The single most important productivity advice you need to follow is this: Match your highest priority work to your most productive hours.
The basic idea here is to track your energy, motivation and focus to get a sense of when, where, and how you’re the most productive.
The best productivity hack is just listening to your own body and working with it, not against it.
It pays to use your peak time, when you feel alert and excited, for projects that involve problem-solving, complex thought, and critical decisions.
Routine, unimportant, and less complex tasks can be done when you are not as focused and engaged.
Studies have shown that you work at your highest brain capacity, with your best focus and attention, before lunch hour.
By keeping this in mind, you can dedicate your mornings, when you are most active, to your most brain-busting work, and schedule mental breaks for the afternoon when your attention span is already at its lowest.
The growing body of research on ultradian rhythms suggests that our day is driven by cycles that affect how alert and productive we are.
The results of this research clearly show that the human body goes through cycles of between 90 and 120 minutes. Through each of these cycles we are taken from an unproductive trough to a productive peak, and then back again.
This pattern was first noticed by sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, which caused a mountain of research to be conducted in this area.
Another study published in Thinking & Reasoning found out that we tend to think more creativity when we’re tired.
A study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks suggested that innovation and creativity are often the greatest in moments of fatigue, based on our circadian rhythms.
Fatigue and tiredness have been shown to free up thinking along non-linear paths, leading us to find new solutions to existing problems.
So while you might be exhausted right before bed, take some time to work on a solution to a tough problem, think up new innovations, or work on creative pursuits.
Enter the natural rhythms experiment
People who work with instead of against their ultradian rhythm perform better. It’s critical that you acknowledge your body’s natural rhythms and align your periods of work and relaxation with them to work in a sustainable productive way.
It requires a lot of research on yourself and a big time commitment up front, but the personal productivity insights you’ll get out of it can pay off in the long-run.
This simple method can help you organize your days around your energy, not your time.
1. Pick a day and start tracking how you spend it.
2. Eliminate any factors that could mess with your energy — changes in caffeine intake is a big one, staying up late is another.
3. Start recording what you’re accomplishing once an hour. Rate your energy level, motivation, focus in the process of work, every day.
4. Chris Bailey, author of “The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy”, took a year off to experiment with productivity.
He suggests recording scores for focus, energy, and motivation for three weeks, at the same time each day, to find your sweet spot. The longer you track your productivity, the more reliable your insights will be.
You will see trends even after one week of tracking, but the more data you gather, the more reliable your trends will be.
The following spreadsheet is based on Chris’ workflow. Download it here to help you track your productivity.
5. Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your previous day/week. Do you notice any patterns? When are you most focused? When do you notice a surge or dip in energy?
What times do you reach for coffee in the day? These patterns can reveal when you’re at your best and when you should take a break to refresh.
6. Write down how you spend your minutes and keep notes on how you felt. Be honest. Sometimes you can identify that you feel “on a roll,” which is a good sign that you’re figuring out something about your productivity.
7. The exact details that you record may vary, but to get the most accurate results you’ll need to be as consistent as possible.
Patterns will show themselves if you start tracking it. Time and activity tracking software like Rescue Time and Toggl can be a big help here.
8. You’re bound to discover some very interesting things about what drives your productivity. If you can diligently track all three weeks, you’ll come out the other side a productivity superhero.
9. Try a combination of things during this process, including waking up an hour earlier, meditating, exercise, and taking longer breaks to find out if they affect your peak times. Do more of what works. The variables you choose to alter are countless. Have fun with it!
10. Once you figure out your most productive time of day, rearrange your tasks and put your important, high-concentration tasks in periods where you’re highly productive and place less important, low-concentration tasks in periods where you’re not very productive.
I did this experiment for three months. I started this practice because I discovered my energy and capacity for intense deep work diminish as the day wears on.
From waking up between 7am and 8am, my energy levels quickly spiked, gradually dipping between 12pm and 2pm. I have started taken longer breaks and walks to refresh in between deep work.
And I use the 90 minutes rule. I start my workdays by focusing for 90 minutes, uninterrupted, on one task I decide the night before is the most important one I’ll face the following day. After 90 minutes, I take a break.
As much as your work environment allows, protect your peak time from intrusions and commitments that don’t require your full brain power.
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