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By Julie Compton

If work is spilling into your free time, you may need to schedule what PhD student and blogger Maarten Van Doorn calls a “productivity cheat day.”

“A productivity cheat day is a day in which you’re allowed to do all the things that you’re not supposed to do when you want to be maximally productive,” Van Doorn tells NBC News BETTER.

Maarten Van Doorn schedules productivity cheat days to reset for the week ahead.Courtesy of Maarten Van Doorn

Many Americans are exhausted, with work often consuming much of our free time, even on days when we shouldn’t be working.

According to a 2017 study from Enterprise Rent-A-Car that looked at 1,000 Americans, 7 in 10 said they worked at least one weekend per month — putting in the equivalent of a full 9-hour day.

When we don’t take breaks from our weekly grinds we never re-energize, and the quality of our work can suffer as a result, says Van Doorn.

What’s a productivity “cheat day?”

Van Doorn says the concept of a productivity “cheat day” is similar to healthy eating “cheat days,” a philosophy coined by podcaster and author Tim Ferris in which you eat well six days a week and whatever you want on the 7th.

Productivity “cheat days” work the same way, says Van Doorn: “Six days a week I adhere to the routine, and the other day a week I can do whatever I want.”

He says the rules are simple:

  1. Schedule your cheat day in advance.
  2. Do not do anything work-related on your cheat day.

Why schedule a cheat day?

Van Doorn, 25, is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. When he’s not busy working on his dissertation, he’s writing about productivity — both on and for his newsletter.

Van Doorn says it’s hard to rely on willpower alone to power through his workload.

“If you rely too much on willpower, then your willpower will be done at some point,” he says. “It’s kind of like a muscle, as the metaphor has it, and the muscle will get tired.”

That’s why cheat days are necessary, he explains. They’re not just a break — they offer the fuel and motivation to power through his workload.

On work days, get focused with “deep work”

To ensure he gets enough work done to take his cheat day, Van Doorn says he gets into “deep work” mode, which helps him power through his projects and stay laser-focused on the work in front of him.

“I’m very fixed and routine about how I go about my day,” says Van Doorn.

Every morning, he takes a cold shower to wake himself up, eats breakfast, and works on his dissertation for several hours.

In the afternoons, he starts on his writing projects. He turns off all social media notifications on his devices and listens to binaural beats beta wave music, which cancels out distracting noises.

“Cheat days” reset the balance

Van Doorn uses his once-a-week “cheat day” to re-energize. Every Sunday, he forgoes work on his dissertation, sleeps in, scrolls social media, eats whatever he wants, watches professional cycling on TV, and hangs out with friends.

“That resets the balance a lot,” Van Doorn says, “and the next day you’re eager to dive into it again."


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