Your Most Effective Work Times
How much actual work do you get done in a given work day? Some of us don’t think much about this. We clock in, work, then go home. Interruptions, meetings, and pointless tasks are just part of the daily routine. For others tracking productivity is almost a hobby or second job. They use tools and spreadsheets to track how much time they spend on tasks and even demark the value of those tasks.
Several different research studies suggest that people are only productive for 2.5 to 3 hours in an 8 hour work day. Everyone has a most effective or peak performance time which typically lasts 3-4 hours. This is when the majority of people get their productive work done during the day. Factor in meetings and other interruptions and you get your average of 2.5 to 3 hours of productivity per day.
However, the way you organize your schedule has a huge impact on your productivity. Knowing when you are at your most effective time means you can actively work to reduce distractions. Also, just because you are not at your peak doesn’t mean you can’t get productive work done during the down times.
Unfortunately we don’t have full control over our work schedules. There are meetings we can’t control or required business hours when we have to be online or at the office. In these cases we have to know where we are in our productivity cycle and use that to make the best of the situation until it can be changed. Understanding when you are at your best performance and how to maximize it will help you not only in the work place but in your life outside of work as well. Whether you are a lion, a wolf, a bear, or even a dolphin you can learn to use your natural tendencies to get the most out of not only your peak times but also your troughs.
Using Time Wisely
Mono-task Instead of Multitask
Multitasking may seem like a way to get more done in less time, but it leads to more mistakes and less creativity in thinking. As humans we have limited cognitive bandwidth, therefore our ability to accomplish things is dependant on our ability to focus on one task at a time. Unless used for the same task, reduce yourself to one screen when you are mono-tasking. The pomodoro technique, or interval work helps to stay focused on a task for a set amount of time. Distraction is a primal instinct. It was necessary for early humans to respond quickly to predators.
Find the Prioritization That Works for You
Prioritizing basically means figuring out which tasks you are going to get done in a limited amount of time. It doesn’t always mean one task is more important than the other, though that makes the process easier. Spend some time experimenting with different techniques to prioritize your schedule. Some people spend the first part of their day deciding which tasks to accomplish and prioritizing them. Whereas others will prioritize and entire week, or set up for the following day at the end of their workday. There is also the difference between starting with an easy task to get going or “eating the frog” and doing the most difficult thing first. This depends on personality and what you have to do that day.
Stop Going to Meetings
Meetings are typically time consuming wastes of time that are unproductive and foster disengagement of workers. Look at teams distributed across continents for inspiration on ways to avoid meetings. They are not able to all be in the same room or even online at the same time. Only attend meetings with agendas, especially if the items cannot be discussed or resolved without having synchronous communication. If you must go to meetings try to schedule them in blocks of time, or around blocks of focused work time.
Experienced developers understand the cost of interruptions, especially during their most effective work time, however non-technical members of the team and even newer developers don’t understand how interrupting someone affects their work. As developers we can get into deep layers of abstraction when working on a problem so when interrupted we’ll not only lose that train of thought but it may take use 30-45 minutes or more to get back to that level. If faced with consistent interruptions set aside a time once a week or even once a day for that person to ask you questions and be strict about enforcing that time. Also, make unavoidable interruptions come with a cost. Ex: I can stop and help with that, but then we’ll have to push this deadline back x number of days.
Set and Stick to Time Limits for Tasks
Many menial tasks like checking emails can consume your whole day if you allow it to do so. Set aside a specific time for do these tasks, put it in your daily schedule, and stop when that time has past. Turn this into a routine so that you and others know when it is going to happen.
Cycle of Productivity
Daily Productivity Cycle
Daily productivity is a cycle consisting of a peak performance, a slower trough, and a recovery time. Some people, early birds, will start the day at peak, hit a trough, then go through recovery. Whereas others, night owls, will start the day in recovery or the trough then eventually get to their peak.
Measuring the Stages of Productivity
Each stage in the cycle is measured by vigilance, cognitive ability, and mood. Vigilance is keeping a careful watch for possible danger or difficulties. Cognitive ability is the mental capacity to reason, think abstractly, and understand and solve complex problems. Mood fluctuates throughout the day. You may wake up grumpy but feel elevated after a cup or three of coffee. Find out when your peak, trough, and recovery take place during the day to know what tasks or appointments to schedule during these times.
Peak Performance Time
At peak performance vigilance, cognitive ability, and mood are all elevated. You are at your most aware, able to see trouble coming before it even hits. Your ability to think about complex problems and see abstractions factors into all of your thought processes. This is also the time when you are feeling your best and most active during the day. During this time you want to focus on analytical tasks such as solving complex coding problems or debugging a difficult area of code.
Sludging Through the Trough
The opposite of peak performance, in the trough everything is at it’s lowest. During this time of day you are least likely to recognize danger or errors before they become apparent. Your brain feel slow and sluggish in this part of the day. It’s difficult to concentrate for long and you may find yourself reading the same line multiple times to understand it. This is the roughest time of day for your mood, people tend to be grumpy or down during this time. Now is the time for the boring administrative tasks, avoid anything requiring higher-level functions or a lot of interpersonal interactions.
Rebounding to Recovery
Recovery tends to be the time between the trough and the peak, though it’s more of a middle ground than an in-between since it can doesn’t have to occur between the two. During this time, cognitive ability returns to a higher level level of reasoning and ability to understand abstractions. Vigilance, however, remains low and you are less likely to recognize danger or errors. Mood tends to vary during this time, though it is less extreme than the highs of the peak or the lows of the trough. Recovery is the best time for brainstorming new ideas and exploring innovative ideas. It’s also a good time for collaborative work, depending on your mood.
What is a Chronotype?
Also known as circadian typology, it is your individual differences in alertness and activity level between morning and evening. Knowing your chronotype will help you to understand when your are at your peak and trough, therefore allowing you to plan your day to maximize productivity. People can be morning, evening, or intermediate. These are further broken down into four categories to help identify when to sleep and when to work based on your internal clock. While the types are mostly fixed, exposure to light in the evening can help a morning person stay up later, the reverse being true for an evening person. There are several questionnaires and assessments available to help you identify your sleep chronotype.
The Lion Chronotype
These are the early risers, who most people would consider the “morning person.” as they tend to wake up before the sun rises. “Early to bed, early to rise” fits them well as they end up going to sleep by 9pm or 10pm at the latest. Lions should get to bed no later than 10pm and aim to get up by 6am. They tend to need at least 8 or more hours of sleep per night. They are at their peak performance early in the day (4-10am) and tend to hit a trough around noon. After some less intensive tasks they can get a second wind and hit a recovery period later in the afternoon or evening.
The Wolf Chronotype
Opposite the lion, the wolf has trouble waking up in the mornings. They can be groggy or grumpy if getting up too early in the morning. On the other end of the spectrum they are the life of the party at night time. They tend to stay up well past when the other types have gone to sleep getting to bed after midnight. They should try to get to bed by midnight and wake up by 7:30 to 8am. Less than lions, wolves need about 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Wolves hit their peak just after noon and then slow down but maintain a recovery level performance around 6pm, when others are calling it a day. They have their troughs early though as their worst time for analytical thinking is early in the morning.
The Bear Chronotype
Most people will fall into the bear chronotype as their sleep/wake cycle tends to follow the sun cycle. Bears have no problem falling asleep and wake up with ease especially when they are on a regular sleep schedule. Napping during their trough can throw them off, though. Being the average, bears need about 8 hours of sleep per night and should strive to be in bed by 11pm and up at 7am. Most productive during daylight, bears hit their peak in late morning hours before lunch then have a post-lunch trough between 1pm – 3pm followed by a late afternoon recovery time.
The Dolphin Chronotype
Dolphins are the insomniacs of the chronotypes. They are the rarest type of the four making up only 10% of the population. They have trouble falling asleep due to anxious ruminations and are easily wakened. They have trouble getting deep, restful sleep. Dolphins become used to the late nights and need less sleep that the other chronotypes. They should strive for at least 6 hours during the quietest times, typically from midnight to 6am. Surprisingly dolphins have the most effective peak range for working, from 10am to 2pm. They will go into a trough in the late afternoon and then pick back up with a recovery period in the evenings. Trouble sleeping doesn’t immediately make you a dolphin, remember they are rare, you may be a lion trying to live a wolf chronotype.
Tricks of the Trade
Learn your coworker’s chronotypes. That is handy.