Studies show that the majority of people have more energy and can focus best in the morning, usually hitting a “slump” around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and then getting some energy back towards evening. On the other end of the spectrum, “night people” tend to get going around 4 or 5 o’clock in the afternoon and have their best focus time in the evenings – sometimes working late into the night. Regardless of your personal patterns, if you plan your day to perform high-focus and executive function work (making decisions, figuring things out) during your highest energy time, and routine / autopilot tasks during your low energy time, you will get the most out of your day.
Here are two examples that you may be able to relate to:
Jenny didn’t see herself as a morning person necessarily, but she definitely hit a slump at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. This was challenging because she consistently hit her slump at the exact time she found herself rushing to meet end-of-day deadlines, and she had trouble getting herself to concentrate. When I asked her how she spent her mornings, she shared that she usually arrived at work by about 9am and spent the first hour addressing e-mails before attending meetings starting at 10am each day. By the time she came back from lunch and tried to get to her action items she often felt drained and overwhelmed. After probing more, I learned that while her meetings did require some thinking and brainstorming, they almost felt like playful banter to Jenny, and didn’t take much effort. In Jenny’s situation we made three significant shifts:
- She moved all the meetings she could to later in the afternoon during her “slump” time. The light interaction in the meetings energized her, and this gave her more time in the mornings to focus on important work.
- Jenny also changed her schedule to arrive at work earlier, between 7:30am and 8:00am. Instead of responding to e-mail in the mornings, she did a quick “scan” for urgent issues that needed quick responses and challenged herself to handle those in 15 minutes and then close her e-mail program.
- With e-mail and chat notifications off and cell phone on do not disturb, Jenny began to devote three hours, from 8am to 11am each morning, to the most important item on her list requiring thought and focus. Jenny created auto-responder messages to let people know that she would respond to urgent issues by noon and other issues by the end of the day. This helped her feel less worried about people needing her while she was trying to focus.
- At 11am, Jenny did another quick scan of every form of communication as well as checking in with her team and peers to see if they needed anything before she went to lunch.
- In the late afternoon after her meetings, Jenny sat down and cleaned out her e-mail box and organized her desk for the next day. Anything she could address in the moment she did, and anything that needed more attention, she put on her focus list for morning. While she was usually drained at this time, she knew there would be dedicated time first thing tomorrow to address issues that required extra thought. This helped her let go of those worries and give herself mental permission to catch up on administrative and organizational tasks before leaving.
While Jenny was not able to control all her meetings or interruptions, she was able to see an immediate difference in her productivity using these methods. Once she saw how much better this way of organizing her work served her, she got more courageous about negotiating meeting times and not allowing interruptions during her focus time.
As an alternate example, Danielle was more of a night person and Jenny’s schedule would not have served her as well. She struggled to get to work on time and often needed coffee and an hour or two before she trusted herself to get into any conversation that required tact. In the morning, her head was cloudy and even without interruptions she felt like she wasted time. Danielle said she was most focused once things quieted down and everyone else had left, and then she could spend hours lost in her work. She also struggled to make early morning meetings on time, to the frustration of her team.
Although Danielle did not have as much autonomy as she would have liked, she was able to get her supervisor to agree to changing her work schedule slightly as an experiment – from 10am to 7pm as opposed to the typical 8am to 5pm. The agreement was that if they saw an increase in productivity over a period of three months and her schedule did not interfere with team meetings, they could continue with the altered schedule. In Danielle’s case we made the following adjustments to her schedule during her three-month trial:
- Danielle gave herself permission to sleep in and wake up naturally in the morning. It turned out that she enjoyed doing mindless cleaning and chores around the house when she got up, and she also loved exercising after some chores as part of revving up her body. With this gentler pattern of waking up, she found she didn’t even need as much coffee in the morning.
- Danielle got in at 10am and spent most of her time until lunch dealing with issues reactively as they came to her and getting oriented and organized. This included going through e-mail and re-prioritizing her to-do list. Most of the middle of her day was then best spent meeting with people, resolving issues, talking to clients, and handling e-mail.
- As the afternoon progressed, Danielle could feel herself quieting down and getting ready to focus. By 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon she would settle in with her most important project and her thinking felt clear. She would stay at work as long as she wanted to complete her work, and regularly continued to work until 8pm or 9pm – sometimes going on to work from home until midnight.
After this experiment, her boss was pleased with the increase in productivity and understood that often Danielle did her best work late at night. They agreed that she could start work between 11am and noon on any days that there were no mandatory morning meetings. Her teammates also appreciated that Danielle was getting more work done at night and were more than willing to flex to have most of their meetings in the afternoons to accommodate her.
In fact, after more discussion and self-discovery on how honoring natural energy rhythms could help with their productivity, Danielle’s team developed a system that flexed to the needs of both the morning and night people on the team with an overall schedule that increased everyone’s productivity. This led to three schedule “rules”:
Rule #1 – Schedule all meetings between 1pm and 4pm if possible
Rule #2 – Give people uninterrupted focus time before 11am and after 4pm if possible
Rule #3 – Use the lunch hour for informal interactions and catch up
This ultimately led to a work environment that was quieter before 11am and after 4pm, and very loud and interactive between 11am and 4pm. It fed both the extroverts and the introverts, and it helped both the morning and evening people focus, increasing everyone’s happiness and productivity.
So, what’s your pattern? One way to find out is to keep a log of your most and least productive times. Pay attention to when your brain feels the most clear and able to focus and when you feel more tired or cloudy.
As always, if you’d like to dive even deeper into this subject, you can reach out to Nahid directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 714-931-2133.
Susan R Medwied
Love this- very relevant to the self employed as well as those with teams. I especially appreciated the specific examples- much easier to implement.