HOW I FOUND MY HIDDEN PEAKS OF PRODUCTIVITY: a data-driven approach to find what works for you
A few years ago I went from working as a freelancer into a 9–5 job. There were many ups and more than a few downs. On the plus side, I no longer had to scavenge for income every month, I didn’t have to write invoices, and I didn’t have to worry about my client pool drying up. On the down side, I no longer could set my own schedule, set my own rules for checking email, or decide which days to work and which days to relax.
The transition period was tough, but it forced me to evaluate my old habits and routines and it led me to create a magical system that I love and cherish now.
Here’s a preview of what it looked like:
Re-learning how to work
After reading probably a hundred posts about this app or that hack, it becomes very clear that when it comes to productivity there are different strokes for different folks.
Which is great, right? We should all find what works for us and it’s as simple as that
Well, that may be the answer if we were allowed to work wherever and whenever we wanted, but unfortunately, most of us are forced into the conventions of the 9 to 5 job.
First, I should point out that while the 9–5 has many downsides, it does provide the convenience of getting everyone to work together. After all, if everyone worked on their own schedule, it’d be very hard to communicate with each other efficiently.
Clearly the 9–5 is there for a reason. So a better question is, how do I make the 9–5 work for the way my brain works?
Let’s take a data-driven approach
Prescribing a universal way for how everyone should work just doesn’t make sense. Sure there are patterns:
- Most people are more creative in the mornings and evenings
- The brain is clearer in the morning when the prefrontal cortex is most active
- The brain synthesizes information overnight
- Meditation and journaling are better to do in the morning, etc.
But for every rule there is an exception.
So, the best thing to do is not to prescribe a certain way of working, but rather to prescribe a method of figuring out your way of working.
In the following blog post I’ll show you the method I used for figuring out how to schedule my days within the many confines of the 9–5 workday.
It all has to do with timing
I’m sure we’ve all experienced moments of great productivity and moments of banging our heads into the keyboard until the keys imprint onto our forehead (Anyone? No, just me?)
While a lot can be said (and has been said) about the effects of diet and sleep on productivity, let’s just assume that we have those two things dialed in.
As I embarked on my transition into 9–5 work I quickly realized that there is a huge difference between being creatively productive and being office productive. Both were very important for my role as a Content Marketer, but striking a balance was challenging.
To figure the balance out, I decided to split my work into Creating, Busy Work, and Thinking. I then rated my days, by the hour, on each of these categories from a scale of 1–10.
Here are a few patterns I spotted:
My best time of day to create is 10am-11:30am
(by “create” I mean writing, shooting videos, planning projects, etc.)
My best time to handle busy work is 9am-10am and 1pm-3pm
(by “busy work” I mean small tasks such as formatting, organizing, etc.)
My best time to think is 3:30pm-5pm.
(by “think” I mean think about big problems, big-picture strategy, etc.)
These insights came from a lot of data. A lot of data which was overwhelming to look at in a notebook, so I decided to graph it.
Here’s what it looked like visually:
*You can toggle the different colors on/off by clicking on the colored circles. I’ll also include the tables I used to make these graphs at the bottom of this post if you want download them and make your own.
Besides the obviously glaring valley you see between 12–2pm, which I think everyone experiences after eating lunch (again see diet), the big takeaway here is the overlap of capabilities.
From 10am-11am is a golden window of productivity.
But herein lies the trap.
What we choose to do with our productivity is just as important as whether we use it in the first place. As Peter Drucker so pointedly said:
It is fundamentally the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency that stands between doing the right things and doing things right. There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.
Just because you were productive, doesn’t necessarily mean you produced something important.
Looking at the graph above, its very tempting to use times of great productivity to do “busy work.” After all, if I put my foot down on the accelerator to knock out all my pesky to-dos between 9am-12pm I can “accomplish” a lot.
But after doing this for a number of regrettable months, I had a lightbulb moment.
While it might make me feel good to cross many items off my to-do in just one morning, am I being truly effective? Am I accomplishing something important? Am I making big strides or creeping forward a few inches?
The answer, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, is that I was doing feel-good work, but after a few weeks I wasn’t feeling very good about much at all.
This prompted what I’m sure historians will someday call, “Bogdan’s Great Rescheduling of 2017.”
Okay, it actually wasn’t very dramatic at all, but the results were.
Building out my schedule to maximize spikes in each of the three categories above here’s what my new schedule looked like:
9–10am: Begin my day with busy work, warm up the brain
10am-12pm: All busy work stops and I work on creating something, anything.
12–2pm: Dead time. I stopped worrying about being productive during this time and instead made this my time to recharge.
(Note: this is hugely important! If you’re the type that takes lunch at your desk because you have “so much to do,” you might accomplish those small tasks at the cost of later productivity on the truly important stuff.)
2pm-3pm: Handle email and busy work, warming up the brain again.
3pm-5pm: Work on solving those big problems. The brain is warm, many inputs have been synthesized, let’s go!
(3pm also coincides with latte time for that second burst of energy)
Obviously it’s impossible to get everyday to look like this. After all, coworkers will email or need help throughout the day which prompts me to break my schedule.
But, knowing this is the optimal state helped me get closer to it.
As the popular chess adage goes, “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.”
If nothing else, the biggest upside of this finding was learning how to avoid that “busy-work creep.” Most people, including myself, are pretty good at doing busy-work. It gives us something easy to do and allows us to avoid doing the important things. We feel like we’re doing something while actually doing very little.
Don’t just read about it, do it.
For those who want a simple method to improve their work schedule, I recommend stopping here and creating your own productivity graph. You can download the simple template I used here.
If you’d like to take this one step further though, read on.
Taking it one degree further
Just as not all hours in the day are equal, so too not all days of the week are created equal.
I’m sure anyone who has ever experienced the tiredness or chaos of a Wednesday, or the lethargy and lack of motivation of a Friday will agree.
After the success of the first graph I decided to create a new table that maps out productivity as it relates to days of the week.
Here’s the graph:
*You can toggle the colors on/off by clicking on the colored circles
It turns out my best days of the week to create are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. And my best days of the week to handle busy work are Mondays and Fridays.
If you’re looking at the graph you might be asking, “Wait a second, but busy work is lowest on fridays?”
Yes, it is, but it’s also the highest category for that day.
This helped me refine my schedule even more by showing me where the peaks in the week are in relation to the peaks of the day. By cross-referencing the two charts I found some truly tangible insights like:
- Wednesdays from 10:30am-12am are the best time to create
(Tuesdays and Thursdays are the 2nd best)
- Mondays from 9am-10am are the best time to handle busy work
(Fridays and 2pm-3pm are the 2nd best)
- 4pm-5pm on Mon-Thurs is the best time to solve big problems
(Fridays are the 2nd best)
I did end up creating a “master graph” of this by multiplying the two graphs together, but I think it simply became way too much information in one graph. Here it is if you’d like to copy it, but for me it’s easier to read each graph on its own.
I think the main takeaway I got from doing this is that the productivity “hacks” that we love to read about are really just putting band-aids on a much bigger problem. The modern workplace that involves sitting on a computer all day is inherently a broken system.
Humans were never intended to sit in one place to accomplish everything they needed to do, but for better or worse that’s what the modern workplace has become for many people. So, whether you’re a 9–5 employee, an entrepreneur, or a freelancer, it’s important to divide up your day according to the optimal times your brain works.
For some that might be determined by their coworkers schedule, their boss’s schedule, or even their kids’ schedule. The important thing is to figure out how to design your productivity around those constraints so that you can use the best part of your brain more frequently.
Try it at home
It can be very fun to read about these life-improvement stories, get pumped and motivated, and then end up doing absolutely nothing afterwards. I know I’m certainly guilty of this and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
So, in order to encourage you to actually be actionable about doing this, I took all the tables I built in excel for this and turned them into simplified google sheet where you can plug in your own numbers.
If you’d like to get the tables, just enter your email in this form and it will auto-send them to you along with instructions on how I used them.
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As always, feel free to reach out to me on the twitters @bogdanyz