Time management strategies and nifty email tricks are useful tools if you want to get the most out of your day, but there’s an even more critical key to productivity - discover your best time of the day to work.
“You need to learn your own natural rhythm and then organise your life around that,” says Hong Kong-based Leadership Coach Angela Spaxman.
If you’re not sure of your best time of day, ask yourself a few questions - When during the day do I have the most energy? When is my concentration at its peak? When do I feel the most creative and enthusiastic? Spaxman recommends keeping a journal by your bed for a week or two and taking a moment at the end of the day to note when your energy was at its highest, a pattern will soon emerge.
Once you’re sure of your best time of day, the next step is to eliminate distractions as they cripple concentration. This is much harder to do than it sounds and will take some concerted effort. Spaxman suggests having a “buddy” - a colleague or family member - who checks in to see how you are managing your focused time and is supportive.
“It’s best to close all the windows on your computer and turn off your phone and put it away. What you want to do is focused, concentrated work. When you are using your brain in this way it’s using effort and there will likely be a tendency to want to stop, so you’ve got to persevere,” says Spaxman.
The good news is that you don’t have to do this focused concentration for a full eight-hour working day. Indeed, to do so would be detrimental to your productivity. Instead break your day up into several periods of sustained focus.
“The most creative way to use your brain is to alternate between focus and relaxation. If you focus for 20 to 30 minutes and then go off and get water or look out the window you are more likely to have a new idea. By not jumping from one focused task to another it allows the brain to relax and create the space for an idea,” says Spaxman.
Others suggest that the period of focused concentration should be up to 90 minutes. Leo Widrich, one of the co-founders of Buffer, the software application designed to manage social networking accounts, says the effectiveness of working in concentrated sprints is down to the fact that we are organisms that more cyclically. Just as we have cycles in our sleep, so we do in our waking lives.
One of Spaxman’s clients is a writer who recently began working in 30-minute sprints - writing for 30 minutes and then taking a break to do a less focused task - and has noticed a big increase in her productivity.
Spaxman recommends spending five minutes to plan your day - either at the end of the day before or in the morning. For some people it might be the commute on the way home or else first thing in the office. During that five-minute planning time look at your calendar and what you need to do for the day and then work out what you want to spend your focus time on.
“Research has shown that people who reflect daily on their goal for the day are more productive. Life changes for a lot of us which is why this needs to be a daily reflection and chance for self-awareness,” she says.
Not all work is equal, which is why it’s important to consider before you start your day which work will require higher levels of energetic output. The most demanding tasks should be done during your “sprints” and the least demanding jobs can be done during your periods of waning mental strength. Although everyone is different, Spaxman says that generally speaking the period immediately after lunch is usually a period when energy levels are slower and so a good time to tackle easier tasks.
“For some people the post-lunch period might be a good time to do social tasks such as making calls and interviews - a chance to get energy from the other person. More introverted people might enjoy administrative tasks such as cleaning up their desk,” says Spaxman.
If you are a night owl fitting into the nine-to-five workday may be a real grind and you may feel like you are the odd one out, but remember that everyone is different. It’s also worth considering that the eight-hour workday evolved as a response to poor working conditions in factories during the British Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. It was later popularised by Henry Ford who set a fixed eight-hour workday for his staff in an attempt to boost productivity. But these were manual labourers and the demands on them are far cry from what is expected of office workers today where problem solving and creativity are highly valued.
The bottom line is to work out what works best for you. Spaxman has an executive friend who is a night owl and likes to spend time in the early evening with her family and then work late into the night on emails.
“She has to make sure her staff know that she doesn’t expect them to work at night or to respond to her emails quickly. As long as they know that, then the freedom to work at night and have more flexibility in her working days is a big advantage to her,” she says.