In a perfect world (or, at least a more efficient one), you could be productive whenever you wanted. Just sit down and start typing/put that pen to paper/invent the next app or Fidget Spinner. Unfortunately, productivity isn’t as easy as just plugging in for humans—we experience energy and creativity peaks and valleys. Those valleys are necessary—they’re your brain and body telling you that you need a break.
While you can’t (and shouldn’t) eliminate the normal, less productive times in your day, there is a way to recognize when you’re most likely to be at your performance best, and optimize it. While your productivity goals will always benefit from smart time management strategies, they’ll also get a boost when you know what part of the day is optimal for you to work at your most challenging and creative tasks.
It’s Ultra(dian) Easy
Humans run on a 24-hour internal “clock,” which is why we all typically go to sleep, wake up, and experience alertness peaks and valleys around the same time every day. The times may be different for everyone, but the cycle is universal. We refer to that 24-hour cycle as a “circadian day;” within that 24-hour circadian day, we cycle through periods of 90-minute blocks of productivity and heightened focus. Those blocks of premiere productivity time are known as “ultradian cycles,” and the manner in which we cycle in and out of them is called our “ultradian rhythm.” The start of each ultradian cycle is where your brain is most energetic and focused. Eventually, your energy slowly depletes. At the end of each ultradian cycle, you can keep working, but you simply won’t be as effective. Your brain needs downtime.
So, since pushing through that downtime means you’re working with less than optimal focus and energy productivity researchers are suggesting a new approach. When you find your peak productivity times—your personal ultradian rhythm—that’s when it’s prime time to tackle projects involving creative strategizing, problem-solving, and critical decisions. Hit the hard, challenging, out-of-the-box stuff during these peak phases. You can save more routine tasks, less complex problem-solving, and other less brain- and creativity-intensive work for your naturally-occurring ultradian valleys. Think of them as your focus refractory periods.
To be more productive, then, you need to know when your ultradian cycles are. Finding out is easier than you think.
Gather Data on You
While it’s easiest just to announce that you’re a night owl and you should, therefore, work later in the day, or that you enjoy your morning hours, consider applying a more systematic approach. Gather some data. At the same times each day, at roughly hourly intervals, record your levels of focus, enthusiasm, and energy. To account for changes to your daily routine, be sure to add a note about anything which may be affecting your scores for that day.
PRO TIP: Here’s a template you can use in Evernote to track your circadian rhythms. Rate yourself hourly using a 1-5 scale.
After just a few days of data gathering, you’ll start to see a pattern developing of when your focus, energy, and enthusiasm appear highest and lowest. Stick with logging in your data, and after a week or two, you’ll have some consistent indicators of what times of day or night your ultradian cycles will be available to help you boost your productivity.
Work Your Data
Now that you know when it’s likely you’ll have the most energy and focus, it’s up to you to optimize those periods of time for spans of uninterrupted time to work or create. An example of a productive ultradian cycle workday might go something like this:
- 8:00 am: Your data shows you tend to hit an ultradian cycle as soon as you start your workday. Get settled at your computer, focus on your project for a 90-minute burst.
- 9:30 am: Break time! Get up and walk to the coffee maker, take a lap around your building, or take the dog out for 20 minutes.
- 10:00 am: Refreshed, head back to your desk and begin your second productivity work burst.
- 11:30 am: When you’ve hit your limit, it’s time to turn your attention to a variety of less focused work for several hours, like touch-base meetings with colleagues, returning emails, and other daily tasks.
- 3:00 pm: Finish up the afternoon (or evening or middle of the night, depending on how you work best), with one last 60-minute productivity cycle.
Peak Productivity Preparation
Don’t waste your peak productivity time by being underprepared. You want to spend your ultradian cycle time solving difficult problems, pursuing elusive answers, and digging deep for your most creative solutions. Do some prep work ahead of time so that when you turn your attention to your project, you don’t have to stop in the middle of a great work sprint to recharge your laptop, or step away after from drafting your work proposal after only 20 minutes to turn off the stove. Now is your time to be focused, alert and in full concentration mode. As much as you can, clear your environment of outside interruptions and unnecessary distractions.
Although we’re suggesting blocks of 90-to-120-minutes of productive time to correspond with your ultradian cycle, the truth is, you might only get an uninterrupted few minutes. Finding out when you work best at peak productivity is only half the battle. Outside influences like coworkers, bosses, phone calls, and kids, can intrude with startling frequency. You’re not always going to get as much done as you’d like, and you can’t help that.
All you can do is figure out when your ultradian cycles happen and try to schedule your day so that you can hit that sweet spot where interruptions will be lowest, intersecting with your highest energy cycle. Tend to work between 10 am and 2 pm, but your colleagues tend to get chatty around noon? Instead of surfing the internet until 11:45 and then scrambling to get something done in the last 15 minutes, hit the ground running at 10.
For others, it’s not the outside interruptions that cut into creative time as much as it’s their internal rhythms: Not everyone hits their ultradian cycles in the exact center of a typical workday. Again, you may need to figure out creative ways to make the best of your ultradian cycles. Some folks work best in the wee hours of the morning; going to bed a little earlier and getting up before the sun allows them the quiet and focus they need. For others, they do their best work once the office has mostly emptied out for the day.
The Post-Lunch Slump Hits Again
While the least productive time, generally speaking, to get work done is once you’ve hit more than 50 hours in a work-week due to brain fatigue, research indicates that the post-lunch slump is the main contributor what tends to be the least productive time of day: 2:55 pm. That’s a good time to get up and move around to get you through the final push of the workday.
You Can Work Smarter
Harnessing when you’re firing on all cylinders is a great way to get more done, and done better. But remember, the goal is to be more productive during your peak times, and downshifting when you’re not going to be as efficient. You aren’t trying to speed up your work assembly line. You want to find out when you work more effectively. By discovering when you experience peak productivity times and then using those times most efficiently, you can also experience needed and necessary downtime without the nagging sense of guilt about whether you should or could be doing more.