Know When You’re Productive

It helps to spend time understanding how you spend your time. Insight into your habits can inform how you schedule your activities, support deadlines, and set expectations. It can inform your relationships, provide relief when you’re on track, offer a window into your cognitive energy, and generally help you understand yourself better. If you’re not historically productive on Fridays, don’t pretend to be, stress yourself out by piling on, or make promises to others you realistically won’t keep.

We’re all very different people. How one person works may have zero correlation with how someone else works. A client suggested that he works best on Tuesdays and made a pretty logical case for it: Mondays suck and by Wednesday we’re already tired. Before I crunched the numbers, it was easy to assume that Tuesday works well for me, too. But it’s not my best.

I’ve been tracking my time for nearly five years and using Toggl over the last 22 months. I love the tool and highly recommend it. While none of my client engagements really require me to track my time, I’ve found the data incredibly revealing. Below, I’ve graphed certain dimensions of my productivity by weekday over the last 55 weeks. I could go more in depth to distinguish client from personal projects, administrative versus creative tasks, consumptive versus productive activities, etc. For now, it was helpful to just get a snapshot of my life.

The amount of time I deem truly “productive” on an average day.

I tend to have more meetings and log more time in person with clients on Wednesdays, so this made sense. Saturdays tend to be my day to take on personal projects after I’ve transitioned out of the week. Naturally, I spend the least amount of time working on Sundays and really fall off by Friday.

Time alone does not correlate directly with productivity, though. I could be sitting in a meeting for three hours that wastes everyone’s time (frankly, Wednesdays feel like that for me sometimes). So it’s helpful to look at the data a different way: how many different things do I get done each day?

The number of times I switch gears to different tasks per day.

Mondays and Fridays fill up with lots of little things. I tend to do most of my administrative work on those days, getting ready for the week or wrapping it up. With fewer distractions or deadlines, I tend to focus on fewer things over the weekends. On Wednesdays, I tend to log less individual time entries than other days of the week due largely to longer meetings.

So what can this tell me about creative energy?

Average hours worked divided by average number of tasks.

A lot of my work requires extended periods of dedicated focus for strategy, writing, or other creative tasks. By dividing average time by average tasks, it’s helpful to see which days I’m able to dive deep into things and which days I can’t. On Fridays, apparently I should avoid creative thinking at all costs as I am frantically switching gears between administrative cleanup and have negative energy to produce meaningful work. Without scrutinizing whether my time is spent in meetings or productively, it appears that Wednesday tends to hold my greatest threshold for undivided focus. Saturdays and Tuesdays rank higher for creative work than Mondays, Thursdays or Sundays.

With this information at hand, I’ve immediately shifted a few tasks around in Todoist to compensate or in some cases challenge these patterns.

If you don’t already have it, start collecting data on your time pronto. The sooner you start, the more data you’ll have to inform changes in your life when it counts.