Do we peak at the same time?
Or do we each have our own rhythms?
There’s been a lot of attention recently about how 4am is now the most productive hour of the day for lots of CEOs.
Research shows that we actually complete the most tasks around 11am (adjusted for different time zones).
You’ve finished your coffee.
You’ve chit-chatted with all your co-workers.
You’ve got up on all the emails.
You’ve finished your daily huddle.
Now you’re ready for the real work to start. Like responding to an RFP, parsing out the good sales leads from the bad or analyzing your e-mail conversion rates.
But just because 11am is the time when most of us do the most work, here’s the catch: work also drops way off after lunch.
Here’s the quote from Redbooth, who conducted the study:
“And most importantly, getting stuff done after lunch is an uphill battle.”
So you do the math: people are most productive for an hour to two hours a day, right before breaking for lunch.
That doesn’t seem like enough.
How do you break through the malaise and find the time that’s right for you? How can you reorient your day around the schedule that works best for you, rather than the typical work schedule that everyone uses?
In this post, we’ll look at a few productivity hacks, scheduling ideas and more to help you find your most productive time of day.
- Keep Track of Your Time
Before you change when you’re most productive, you should know when you’re most productive right now. And the simple way to do that is by tracking the time you spend on tasks already. By using a time tracker, you’ll soon note a pattern of when you’re working on certain items, or how long it’s taking to answer email or respond to notifications.
By understanding how much time something takes, and when you seem to be getting tasks done faster that at other, this will give you a hint about what time of day you are most productive.
Track your time like this for a few weeks, and once you’re aware of your tasks and how long it takes, you’re ready to match those tasks to your energy levels. Which brings us to point #2…
2. Balance your day.
A large bank decided to invest more in its employees rather than demanding more from them. What they found is that the “energized” group often outperformed the group that stuck to its regular schedule, even though the energized group had less time to finish a task. They even had 20 percent higher levels of success, when measured by the same KPIs.
Renewing and managing your energy is a combination of physical, emotional and relational factors that can then help you succeed even more. Tony Robbins suggests that drinking water may help your energy, rather than bad snacks!
According to the report in the Harvard Business Review, what helped participants was focusing on these factors:
- Eating breakfast
- Expressing appreciation to others
- Focusing on one task at a time
- Participating in personally meaningful activities (like hobbies, being with family or spiritual practices)
Too often we let schedules dictate when we get work done. And adding more hours to our workday doesn’t always help either, especially when we go home to spend time with family and friends exhausted and worn out. Then the cycle continues: we eat poorly, we exercise little and nothing seems to get better.
To combat this, we need more time for lunches, breaks and time away to refill our energy supplies. Make sure that you exercise, eat healthy, and spend good, solid time in other areas of your life. Focus on what works best for you and discover the right balance.
3. Know Your Circadian Rhythm
After ironing out your daily habits through time tracking, now is the time to think about the time of day that you feel the most energy and concentration. Cue the circadian rhythms. You’ve probably heard that term before but it does help your workflow to be aligned to how your individual circadian rhythms function.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a typical circadian rhythm has an energy drop between 2am and 4am and in the early afternoon, between 1pm and 3pm.
That first drop doesn’t affect most us–we’re asleep already (we hope). That second one though is right in the middle of the workday. So how do you power through?
Well, if you’re already managing your body’s energy levels (as mentioned in #1), the drop won’t feel as significant.
Secondly, you also need to be aware that between 1pm and 3pm may not be the best times to do your most active work. This could be a great time to schedule shallow work, like checking emails or even holding meetings.
4. Maximize Your Most Focused Time
Next, you’ll have to decide for yourself when you feel most energized and preserve this time at all costs. This could be different for a night owl or for a morning person.
For me personally, I feel the most energized in the “second shift.” That’s approximately from 3pm or 4pm to 11pm or midnight. No, I don’t typically work all of those hours, but I know if I can extend my day and stay in a concentrated state from 3ish to 630ish, that I’ll get more work done. That’s my best time to concentrate and focus on bigger, harder projects–like writing a blog post for instance 🙂
But not everyone is like me. If mornings work best for you, know that before the previous day ends. Set up your daily to-do list to take advantage of that, instead of glancing through emails and notifications during your peak time.
So…what time of day makes you feel most energized? Try and protect that time at all costs.
5. Work in 90-Minute Cycles
This is the concept of deep work, and making time for it. Professor Cal Newport argues that our most successful, focused work occurs in 90 minute increments and that we should try to limit our breaks until after those time blocks are up. Establishing one, two, three or four different 90 minute blocks of deep work during your day will depend on the type of work you do, your energy levels, and what your other job responsibilities are.
If you’re not in control of your schedule in that way, then think about taking a break after every 90 minutes to relax your mind for a few minutes.
Alternating your day into different 90 minute blocks will not only help you get more done, it’ll also reveal to you which particular 90 minute block of time is the most productive. Then you’re one step closer in realizing your optimal time for productivity.
6. Think Strategically About Scheduling Work
After you determine when your best peaks of focus and energy are, match the type of work you need to do at those times. Use your peak times to tackle the most challenging work–sometimes that could be the hardest thing; other times it could be the most strategic.
Often if you put challenging work at the beginning of the day, you’ll feel more energized to do other tasks later, knowing that the hard part is past you. That’s called eating the frog and is one of the methods we recommend for prioritizing your work.
Also, afternoons or “non-optimal hours” may be best for more creative thinking. Saving this portion for brainstorming, ideation or strategic planning may be more productive, especially if there isn’t an immediate deadline attached to it.
7. Contain Interruptions
This sounds counterintuitive, but interruptions will definitely happen. And you should allow time in your day for them to occur. Hopefully you can contain them. Interruptions could include meetings, breaks, or a random conversation when someone comes by your door. If you have your own office, it’s easy to close the door. That lets people know that you’re working. Door open means you can come in. That’s easy enough.
For open office workers, that can be a little harder. The new universal sign for “door closed” is headphones in, but that doesn’t always help. But organizations could make it part of their company culture to have certain “quiet hours” where there is focused work. It’s also important to be aware of how different job functions operate at your company. For instance, Paul Graham in the famous “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” blog post notes that managers often operate on different time constraints than the people building the product. It’s important to keep this in mind when hosting or calling meetings.
Containing those interruptions into certain blocks of time will help you preserve the 90 minute blocks when you can get the most work done.
What time are you most productive? There’s not a clear-cut answer. And it’s really a mindset issue as well. Are you one of the people who will maximize the time they do have, or will you stretch projects on and on? Accounting for how our body works, energy levels and setting up our schedules in more focused ways can help us achieve our productivity goals. It’s really about taking control of your day, rather than letting your day control you. Once you enter your day with that mindset, and then thin strategically about where you place your work, you’ll be able to do more.
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