Time management has long been my Achilles heel despite the fact that I have done extensive reading on the subject. Over the years, I’ve tried various productivity strategies, yet I continue to feel like I never get enough done and am always behind on my tasks. While I’m frustrated that I have yet to become a master of productivity, I don’t want to give up, so I will keep exploring different avenues and adopting new approaches.
Natural Rhythms and Productivity
One topic that I’ve given more thought to lately is the concept of natural working styles. We all have our own unique rhythms that point to the times when we have high versus low physical, mental, and creative energy. One of the keys to increased productivity is tapping into these rhythms and using them to our best advantage. Of course, we can’t always get things done at the absolute optimal times for us, especially if we work for someone else, but most of us can tweak certain aspects of our lives to increase both our productivity and life satisfaction.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I recently started a new educational program. This program is quite intense and includes a lot of homework assignments, some of which don’t directly correspond to the main subject matter of the course. One such assignment was to track our natural rhythms over a five-day period to get a better sense of how we work best. We were directed to check in during eight different time frames each day and write a word or a few words that best described how we felt at that time. The time frames were as follows:
- Before 8am
- 8am – 11am
- 11am – 1pm
- 1pm – 3pm
- 3pm – 5pm
- 5pm – 8pm
- 8pm – 10pm
- 10pm – late
I just completed the exercise yesterday, so I would like to share my findings and what I learned. Before last week, I basically adhered to the same type of schedule each day in that I had a leisurely breakfast and did some fun reading before exercising, showering, and getting ready for my day. This routine wasn’t ideal for me, however, because I often didn’t get started with my daily tasks until late morning or early afternoon. This resulted in my not getting all that much done on any given day, especially since my husband and I usually spend time together in the evenings and I typically don’t get back to my tasks after dinner. I had a sense of what wasn’t working, but I didn’t know what to do instead.
Trying Out Different Routines
Since I wasn’t already aware of my optimal work patterns, for the week of the exercise I decided to try out a few different routines to see which one resonated best with me. Below are some of the ways I switched up my routine this past week. I realize that I have more flexibility in how I spend my time than many other people do and I’m fortunate to be in such a position. But hopefully if you’re interested in this type of exercise, you will be able to try something similar even if you’re not able to vary things quite as much. If your weekdays are pretty set in store, you may wish to try the exercise for your weekends to help you optimize how you spend your days off.
Monday: I got started working at my desk right after breakfast and spent about four hours on my tasks before breaking to exercise, have lunch, and shower. I then did another task session of roughly the same length at my desk in the afternoon/evening prior to cooking and eating dinner with my husband. I got a lot done this day, but I felt “gross” in the morning and didn’t get outside at all, which led me to feel both depressed and isolated.
Tuesday: I went back to my usual routine of exercising and showering right after breakfast, then spent the bulk of the day at my desk other than a long break for lunch. This was another very productive day, but I didn’t talk to anyone or go anywhere until a late evening walk with my husband. Although I got outside on Tuesday, it wasn’t until after dark, which wasn’t ideal. I also didn’t feel well at all that day, but I pushed myself to get things done, which really depleted me.
Wednesday: The early portion of this day looked a lot like Tuesday, but then I opted to get out for a few hours during the afternoon to run errands and go to the gym. After I returned home, I spent a big chunk of time on tasks at my desk but ended up eating a late dinner and staying up until the wee hours, which was easier to do because my husband was out of town. It was nice to get outside while it was still light out, but breaking my usual rule of not going on my computer late at night wasn’t a good idea for me.
Thursday: This was a very enjoyable day, as I spent a large portion of it with a friend after my usual morning routine of breakfast, exercising, and showering. I spent some time on my tasks in the evening, but it wasn’t a highly productive day overall. I got off my computer at 8 pm, which I was proud of, but I felt anxious because I was behind on getting my tasks done.
Friday: I intended to get an hour long “jumpstart” on tasks before exercising, but instead ended up spending two hours online before an 11am phone meeting. This was beneficial for my productivity, but I didn’t feel good not having showered by the time 1:00 came around. Although I later spent a few hours at my desk prior to meeting a friend for dinner, I didn’t feel like I got much done yesterday, which is why I’m writing this blog post on a Saturday afternoon (I had hoped to write it yesterday).
Productivity Patterns and Feelings
The above are the basics of what I did, but when I look back at my notes during the various time periods, I saw some patterns in terms of how I felt and when I was most productive. I already knew that I’m not exactly a “morning person,” so it didn’t surprise me that the main word I wrote for the before 8am segment was “tired.” The word “motivated” showed up most days during the 8-11am segment, but because I wasn’t productive enough in those hours, “overwhelm” was mentioned on all days except one for the 11am – 1pm time frame.
Surprisingly, besides the 8-11am period, my most focused and productive time was between 5 and 8 pm. The 1-3 pm and 3-5 pm segments were more of a mixed bag in that I often found myself feeling tired or head-achy at that time. By 8pm, I had generally run out of stream and was eager to eat dinner (yes, I usually eat pretty late) and engage in leisure activities then.
Lessons Learned and Alternate Options
So what can I learn from this past week’s exploration and introspection and how can I use this new knowledge to increase my productivity? I think I need to take better advantage of my most focused and determined time frames of 8-11am and 5-8pm. However, I don’t like the feeling of not having showered until later in the day. If I could manage to get to bed earlier such that I could get up by 7am, I could exercise right away, shower, have some breakfast, and get some important things done right out of the gate. Instead of doing my hair and make-up immediately after my shower like I usually do, I could wait until 11 or so when I tend to lose focus and start feeling a bit more stress and anxiety. Taking a break at that time to finish getting ready while listening to a podcast could be the change of pace that I need. It might then be time for lunch, which I could follow by some lower-focus types of activities at my desk, such as email and administrative tasks, until later in the afternoon when I feel more focused and motivated again.
Another option could be to shower right away, have breakfast, get some stuff done, and break for a walk in the middle of the day. This would also be a good time to do something social, such as meeting a friend for lunch or running errands that get me out around other people. Doing this would ensure that I get outside while also giving me an energy boost when I need it most. I might then feel recharged to focus for a few hours in the afternoon into the early evening. Perhaps I might also feel more focused during the 3-5pm timeframe if I followed this type of schedule. Evenings would also be a great time for social activities, which would be more viable if I increase my productivity during the daytime hours.
In order to better utilize the early morning hours, I need to get to bed earlier so that I’m well-rested for the day. I will never be someone whose head hits the pillow by 9 or 10pm, but I think an 11pm bedtime is probably doable for me. This would make getting up by 6:30 or 7am far more feasible as well. If I move everything up an hour or two, I would be better able to eat dinner earlier and wind down enough to get to bed on time. I’m usually not able to sleep in very much anyway and I generally lag in the mornings because I’m so tired, which results in my whole day getting off to a very slow start.
I haven’t had an optimal daily routine for as long as I can remember and perhaps it’s never happened. Back when I worked in an office, I was forced to adhere to someone else’s timeline, but that only helped so much. The middle part of my day – the work hours – were productive, but I often still stayed up too late in the evenings and didn’t get enough sleep. I never filled out a worksheet to track my natural rhythms previously, but I can imagine there would have been similarities to what I wrote this past week. My work environment and state of health were definitely different, but I was still the same person with similar physical patterns and preferences.
For at least the next few weeks, I’m going to try shifting between the two newly defined daily routines I highlighted above to see how it affects both my productivity and sense of satisfaction and well-being. I suspect it will make a powerful difference, but I’m willing to tweak things as necessary to hone in on the best routines for my natural rhythms. I look forward to seeing a positive change in the way I feel physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Now I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment however you’d like about the contents of this post, but here are a few questions to help spark your thoughts:
- What are your natural rhythms? When do you feel the most physical, mental, and creative energy and when do you feel tired and depleted?
- What daily routines have you established for yourself to maximize your productivity and life satisfaction?
- What changes would you like to make in terms of the way you spend your time?
- What would your optimal schedule be if you didn’t have to answer to anyone besides yourself?
- What time management and productivity tips have you learned that you think might help other readers of this blog?
Thank you for reading and I look forward to what you have to share about this topic (you can read other posts I’ve written on the topic of time management and productivity HERE). I also welcome suggestions for what you’d like to see me write about in the future.