The most productive people know when to work and when to recharge, and they protect this workflow fearlessly.
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For as long as I can remember I have been a morning person. I need seven hours of sleep on the regular, and I do my best thinking in the morning. Mornings are my time for solo creative work; afternoons are perfect for collaborative group projects and meetings; evenings are strictly downtime. If I am feeling particularly inspired, a post-dinner burst of energy might come, but more often than not my work schedule is dictated by the day’s light. Once the sun sets, I stop working.
Over the years I have learned a lot about where I draw my energy, when I need to recharge and take a break, and where I will find my best streaks of focus and productivity. And the more I learned about my work habits, the more productive I got.
Friends have often called me disciplined, but I didn’t give it much thought–I was simply working at the times and places that made the most sense to me. It wasn’t until grad school, when I had the luxury of structuring my day to optimize my best thinking hours, that I realized I might be onto something when it came to time management.
I wound up getting two master’s degrees and ghostwriting a book at the same time–and it was in fact much easier than it sounds. I wasn’t spending 12-hour days in the library or reading books on productivity. Unwittingly, I had simply found my natural productivity zone and stuck to it. And that had made all the difference.
While I can’t promise you a book deal, I can promise that these tips will help you work smarter, not harder, and get better work done in less time. First things first: Let’s help you find your natural productivity zone.
How To Find Your Zone
Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly to find your zone:
Are you a morning person? Be honest. Not everyone is. We all have weird work schedules. Do mornings make you sing or struggle?
How about the rest of your day? If you were to rank your day by how much energy you have at any given time, how would you rank your afternoons, early evenings, and late evenings? Try using a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 stands for low energy, and 10 is off-the-charts fantastic. How much do you get done during each of those stages? When do you feel best? When are you most exhausted?
When do you like to do your most strategic work? When do you like to do your most reactive work? Strategic work includes anything that requires you to create. If you’re consuming before you’re creating, you’re likely doing reactive work. Things like emailing fall into the reactive bucket.
Do you prefer collaborative work or independent work? Why? Which do you gain more energy from? If there are specific people you find to be more draining, you can note those, too (just don’t share it with anyone!). Austin Kleon calls them vampires.
How much does your environment impact your workflow? What do you need to set your workspace up for maximum productivity? No noise or ambient noise? Coffee first or straight to the office? City view or mountain view? Clean workspace or cluttered creativity? Think about the spots where you get your best work done. What do they have in common?
How do you know your work is done? I prefer to mark a limit to the day’s work before beginning the next. I know my work is done when I’ve crossed things off my list, crumpled up and tossed out the day’s Post-its, and delegated outstanding tasks to the right time and day for the week. The sun setting is another obvious signal for me that it’s time to stop working, but for others that may signal that it’s time to get started!
When you need to recharge what do you do? Is that something you can bring into your workflow too? I go to coffee shops and draw. If I can sketch my way through a brainstorm, I’ll take it.
Sticking To Your Zone
Knowing your zone is only half the battle–you have to defend and honor it, too. That takes discipline (and chutzpah). Set guidelines and boundaries to protect your zone so you can work when you know you should and stop when you know you shouldn’t. If you’re not your own boss, how do you work within your zone, when you’re also working within someone else’s?
Try these strategies:
Beat people to scheduling meetings. You know when your productivity zone is, and when you’re best suited for meetings. The advantage to booking meetings first? You get to schedule a meeting that’s convenient to your zone.
Schedule every day strategically. Block out thinking time on your calendar for when you’re most productive. Think too about where you will do that work. If you work best in quiet environments, find a quiet place or conference room to work from uninterrupted during that stretch of time. If you need ambient noise for thinking time, plan on taking a walk outside, or tuning into a coffee shop soundtrack. Schedule tasks that take less cognitive load like email replies or paying bills for the time of day where you’re ready to operate on autopilot. Arm yourself every day with the right time frame to get the right work done.
Set expectations by aligning your email habits with your zone. If you don’t want people to expect an email response within an hour, don’t respond within an hour. Set the tone at work from the start: Choose a reasonable time frame, and stick to it.
My email limits: I don’t answer on weekends, before 9 a.m., or after 6 p.m. No shame to it–this is totally reasonable. People will respect consistency–it’s inconsistency that raises eyebrows: “She used to always respond to my emails right away, but no longer does!”
If there are urgent emails you must respond to, you can always respond with a quick note of when you’ll be able to provide a thorough response back.
Get the right dose of solo and social time. If you’re going to a conference all day, do you want a quiet dinner at night? If you’re working from home all day, would a dinner party that evening do? Know your social versus solo balance for productivity and strive to strike a balance every day.
Say “no.” When it’s reasonable to push back, allow yourself to say “no” to things outside your zone. Some obligations are exceptional and can’t be helped–say, your in-laws coming into town at the last minute, or your boss asking for a report by EOD instead of EOW–but not all of them are. As long as your job or relationship isn’t in jeopardy, excuse yourself from those that go naturally against your zone when possible.
Help others understand your decision by explaining your reasoning or by offering an alternative time or solution instead. I like to schedule a 30-minute buffer after our team meeting to tackle whatever we’ve covered that week. Be flexible when the situation calls for it; be firm when it doesn’t.
The more you practice defending your zone, the easier it gets. Dig your heels into it. It’s worth it.
About the author
Ximena Vengoechea is the author of Listen Like You Mean it: Reclaiming the Lost Art of True Connection. Her writing on personal and professional development, productivity, creativity, and work relationships has appeared in Fast Company, The Muse, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Inc., among other publications
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