Maximizing Your Productivity Throughout the Day

“Into The Bloom” courtesy of PopArtMachine

I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot gets said about productivity – not just here on Pick the Brain, but around the web. We’re always keen to squeeze a little bit more out of our day, fighting against all the interruptions and distractions of modern life.

It’s easy to end up struggling much harder than you need to, though, by trying to be productive in the wrong ways, at the wrong times. Working with your body clock and your natural peaks and troughs of energy lets you maximize your productivity all day long … rather than struggling through several miserable hours by sheer willpower, only to end up too tired and tetchy to carry on working.

Morning Lark or Night Owl?

A great place to start is figuring out whether or not you’re a morning person. Given the chance, would you prefer to get up early to finish off some work, or stay up late? I’ve been an early riser since my teens – I find I have plenty of mental clarity and self-discipline first thing in the morning, whereas my brain seems to turn to mush in the evenings!

There’s no inherent virtue in being an early morning or a late night person, and while you definitely can try to shift one way or the other, it’s easiest to just work with what you’ve got.

If you have any control over your hours, can you start earlier (if you’re a lark) or later (if you’re an owl)? Of course, that’s easiest if you work for yourself – but many employers are becoming more flexible about working hours now. If you feel that a shift genuinely would make you more productive, try asking!

Peaks and Troughs of Energy

Throughout the day, you probably find that there are regularly times when you focus well – or not! Again, I’m a morning person here: I get most of my creative, energy-draining work done before lunch. Others find that they need much of the morning to get going, and make big strides in the afternoons.

This might seem obvious, but it will really help if you can do harder work – like writing, designing, brainstorming and planning – during your “peak” times. Leave more routine tasks – most emails, phone calls, filing, photocopying, etc – for times when your energy is at a low.

In some cases, this might mean having a think about your normal working habits. If you regularly start the day by answering emails, would it be more effective for you to spend those first couple of “peak” hours working on something more high-level?

During times when you know you’re going to be struggling to focus, be particularly wary of letting distractions creep in. It’s all too easy to end up reading blogs, answering emails or playing around on Twitter or Facebook – and, often, distraction can become a vicious cycle. If it’s a real problem for you at particular times of day, look into software which will allow you to block websites during those hours.

Keeping Meetings and Appointments Outside Your Peak Times

I’ve got Charlie Gilkey of Productive Flourishing to thank for this tip, in How Much is Your Creative Time Worth?

Let’s imagine that you have the option of going to a doctor at 10am – right during your creative peak – or 4pm – when you’re off-peak. Let’s also say it’ll cost $60 to visit the doctor and your creative time is worth $128. If you choose to go at 4pm, then the net value of the visit is $100. If you go in the morning, it’ll be $188. If the receptionist at the doctor said that it’d cost you $88 extra to visit in the morning, I’m sure you’d choose to go in the afternoon. Left to our own devices, though, we’ll give up that $88 without thinking about it.

Perhaps because I’m a “morning person”, I used to invariably schedule appointments at around 9am or 10am – generally because I hoped the doctor/hairdresser/etc wouldn’t be overrunning already at that hour! However, taking a big chunk out of my morning means I lose my best productive time – whereas having the same appointment in the afternoon would only take time which I’d be spending on routine admin or chores.

Do you have a bad habit of scheduling appointments or meetings during times when you’d be better off at your desk? Can you adjust any of these?

Staying Productive Throughout the Day

Even when you’re working with your natural peaks and troughs, it’s still a good idea to do what you can to keep your energy levels up. For most of us, that means following some simple good health practices like:

  • Drinking plenty of water – dehydration saps your concentration.
  • Eating sensibly: neither too little nor too much. If you regularly find yourself sleepy after lunch, try eating a lighter meal and having a small snack mid-afternoon.
  • Getting sufficient exercise. A brisk walk will wake you up if you feel drowsy during your working hours – and exercising during the day means sleeping better at night.

It’s also important to take breaks during the day. None of us can concentrate fully for long at a time (many estimates suggest that we can stay focused for about 45 minutes and then need to take a break). You might try taking, say, a ten minute break every hour, or working for a couple of hours then having half an hour’s rest.

When you do take a break, make it a proper rest – answering emails or doing the dishes isn’t really a “break”! For maximum rest in minimum time, try sitting in silence for a few minutes, perhaps with your eyes closed. It’s surprising how taking just five minutes like this can help you get perspective on your day – and can help you refocus and concentrate on the next task.

How do you stay productive each day? What practices have you found which help you make the most of your energy levels – or what stories can you share of when things haven’t gone so well?

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