Try Burning the Candle at the Other End

Generally speaking, I don’t recommend being so busy that you’re in need of more than eight hours a day to get your work done. But I’ll leave that battle to Jason Fried and other champions of productivity and progressive workplaces. The reality is, most of us at some point will find ourselves in a position that requires us to exceed our recommended daily intake of paying workload and responsibility.

For a long time I was coming home, making supper, spending some quality-questionable time with my daughter, chatting with my wife for a half hour and then diving back into my tasks for what was supposed to be a four-hour evening of solid concentration. But this nightshift wasn’t the accelerator I might have imagined. There were things that needed to get done around the house, garbage to be taken out, distractions, questions, chit-chat, unexpected visits from a half-asleep child, chores, calls and basically anything else you can imagine that falls outside the parameters of a workday. I’d get 2-3 hours, on a good night, if I’m being very generous. Usually by about 11:30pm–midnight, I’d finally get to really focus after everyone had gone to bed. I would dive right in and then call it quits around 1–2am, knocking off to get a “good” night’s sleep. If I was particularly under the gun, I could stretch it as late as 3am and totally nail mediocrity.

What I eventually noticed is that as I approached midnight, my productivity was dropping significantly. I was often staring into space, finding it hard to do the mental gymnastics often required of software development. There was even a time I was asked to write a creative article and what I delivered read read like a stream-of-consciousness thought experiment. The editor politely sent it back for a rewrite suggesting that I had clearly tackled it under the influence of drugs. The truth was, I was falling asleep at my laptop with my hands still applying pressure to keys. As it turns out, that’s just as bad as drugs — maybe worse. To put it bluntly, the quality of everything I did in those hours began to drop. Something had to change.

I took stock and realized that a 2 hour block could be very productive if it was uninterrupted and high-energy. I solved half of that problem by slamming a Red Bull at around 9pm. The other side of the distraction problem would be eliminated as the family went to bed and the house became quite. Unfortunately I found I was only moderately more productive and now sleepless as well. This was a stupid approach in retrospect — the productivity equivalent of putting out a fire with a can of gasoline.

Pro-tip: Energy drinks don’t restore your willpower.

Suddenly, there was a realization that I couldn’t do this anymore. One evening I found myself so incredibly burned out that I crashed at 10pm when I still had a lot of work to do. I had no choice. The following morning, completely by coincidence, I woke up sleepless at around 5am, still thinking about the issues I needed to solve and decided I might as well try and get something done. Coffee in hand, sitting in my pyjamas, I dove in. Two hours later when I would normally have been waking up bleary-eyed and still exhausted, I was feeling rested and vibrant instead. I had already completed nailed my tasks in about half the time it might have taken me the night before. I was onto something.

I decided to try an experiment and started going to bed every night between 9 and 10 when possible. Suddenly I was sleeping well, I was up early and feeling energetic and I was able to get 2 highly productive, quiet, distraction free hours in each morning while the rest of the family was still snug in their beds. The most impressive thing about this new approach was that it seemed to have no significant impact on my day but for the fact that I couldn’t watch the Daily Show (sorry Trevor! — catch you on DVR).

If you’re stuck burning the candle at both ends give this routine a try for a week and see if you can just switch the candle up. Catch your productivity as it climbs in the morning rather than declines before bedtime. Obviously results will vary from person to person and some people need more or less sleep than others. But it seems almost silly in retrospect that I didn’t recognize a long time ago that “sunrising” is far more beautiful and overly beneficial than “moonlighting”.

But far more importantly and if at all possible, try to manage your workload better in general because nobody should be doing this.