of the time I was spending working on any particular client's matter. I was telling this partner about how I was diligently stopping the timer when I got up to go to the bathroom or to get my lunch from the fridge or to reply "yum" to my husband's email telling me about dinner, then starting it again when I returned to my desk or my document.
She (the partner) told me I was going about it all wrong. She asked, "Do you stop thinking about your work as soon as you get up from your desk and walk to the bathroom? Are you not thinking about what you were writing when you are washing your hands?" (OK, I didn't mention the email to my husband.)
The honest answers to her questions were, "sometimes" and, "sometimes." But her point is well taken, even if her point was directed more toward billing hours than it was toward a holistic understanding of what it means to work and be productive.
Those things we do when we aren't being productive - I don't necessarily mean craigslist and facebook, but the staring out the window, the organizing the desk, the netherworld where time disappears, and maybe even craigslist and facebook (to a small degree) - I believe that is largely productive work.
I can't reference any studies or really even speak articulately about how it all works, but, from my own experience, I know I need time in between active time and down time, I think of it as strolling time. I used to think I was just poorly focused, and maybe focus is not my strong point, but there is a brain space where things are jumbled, where the to-do list gets mushed up and everything is swirling around without clear priority or order that has demonstrated its value empirically. I am not resting, my mind is still on work, though it is on other things too. In this space I stroll, picking things up and putting things down and seemingly not getting anything done.
I know I am a productive person - look at my friggin' life! Working backwards from that truth, my strolls must support my produ. I am most certainly not resting, but I am stretching my legs, mentally and sometimes physically. I am getting a grip, emotionally (a highly underrated component of productivity, I think.) I am letting go of the order of things, of a sequence of tasks and, hopefully, I am inviting creativity and insight.
Then I am ready to kick ass in the fourth quarter.