There are “night owls” who do their best work late at night and “morning larks” who perform best in the early hours of the day.
But how does that translate to the workplace? Most offices operate roughly from 9am to 5pm. Does that mean employees should be expected to have eight hours of highly productive time each day within that window?
Many experts say it does not.
“Society is sending us a variety of messages about when we are supposed to be productive,” said Vanessa Kettner, a coach with Personal Best, a productivity training organisation in the UK. “We are supposed to be productive for X number of hours a day, and we are supposed to be productive at these times during the day. Many work environments dictate when we should start and stop working — and when we need to be at our best. But we’re not all the same.”
Workers may be aware that they have times when they feel “in the zone” at work and times when they do not, said Barbara Green, president of Ontario, Canada-based Think Productive North America, which provides productivity workshops to companies across Canada and the US. And that, Green said, is OK.
“They appreciate that they can’t perform at a high intensity all day,” she said. “That’s a healthy perspective — we’re human, not superhuman.”
The key is to find a rhythm to those highly productive times and use that to one’s advantage, said Green.
So just how can we find our most productive times of day? Kettner and Green offered these tips:
Experiment. Try doing your most important piece of work for the day as soon as you get into work for a couple of weeks and see how that feels, Kettner suggested. Then, try doing it right after lunch or early evening for a few weeks. Kettner herself said she knew she was not a morning person and asked for leniency from her boss to follow an alternative to “typical work hours” for a year.
“I knew it was difficult for me to wake up early, so I wanted to see what would happen if I let my body lead, instead of fighting against it,” she said. “I discovered that my most naturally productive times are in the afternoon and evening, and that by nature I prefer to warm up — do the lower-priority things — in the morning.”
Keep a journal. Write down or keep a journal detailing when you start and stop a task. “If you are able to maintain focus for 60 to 90 minutes, you’ve identified a time of day when you are highly productive,” Green said. By keeping a written record for a number of days, a person will begin to see a pattern to the times when they are most productive, she said.
However, Green cautioned against tracking your most productive times when work is very busy and you are feeling stressed. “You can’t do it when you’re in crazy mode; you’re driven by outside things rather than your own internal rhythms.”
Note patterns of inactivity. Green said everyone will cycle through rhythms of proactive, active, and inactive times throughout the day. Note those inactive times as well — when you find yourself on Facebook instead of working, for example. Apps can be installed on computers to show where you are spending your time to help track those inactive times, Green said. RescueTime is one such tool. “If people are addicted to social media or email as a way of not focusing, this shows quite vividly,” Green said of the app.
Be aware of your ecosystem and continue to reassess. Kettner suggested that a person needs to evaluate their entire “ecosystem” in trying to understand their productive rhythms and peak performance times. “What this means is that the bedtime routine you have with your 2-year-old is going to possibly affect your performance in your 8am meeting the next day, or that traumatic 4pm deadline you had every day in that job ten years ago might still be exercising its influence today,” she said.
“Take the time, perhaps via trial and error, to figure out what works for you and why, and use that to leverage your productivity and your work contentedness,” Kettner said.
— Lea Hart is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.