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Stage Your Day to Maximize Productivity

My dive into the notion of circadian rhythms and sleep chronotypes started with the desire to be more productive. Specifically, to avoid hours of brain fog where I would muscle my way through an activity that required sharp, focused thinking… only to find later that I could accomplish the same in a nano-second if my brain was turned on. You know, in the f-l-o-w state.

Circadian rhythm describes your natural alert or flow states during the day, e.g. when you’re most articulate or creative, when it’s best to exercise, read, take a nap, etc. They are driven by chronotypes, that is, your relationship with sleep. “Night owls” or “early birds” are probably the chronotypes you’ve heard of. Dr. Michael Breus, leading sleep expert and author of The Power of When takes chronotypes to a whole new level. He describes four sleep personalities: Lions, Bears, Wolves and Dolphins. I won’t get into who’s who, but you can discover your sleep chronotype by taking his quiz. And this is an important first step in identifying the times of day you’re most productive. 

Jump to When, the latest book from best-selling author, Daniel Pink, where we learn that most people’s circadian rhythms mirror the hours of daylight: Most lucid in the morning; start to get sleepy after sundown. The differences between a morning mind and an afternoon mind are so prolific that surgeries performed after 3PM are three times more likely to have anesthesia errors than those performed at 8AM. School kids who took tests in the afternoons scored significantly lower than morning test-takers. I’m not making this stuff up! You can read about it here.

Ebbs and flows of mental alertness are the reason why we perform differently at different times of day. Pink asserts these patterns are more predictable than you think:

“In general, people move through the day in three stages: A peak, a trough, and a recovery. And most us move through it in that order. (The roughly one in five of us who have “evening chronotypes”—night owls—generally move in the reverse order.)  During the peak, which for most of us is the morning, we’re better at analytic tasks.  That’s when we’re most vigilant, when we’re able to bat away distractions and concentrate deeply.  During the trough, which for most of us is the early-to-mid-afternoon, we should do our administrative tasks—answering routine emails, filling out expense reports. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, we’re better at insight problems.  Our mood then is better than during the trough. And we’re less vigilant than during the peak. That looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity.”

First, that’s cool! But more practically, how can we unleash this on our unsuspecting officemates so that we’re ALL more productive? I’ve seen signs that we’re not so far off. Companies are starting to acknowledge the importance of mental reboots in the form of power naps and breaks, plus sacred time for productive work. For example, Arianna Huffington will let you nap or mediate on the clock. FCB Chicago is experimenting with Meeting-Free Wednesdays. So let’s assume for a minute that your company could be receptive to scheduling that followed Pink’s peak, trough, recovery stages. What would that look like?

First, mornings would be reserved for productive work done in solitude. No one would read email or schedule meetings until all of us had a few uninterrupted hours to get sh*t done. It’d be like the quiet car on the train. After that cerebral sprint, once our minds started to get restless, we’d move toward the business of collaborating and checking in and ticking off our To Do lists. Then we’d close with something more free-form, creative, fun or social: Brainstorming, mentoring, etc.

Some of you may have seen my Maker vs. Manager vlog a while back. The Maker Me rejoices in this schedule, because it caters to making stuff instead of making stuff happen. The Manager Me says “Hey, wait a second, how do I know that others will share my work ethic and not just eff around all morning? Don’t we need a morning status?” Except that morning statuses are the same thing as say, Bulletproof Coffee. If your goal was intermittent fasting, you just blew it. Calories entered your body just like distractions entered your brain, and that fragile state of mental focus got tasered. RIP brain.

So let me present an alternative scenario: The end-of-day meeting when you set priorities for tomorrow. I’ll be honest, when Laura Mortensen, President of Sharp Communications talked to me about this I thought she was joking. She would diligently stop work 30 minutes early and move to a power-down routine. This was her time to tie up any loose ends and prioritize what she had to do tomorrow. In effect, put a bow on the day so she could transition to her second role as parent. Before you say this is unrealistic in Advertising where no one works a strict 9-to-5 day, what if we could pause around 5PM to meet with our teams and make sure everyone is clear on tomorrow morning’s productive work? According to Pink, our minds are more receptive to this stuff end of day vs. beginning of day. Plus, we haven’t slept in between, forgetting where we left off the day before. Why waste that precious morning mind figuring out where to start?!

Hey, it’s worth a shot. I’m going to try to pattern my tasks according to peak, trough, recovery for a few weeks and see if I’m more productive. Instead of Meeting-Free Wednesdays, it will be Meeting-Free Mornings. Instead of on-demand email, I will batch-process. And I will challenge myself not to work up until the last second, and instead put a bow on the day.

How about you? Do you have any productivity hacks/timing tricks that have been successful at your office?

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