How To Really Win The Afternoon

2PM is too early to go home, isn’t it?

A lot — and I mean, a lot — has been said about morning routines. I’ve been told by every self-improvement writer and their mothers to get up earlier and eat a protein-rich breakfast and to not break the fast and also kale smoothies.

My view is that it’s largely smoke and mirrors because 80% of the benefits come from 20% of the efforts and the 80/20 here lies in implementing some pattern. If you bother to think about optimal mornings and read productivity guides, you’ll get most things right and it almost doesn’t matter what you do exactly.

If you’re obsessing over whether to get up at 5.38AM or 6.57AM or over should I be doing loving-kindness meditation or should I do Vipassanā meditation or should I take a cold shower with or without a preceding hot shower, then you are missing the point.

Making it an actual habit is the only important thing.

Interestingly, while everyone is stressing out about tweaking minute details of their morning protocol, most high-performing people I know are more concerned with winning the afternoon. The 3PM-dip appears to be biologically encoded in most of us mortals and the gurus didn’t come up with a solution yet.

Chances are, for you too, this is where, following the 80/20 rule, you can make big, easy steps by starting to get the core elements right.

Because, right now, I bet you’re not.

Tell me more

I knew you’d say that.

If you’d look around and realize how your coworkers are spending the afternoon — what they are really doing and how they’re really feeling — you’d have a heart attack.

Here’s a small sampling:

The Force is with Rebecca

Rebecca is tough. She works hard. No signals from her body can stop her. She. Will. Keep. Going.

So when it’s 2.47PM and — you know — the brainz aren’t what they were five hours ago, Rebecca keeps pushing. Another e-mail sent. And another. And another — this is getting crazy people!

Oh — and look at her, how diligent she is! What a commitment. You go girl.

The whole office is cheering for her.

Except no one is.

Actually, most people kinda feel sorry for her.

Powering through is the worst thing you can do.

First of all, you’re very unlikely to be efficient. Busy — yes, and struggling through, going for it, but if your energy levels are low squeezing yourself dry won‘t create a ton of value per unit of time you invest.

Yes, Rebecca, you might be working, but whatever you’re doing, it barely works. All these extra cold calls you put in during the off hours, or the additional filing you get done, how much of worth are you really producing per hour here?

If your output-per-hour ratio drops, but you keep going nonetheless, you’re not awesome, you’re stupid for ignoring the 80/20 rule. Work smarter, not harder.

As a small but important aside, note it doesn’t feel like that for Rebecca. Her effort leaves her tired and achy, thus satisfying the implicit logic of our work ethic: if it’s hurting, it must be useful. So her reward system fires up like a Christmas tree when she’s engaging in this low-effectivity toil.

This attitude is hardly Rebecca‘s fault: in our culture, we don’t link our sense of doing good with what we are actually producing. Rather, we judge it according to how hard we have been on ourselves.

Well, this dumb. ‘Work4Work’ is a waste of time — not ‘doing the right thing’. We need to change our moral evaluations regarding work.

Pardon the digression. The second reason you shouldn’t ‘power through’ is that it’s the high road to a burnout. Livable self-improvement must work with your emotions, rather than against them. If your body tells you it’s exhausted, please listen, for Christ’s sake. Ignoring these signals — perhaps consuming stimulants to make them go away — is going to bite you in the end (to say the least).

Third, think of the conversation you’re having with yourself here. One of the crucial characteristics of meaningful work is a link between effort and reward. If whatever you did this morning, you make yourself keep going until sunset regardless, you’re severing an important element of this connection.

This was my mistake. For a long time, I forced myself to stay in the library until 5PM — because that’s what people do right? — even if I’d already had a fine session this morning, ensuring sufficient progress on my research. Trust me: there is no quicker way to kill your motivation.

Oh, and what about the admiration of all your colleagues because Rebecca is showing dedication and willingness to go the extra mile? Instead of harvesting esteem, she is displaying lower status. A valuable employee doesn’t have to show off her struggles.

Who are you fooling here?

Be careful with…

“I’m just doing some necessary, low-focus work,”

Your mental resources are almost up, so scheduling the inescapable light-cognitive-load work — sending the occasional e-mail and canceling tomorrow’s meeting — here is fine as long as you put a limit to it. One hour tops. Until inbox zero. Whatever. Just don’t regress into Work4Work.

As Tim Ferriss explains in the 4-Hour Work Week, “Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion.”

So if you give yourself the entire rest of the day to take care of these ‘shallow’ to-do-list items, they will end up unnecessarily consuming all these precious sunlight hours.

Why you don’t need an afternoon routine

I told you it would be a small sample.

If you know your output-per-hour ratio will drop in the afternoon, don’t rely on the afternoon.

Effectiveness and total hours worked are two different things.

While we work 8 or more hours a day, most of that is just busywork. Instead, identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to your goal (80/20) and schedule them with short and clear deadlines (Parkinson’s Law). Learn what moves the needle and focus your efforts on that, getting rid of the rest.

Then, inevitably, you’ll find your planning no longer includes soul-grudging grinding during these low-energy post-lunch hours anymore.

The huge implication of this approach: if your morning game is solid, you don’t need an afternoon routine. When you’ve taken care of today’s pivotal burdens and you’ve done your thing, just call it a day.

As you won’t do — need to do, if you’ve scheduled intelligently — anything important anymore during the afternoon, and your output-per-hour ratio will be low, these hours are better spent otherwise.

Because, guess what, there are numerous valuable causes in life that are not work, so if your productivity is abominable during these hours, you should switch gears to these other significant parts of human existence. While this is hard for many people to accept, doing less meaningless work, so you can spend time on priorities of higher personal concern, is not laziness.

Some ideas for your ‘afternoon routine’. Go pick up your kids from school when it ends at 3.15PM and play with them. Pursue a hobby. Get creative. Help someone. Schedule time to take care of yourself. Take a run. Meditate.

There are plenty of other — non-work — important things in life to tend to, and they can’t, shouldn’t, and needn’t wait until after 5PM.

Spending your time well is about more than maximizing productivity.