Most of us approach our work days incredibly inefficiently, then wonder why we’ve accomplished so little by the end of it.
Along with constant interruptions, inefficient scheduling may be a big culprit. The fact is that all time is not created equal. You may set aside two hours to work on a specific project, but if you choose 9 AM to 11 AM, when you may be more focused, you’ll have vastly better results than if you choose 1 PM to 3 PM, when you may be in the grips of an after-lunch lull.
I’ve always known this, but last week I read about the idea of a creating a productivity heat map by Charlie Gilkey on Productive Flourishing. The idea is to map how productive you are throughout the day in order to learn where your personal hot spots and low points are. Gilkey provides a heat map template in that post if you want to do your own.
Finding your average
My initial objection to this idea is that my schedule varies quite a bit based on external factors. How on earth could I come up with a standard? I decided to fill in a heat map for a week in order to get my productivity average. I printed out Gilkey’s template, then draw concentric rings to divide it into seven parts. As I went through my week, filled in the rings concentrically to get a pictorial idea of how my days look. You could also use a time-tracking app like Toggl to figure out what you’re up to when.
I already knew that once I clear away distractions I can have a pretty solid productive streak in the mornings, and another from about 3:30-6:00 pm, but it was helpful to see that down on paper.
Keep notes as you go on what you were working on, as well as on things like what derailed you, whether or not you were hungry, or what you did to get yourself into the zone.
Matching task with energy levels
Once you see where your productivity hot spots are, you can schedule your daily tasks accordingly. I’m learning that the best time to schedule phone calls or to plan research times is from 11:30-2:30, when I’m less able to focus on high-level creative projects. It’s also a great time for me to get out and run errands, or tackle physical projects. I can still be physically productive, but if I try to struggle through a creative project I often get so frustrated that I never get back into the flow of work during my afternoon hot spot.
Try to set aside your productive hot spots to work on big creative tasks, and schedule meetings, emails, and other low-energy tasks during other parts of your day.
Keep in mind that high-productivity periods may not be created equal, either. For example, I can sometimes get into a fantastic after-dinner creative flow that can last for three or four hours. This is a good time for me to dive into art projects, sewing projects, first drafts of fiction, or other flights of fancy, but it’s a terrible time for me to do any technical writing, client work, or editing. That’s best left for the bright light of day.
Keeping your flow time sacred
Knowing when you do your best work and scheduling yourself accordingly is only half the battle. The other half? Fighting like hell not to let yourself get distracted.
Even if you can get your coworkers on board with your schedule, the hardest part can be to get yourself on board. Try using Pomodoro technique, or some other way of delaying that urge to check email or get distracted by low-priority work. I keep a pad of paper by my computer, and every time I think “Oh, I need to email so-and-so,” or, “I forgot to call my sister back,” or “I should probably surf Pinterest for inspiration for painting the downstairs,” I can just jot myself a note about it and tackle those items later.
Try an app like Freedom ($10), which blocks you from accessing the internet for a specific period of time. You can set it to block the next however many minutes, or you can even schedule blocks ahead of time. I’ve automatically blocked 6 to 9 AM out, since my focusing willpower is incredibly weak first thing in the morning, and I was wasting hours “getting ready to work.”
A few other apps to try: Anti-Social ($15) blocks only the social parts of the internet, while StayFocused (free) allows you only a set amount of time per day on time-wasting sites like Facebook and Twitter. You can customize both those apps with your own time-waster sites (like Apartment Therapy, for me).
Pay attention to physical factors
In his post, Charlie Gilkey lists the physical factors that optimize his creative time, like drinking plenty of water, getting up to stretch and walk, and eating healthy meals. As you work on your heat map, pay attention to physical factors that may be affecting your productive streak. I can make it from breakfast to lunch without a snack, but I take a serious nose dive around 3:30 if I don’t have a snack around then. I started keeping trail mix at my desk, because I kept finding myself in the kitchen scrounging for food at 3:30, then getting distracted by things that need to be done around the house. If I can just reach into my drawer and grab a handful of trail mix, I don’t have to leave my desk and get off track.
Experiment with your own day. Try getting up and walking around every hour. Try increasing your water intake. Try eating more protein for breakfast, cutting out caffeine, adding in caffeine, or whatever you think might help.
Have you ever mapped your productivity? What trends did you find?
Great ideas here! I love being productive but get distracted by so many things going on. I like the idea of trying a heat map for a week to see what trends i can uncover. I’m definitely going to share this with my team.
Great tips. I’ve also started using a larger (A5 size) paper planner this year to jot down and keep all my “oh I need to do this later” items. Then I’ll use the Dash/Plus system http://patrickrhone.com/dashplus/ to keep them organized.