We all have times during the day when we feel more or less energized. It’s generally dictated by our circadian rhythm, which, according to Harvard Business Review, is the natural “ebb and flow in our ability to feel alert or sleepy.”
That’s probably why it takes some of us time to get going in the morning. In fact, research suggests that employees take a few hours to reach peak alertness, and even then, it only lasts until around 3 pm — a time which reminds me of a tumbleweed drifting across the screen in a classic spaghetti western film. Nothing is happening. Your morning energy has gone and time has seemingly drifted to a halt.
You can’t change your circadian rhythms entirely—after all, you’re not a robot. But by understanding your natural tendencies, you can boost your alertness and productivity all day long. Here, some strategies to try.
You knew I was going to start here. To maximize your productivity, you must begin how you mean to go on. Let’s see how you do that.
Wake up at a time that suits you
Someone recently commented on one of my posts detailing his experiences waking up at 5 am. He said that as no one else is awake yet, and because it’s so early, whatever he is doing feels more meaningful. Therefore, he focuses more and gets work done.
I can understand that. The 5/6 am hours feel somewhat ominous. People do this to jump the gun and maximize their working hours. For some, that is fine. For others, not so much. Scour the internet, and you’ll find countless articles detailing why you should arise at 5 am as if it is the elixir to success.
A study published by the American Psychological Association found that ‘morning people’ regarded themselves to be “happier and healthier than night owls.” One resulting hypothesis has considered it to be a result of the 9–5 working culture when, in fact, a YouGov study found a mere 6% of Britons work those hours.
What time you awake isn’t the most crucial thing anymore; it’s the routine itself. According to Sleep.org, your body knows what it should be doing and when. If you know you’re not a morning person, your body likely won’t be happy if you force yourself to wake up at 5 am. Instead, try to wake up naturally.
Of course, that is easier said than done. I wake up naturally at 7:30 am, which, given I work from home, is optimal. Sleep expert Matt Walker suggests sticking to your body clock, as jarring it by over or under sleeping can set off a chain of poor night sleeps. Yikes.
Be proactively lazy
No one likes having to make decisions in the morning. As you’re sliding into full consciousness, even deciding which cereal to have can be annoying. The solution? Be proactively lazy. Simple tasks such as putting out your clothes and making your lunch is a pre-emptive strike. You’re buying your brain some train tickets and dropping it off at the platform. The next morning, all it needs to do is get on board.
Author James Clear writes about IT developer Oswald Nuckols’ “resetting the room” strategy. When he leaves every room in his house, he resets it to how it was when he entered. For example, he’ll straighten the pillows and place the remote on the TV stand once he is done in the living room. He says:
“Because I do this every day in every room, stuff always stays in good shape…People think I work hard, but I’m actually really lazy. I’m just proactively lazy. It gives you so much time back.”
In the mornings, you want your time back. By applying the “resetting the room” strategy, you can give yourself a head start on the next day. That way, you can leave the critical decisions for your productivity.
Develop a routine with some exercise in
According to Trello, Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, starts his morning with five minutes of yoga stretches, while doing the following:
- Mentally recitation of his personal mission statement
- Listing three items of gratitude
- A reminder of his three significant goal areas (Health, Wealth, and Love)
Kevin, like a lot of people (including myself), enjoy exercise in the morning. I wake up at 7:20 am and begin my workout by 8. I like to get it out of the way from the start. I then do just over an hour, before coming home and getting going. A 2019 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that morning exercise improves attention, visual learning, and decision-making, according to Healthline.com. Moreover, the release of endorphins can trigger a ‘runners high’, acting as a natural remedy against stress.
It doesn’t have to be an hour of weightlifting like I do. It can be five minutes of yoga or a jog, like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Get the most significant and worst activity out of the way first
A quote from Mark Twain sums it up nicely:
“If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”
I know what you’re thinking. Eat a frog? That sounds gross. Well, that’s the point. The frog in question is the task you’ve been dreading. You can’t stop thinking about how it’s going to go, and it is all you think about when you wake up. Get it out of the way first, and you will give yourself a boost. You’ve already completed your most significant task, and it’s not even 11 am. Kudos to you.
The afternoon is a tricky one. Typically, you work through it. Due to brain fatigue, it is said that once you hit the 50-hour point of the workweek, you are at your least productive. However, research suggests that the least productive time of the day is a post-lunch slump at 2:55 pm. To maximize your productivity here, you can do a few things. But first, I’d like to take a look at Benjamin Franklin’s daily routine, as reported in his autobiography:
- 4:00 — Wake up and wash, breakfast.
- 5:00 — (He didn’t say.)
- 8:00 — Work.
- Noon — Read while eating lunch.
- 2:00 — Work.
- 6:00 — Think about “What good have I done today?”
- 6:30 — Relax and recreate.
- 9:00 — Sleep.
So, like a lot of people, he worked a lot. That four-hour gap between 2 and 6 looks perilous — it falls right in the post-lunch slump zone. Here are some ways to get around it.
Take small, intermittent breaks
Research suggests that now and then, you should take short breaks (ten or so minutes) to recharge the brain quickly. As Psychology Today writes:
“For example, researchers have shown that watching a funny eight-minute video or spending less than one minute looking at nature improves employee performance after they return to the work task.”
When I was quarantining in August, all I had to do was work. At times, I would get lost in the state of flow and find myself working for hours. But, all good things must come to an end. So, I took 10–20-minute breaks and it worked wonders.
Helpful tip: Leave the room when you take a break. Associate your desk with working and your sofa with relaxing.
Set up conditions to achieve flow
You probably know what a flow state is. The hours fly by as you become utterly immersed in your work. It is perhaps most essential when getting through the post-lunch time slump. The creator of this concept, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, says you need to do the following:
- Place yourself in a distraction-free zone.
- Have control over what it is you’re doing at all times.
After hours of work, you may go hunting for distractions. Lately, I’ve taken to putting my phone in a drawer or even putting it in another room. The simple act of putting having to find it usually deters me.
Take a moment for reflection
At 6 pm, Benjamin Franklin asks himself:
“What good have I done today?”
Self-reflection is a simple but often forgotten act that can help alleviate any negative feelings you might be taking home with you. Sometimes, when I haven’t written as much as I would like, I bash myself — ignoring the productive tasks I have done. Rewarding your effectual acts with recognition can lay the pipework for another productive day tomorrow.
Moreover, you will be able to see where you went wrong. According to research, people tend to attribute positive results of a task to internal factors like effort and ability, whereas you blame failures on external factors. On this, Positive Psychology suggests that increased self-awareness enables you to change your habits, as you can access the root of your failures.
A productive evening routine is all about setting yourself up for a productive morning. You need a good night of sleep. Less sleep, especially with the harmful effects of alcohol, can be detrimental to your mental performance. Research has found a 40% deficit in the brain’s ability to make new memories when you have no sleep compared to a full night’s rest. The hippocampus activity was much more in sleep rich and none — yep, none — in sleep-deprived brains. So, here are some ways to maximize your evening routine for productivity.
Make your bedroom a screen-free zone
In my room, I have my phone, laptop, kindle, and TV. So, a lot of screens. While it doesn’t bother me too much, if you struggle to sleep, perhaps you should remove them.
Arianna Huffington famously fainted from exhaustion. Responding, she has now made her bedroom a ‘screen-free zone.’ This way, your bedroom is for one thing and one thing only — sleeping (and maybe one other activity).
If you’re like me and don’t want to do this, adopt a different approach. Wind down an hour before bed. According to the Sleep Foundation, 90% of Americans use an electronic device in the hour before bed. Moreover, the blue light emitted from the screen delays your body clock and suppresses the “sleep-inducing hormone melatonin,” which makes it more challenging to sleep.
Prepare for tomorrow
In the past, I’ve been kept up at night when I have something significant to do the next day. Then, I get more frustrated that I am not getting the sleep I so desperately require. A simple solution? Journaling. A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests writing your to-do list for the next day while in bed.
Furthermore, researchers compared a group of 57 adults. One group was asked to write down the tasks they had completed that day, while the others were instructed to write down tomorrow’s to-do list. On average, the second group fell asleep in 16 minutes, compared to 25.
Moreover, if you write down what you have completed, you may begin to worry about what you haven’t done. Given that 41% of the tasks are never done, according to research, it’s perhaps wiser to start planning the next day.
To be at your most productive, you need to have a solid base. That involves a good night's sleep, dealing with burnout, and powering through the mornings. More often than not, you may beat yourself up for not being as productive as you thought you would. That’s okay — we all have days like that.
Just remember: Productivity isn’t a revolutionary thing. Work with your natural rhythms and hopefully, with the above strategies, you can push just a little bit beyond your peak hours too.