There is a well-known time management technique known as “eating a frog”, which is based on the thought that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can then go about the rest of your day with the satisfaction that your most difficult and unsavoury task if the day is already behind you.
The frog is a metaphor for your biggest task and the one you would otherwise be most like to procrastinate on, with the message being, attacks this before you do anything else. (If you’re interested in learning more about eating frogs, there’s a link to a post I wrote about it at the bottom of this post.)
And many people, including myself, feel this is fairly solid advice.
However, what if it doesn’t really fit with your body’s own natural rhythm of productivity?
You see, as you have probably noticed yourself, there are certain times of day when you feel more alert than others and that is because our energy and focus follow a natural rhythm, known as Ultradian Rhythms, which move through cycles of about 90-120 minutes.
So there may be times when you are trying to tackle work that requires a high amount of focus, but your body’s energy and focus levels are low.
And you’ll find yourself easily distracted and accomplishing very little during these periods.
If you’re interested in the original research on this form the 1950s, you can look up an American physiologist and sleep research scientist named Nathaniel Kleitman.
Research or no research, most of us already know that we can’t perform at a high intensity all day long – that’s just common sense.
The key is to identify your most productive times and use that knowledge to your advantage.
How to find your most productive time
To do this requires a great deal of research into yourself, which can be both time-consuming and tedious. However, the process can reveal a huge amount of insightful information about your personal productivity.
It’s estimated that during an 8-hour workday, most knowledge workers are only actually productive for a couple of those hours each day. And while there are numerous factors involved that can distract our focus and attention during the day, one of the biggest could be that we are simply trying to be productive at the wrong times.
But how do we know when we are working at our best?
1. Track your time
Tracking how you spend a day is the easiest way to do this. Try performing a time audit, which I explain in this post. If you spend the majority of your day on a computer or phone, you could also give the RescueTime app a spin.
When doing an audit, some people say that you should eliminate any factors that could mess with your energy, like caffeine intake and staying up late.
However, contrary to this, I feel you should audit based on a ‘normal’ day and if on a normal day you drink a couple of cups of coffee, you should monitor under these same conditions.
If you change what you normally do when tracking your day, the results don’t reflect a normal day and may not be of any benefit.
Check out this post: How To Audit Your Time >>>
2. Track your energy levels
In parallel with this, you should also track how you’re feeling throughout the day.
I got this great tip from Chris Bailey, author of “The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy” and the blog, A Life Of Productivity.
He suggests tracking how you feel by scoring yourself for focus, energy, and motivation for three weeks, at the same time each day, to find the times when you’re working at your best. The longer you track your productivity, the more reliable your insights will be.
You should be able to see some useful trends even after the first week of tracking, but the more data you gather, the more reliable your trends will be.
I found a useful spreadsheet based on Chris’ workflow. You can download it here if you’re up for giving it a try.
I’ll be revisiting this method in a future post.
3. Note patterns of inactivity
There may be certain times of day when you gravitate towards time-wasting activities, such as social media and web browsing. And this may reflect times when your energy and focus levels are lower.
Be aware of when this starts to happen throughout the day and make a note of it. You could also use this data to get an idea of your threshold for attention too.
In other words, how long you can currently focus on one task without being distracted by something else.
Unless you have worked to train your attention, it is likely that you can only focus effectively for several minutes at a time, but with some practice, you should be able to get to around 25 minutes at a time and make use of the Pomodoro Technique.
If you’re not up for taking the more scientific method of auditing your time (it can be tedious, so I wouldn’t blame you), you could just try a more practical way and that is to simply experiment.
Block out a couple of hours first thing in the morning to do your more important work and stick to this for a couple of weeks and see how you go. Make a note of how you felt it went – energy levels, how much work you actually did, how often you felt distracted, etc.
Then repeat the same routine after lunch and again towards the end of the day.
You could also go as far as negotiating different working hours to ‘normal’.
For example, if you have a hunch that you are more of a morning person, maybe you could arrange to work from 07.30 – 15.30 instead of the regular 09.00 to 17.00.
If it turns out that you are more productive when working in this way, no boss is likely to complain. In fact, they are going to be happy and you are going to be using your time more productively each day.
You may also be able to use the time you gain from getting off early to get other things done that don’t require you to be at your most focused, like working out or grocery shopping.
Time Hack Hero Takeaway
The ebbing and flowing of energy and productivity are part of knowledge work. Rather than try to fight these natural rhythms, you’ll find more benefit in working with them.
At times when you know your energy is lower, schedule in the low-value tasks, such as administration and dealing with emails.
Interestingly, there is research to show that we may actually be more creative when our energy levels are low, so you could try using this time to do work that requires more creativity.
The goal of understanding when you are most productive isn’t to eliminate the times you are less productive, but to be in a position where you can manage your schedule accordingly.
Knowing when you have the greatest capacity to perform affords you the benefit of being able to schedule your tasks to capitalize on those times of peak performance.
You may be thinking that at your current place of employment, you don’t really have the luxury of dictating exactly when you work on what tasks.
And it is true that a calendar filled with meetings, tasks and deadlines usually dictates the rhythm of our days.
However, although it is admittedly easier for the self-employed entrepreneur or business owner to implement this kind of strategy, it does not mean that an office-based employee should be able to implement it in some way.
Have you tried to find your most productive time of day? Which method did you use to do this? Comment below!
[Featured image credit: Canva]