If you’re reading this, then you’re probably expecting some tips or hacks you can use in order to be more productive. But has it occurred to you that that may be the problem as to why you’re not productive?
I was in a cafe a few years ago reading a book and taking down some notes. It’s one of those activities I frequently do—get away from the house or office, read a book, and just enjoy my coffee.
After a while, I glanced up and saw that there were a bunch of people who weren’t there before. I put my book down, sipped on my coffee and started observing.
There was a group of friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time. They were catching up and sharing stories that made them shriek from time to time. There were some individuals who were also busy reading. In front of them was a book big enough to cover their faces. At the corner of the cafe, there was a married couple who were enjoying some quiet time with their kid eating a chocolate cake while watching something on a tablet.
For some reason, I didn’t notice them until I started noticing. I was able to concentrate on what I’m doing despite everything that was happening around me. I didn’t get distracted when these people came in nor when they make loud noises. Naturally, I’d glance up when I hear some shrill laughter from the group of friends, but I went back to my book immediately.
Looking back, I’ve noticed this ability to focus wasn’t always present. There are times when I can’t even stay put for longer than 2 minutes without switching tasks.
After trying out different productivity tips and systems, I realized I was looking at boosting my productivity from an incomplete perspective. Instead of focusing solely on what to do, I didn’t consider the when.
Do You Know Where Your Time Goes?
The first thing you need to do if you truly want to improve your productivity is to find out when you are most productive.
The only way to do this is to track where your time goes.
Don’t assume whether you’re more productive at night or in the morning. Don’t assume that you only spend 30 minutes scrolling through your Instagram account.
You’ve got to know exactly.
One of the tools I use is called RescueTime. I’ve been using them since 2015. It’s a simple app you install on your computer and it automatically tracks where you spend your time.
Take a look at one of the reports they have.
They also have a mobile app but I don’t use it since they require a 24/7 location access (which drains battery significantly). But if that’s not a problem for you, you can install it so you get a 100% view of where your time goes whether you’re on your phone, tablet, or on your computer.
You will also have to configure whether an activity or website or app is productive or unproductive. At the beginning, you’ll have a lot of time grouped as Uncategorized. Some will be wrongly categorized as productive or distracting.
This will differ depending on what you do. So you can tell RescueTime which is which.
In my case, I work in marketing. So logging into WordPress or Google Analytics is productive time for me. If I’m tinkering with code or CSS, which isn’t my strong suite, then that’s unproductive.
What I really like is that it only tracks active time. That’s the time where you’re doing something so the times you’re not in your computer (say to prepare your lunch or do some errands) aren’t included.
Let’s say you’re reading an article. Naturally, you’ll be scrolling down as you read it. That’s counted by RescueTime. But if you step away to go to the bathroom, which will most likely take a few minutes, that’s excluded automatically.
When Do You Do Your Best Work?
Over time, a pattern will emerge in your reports.
You will see roughly three phases:
- Peak: our mood rises in the morning
- Trough: our mood declines in the early to mid-afternoon
- Recovery: our mood boosts back up in the early evening
You won’t experience the same patterns at the same time, but you will see those three patterns depending on your own chronotype. For example, if you are a night owl, you will most likely experience that in reverse: recovery, trough, then peak.
Here’s how to know your chronotype:
Determine your chronotype by finding the midpoint between the time you usually go to sleep and the time you wake. If it’s between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., you’re among the 14% of people who are considered larks. If it’s between 6 a.m. and noon, you’re in the 21% of people who are owls. If it’s between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., you’re in the 65% of people who are third birds.
Regardless, by tracking where your time goes, you’ll be able to know when you do your best work.
Also, you won’t be able to cheat your way out of this. Since RescueTime tracks your activities automatically, you don’t have to start and stop a timer. You also won’t be able to edit where your time goes.
Say you claim you only use Facebook for less than an hour a day. Then after viewing the report, you realize that you spend three hours every single day.
And this doesn’t take into consideration the switching cost between tasks—where it’s said that it takes approximately 25 minutes before you can “resume” the task you’re working on after you’ve been interrupted.
So if you constantly pick up your phone to scroll through Instagram every 5 minutes, you’ll never finish the report you’re working on.
What you do with the info is another matter though.
As for me, when I reviewed my productivity levels, I see spikes in the morning, dips around early afternoon, then spike back up again in the late afternoon.
This tells me that during early morning and late afternoons, my productivity levels are higher. That’s the time my body typically enters into a zone.
Conversely, I also know when my energy levels dip.
This knowledge helps me plan out what I do.
On another note, it’s best you review this every quarter or so. That way, you get a better understanding of how you work.
All Tasks Aren’t Created Equal
Knowing when I have the energy to do work helps me allocate my limited time and energy.
Since I know I’m most productive between 9 AM to 12 NN and 3PM to 5PM, I schedule my most important projects there. That includes client work or for my own personal projects.
Consequently, that time correlates nicely with the schedule I wrote here.
Then, during the downtime, that’s when I do low-value tasks such as logging receipts into my accounting software or reading some articles to help me stay up-to-date with what’s happening in my industry.
Consider Differentiating Between Creative vs Analytical Tasks
According to Daniel Pink, a great time to place creative work is during your peak, while putting analytical tasks during your recovery periods.
This is also one of the reasons why I love working for myself. I don’t have to stick to the 9-5 routine and force myself to “work” when I’m not at my best.
It’s easier to write articles or come up with great ideas in the morning (peak) and analyze spreadsheets during recovery.
This is not a hard and fast rule, but knowing these times can help you plan out your day.
As a side note, this is already included in the values I want when I start hiring other people and start my own company—I don’t care where you spend your time, and how you do things. As long as you get the job done within a specified deadline and within the bounds of ethics, you’re free to do whatever you want.
Over to You
We all want to be more productive. Doing something more with less time is not something only the gurus can do.
Knowing where your time goes, when you do your best work, and allocating your time to do them is the best place to start.
Following other people’s routines without knowing how you work best will only end up in failure.
Did you learn something new? Do you know when you do your best work? Let me know the comments below.