What part of the work day is most productive for you? While many employers might like to hear a response along the lines of, “all day, every day,” research into organizational science and behavioral economics suggests otherwise.
"Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation. Employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire," writes Christopher M. Barnes in the Harvard Business Review.
QIP's founders Beth Young and Tom Szuba have noticed this phenomenon in each other many times: Beth’s peak output is in the early morning, and Tom’s top productivity is in the late afternoon. It is so predictable for them that they often reserve those times of day for thinking deeply about an issue, writing an important report, or cranking out a proposal. After all, we all should be at our best when we have to accomplish our most important tasks. Does this mean that Beth and Tom aren’t productive during other times of the day? Of course not; they simply plan to undertake certain energy-demanding tasks during windows in which they expect to be most productive.
Peak productivity can certainly be a function of habits and routines, but it goes much deeper than that. In fact, it is at the core of our human biology—circadian rhythms and our natural body clocks. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, “A growing body of research suggests that paying attention to the body clock, and its effects on energy and alertness, can help pinpoint the different times of day when most of us perform our best at specific tasks, from resolving conflicts to thinking creatively.”
Unfortunately, according to Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke whose work is profiled in the Washington Post, the vast majority of people do not take advantage of their body’s peak hours:
"Almost 80 percent of people take their most productive hours of the day, between, say, 8 and 10 a.m., and basically squander them on things like Facebook and e-mail. I have nothing against them, but they're not something you need high capacity to do. You have very few hours in the day when you’re at peak performance, so every minute of these hours that isn't spent doing something important is just waste."
How might this affect your work? For starters, do you schedule your (and your team’s) most demanding tasks to reflect your most productive times in a work day?
"Consider this circadian rhythm when setting assignments, deadlines, and expectations," writes Barnes. "This requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others. Similarly, employees should take their own circadian rhythms into account when planning their own day. The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness … [and] least important tasks should be scheduled for times in which alertness is lower."
Of course, you can’t schedule work for your peak performance windows if you don’t know when they are… so, if you don’t already recognize your performance patterns, we encourage you to take some time to identify them. Perhaps even keep a journal to see when you feel most alert and how it affects your output. Once you get your head around these periods of “peak” time, schedule your most important and energy-consuming tasks for those windows.
As for the rest of the day? There are plenty of less demanding tasks that will fill your time—including time sheets, status reports, and desk straightening—so you’re still working a full day but, hopefully, more productively if you are using this awareness of your body’s natural performance rhythms to get the most out your “peak” windows.
If you find this to be of interest (like we do), check out the following links for more information about performance science and peak productivity windows: