Productivity Peaks and Valleys

Since you’re not a machine, you don’t run at optimum speed and efficiency all day. There are points in the day when you’re sharp, focused and energized, and points where you’re sluggish, mentally and physically. The key to success is working with these natural rhythms during your day, maximizing your peaks and resting during the valleys.

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Whether you consider yourself a morning person or a night owl, all humans share a circadian rhythm that is hard to counter, even with copious amounts of caffeine. We’re most alert between 10:00 and noon; after lunch, our energy levels decline, hitting a low peak about 3:30 PM. We get a second wind around 6:00 PM, then it’s downhill until 3:30 AM, when we begin another gentle upward cycle.
Some productivity experts recommend a cyclical approach throughout the day, working intensely for bursts of two hours at a time. Then take a break, do something routine or mindless, or have a snack. With practice, you’ll be able to reset your brain and achieve another burst of intensely productive work.

Others suggest a 30/30 pattern: focus intensely for 30 minutes, then relax for 30 minutes. This makes sense to me, since the same pattern works for physical endurance as well. Your body can sustain short bursts of intense activity like running, but winds down to exhaustion over long periods (unless you’re a supremely conditioned athlete.) You actually get better fitness results with short bursts of run/walk activity than running miles at a time. I suspect our brains might be wired the same way to conserve energy.

Another key to productivity is simplifying your daily plan so you’re working on only the most important things. In 1918, a man named Ivy Lee was asked to help the staff at Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time, improve their productivity. Lee spent 15 minutes with each executive to give them this simple plan for getting things done.

At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks (you could choose 3 or 5 as well – whatever works for you.)

  • Prioritize those items in order of their true importance.
  • When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
  • Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
  • Repeat this process every working day.

The Lee method works because it simplifies your approach to work. Creating simple rules to manage complex work helps you stay focused on what’s important and will reduce the chance that you feel overwhelmed. Most work days include dozens of mental decision points, moments when we ask ourselves what to do next. The Lee system eliminates most decisions – you know what to start on next.

Researchers have determined that making decisions drains mental energy. Neuroscientists have learned that even tiny, inconsequential decisions – tuna or chicken salad – take a toll on our ability to Making fewer decisions during the day leaves more capacity for reasoning and creativity.

It’s unrealistic to assume that any worker can stay alert and focused for 8 to 10 hours a day.

Almost any method you choose for pacing yourself will make you more productive as long as it includes periods of rest between activities. Forcing yourself to sit and grind when you can’t make it work is the worst tactic you can adopt. Your brain will perceive even unproductive, frustrating periods of staring at a blank sheet of paper as work, and you’ll only be more fatigued and less like to produce any quality work.

The experts recommend you take a few minutes to watch a cat video. For medicinal purposes, of course.


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