Use This Hack to Schedule Important Tasks for When You're Most Productive Here is why you should map your energy cycles and plan your schedule accordingly
- Keep an energy journal.
- Pair high energy with the "big stuff."
- Consider if you need a shift.
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With summer in full swing, many of us are preparing to set off on a well-earned vacation. For me, summer means taking some time off from Jotform and traveling to my family's olive farm in Turkey. My wife, our two young sons, and I will spend two full weeks there, helping with the farm and enjoying the beautiful Turkish countryside.
A funny thing I notice whenever we go: The kids take longer to adjust to the 10-hour time difference. Although my wife and I will force ourselves to adapt during those first days, for example, staying up late despite exhaustion to ensure we'll sleep in, the kids follow their internal clocks. Inevitably, one of them will be awake at 3 a.m., ready to start the day. But soon enough, their circadian rhythms adjust to their new surroundings. They'll fall asleep a little while after the sun sets (around 8:30 p.m.) and if my wife and I are lucky, they'll sleep a solid 9-10 hours.
When we're young, we tend to be more attuned to our body's natural cycles, or chronobiology. We wake up when we're rested and fall asleep when we're tired. But as we get older, we trick our bodies into going against those rhythms with the aid of things like melatonin and caffeine.
If instead, we try to revert to our younger ways — leaning into our circadian rhythms rather than attempting to overcome them — we can not only feel more rested, but we'll have more energy to dedicate to work that matters, or as I like to call it, the "big stuff."
Here is a closer look at how you can optimize your work schedule according to your natural energy levels.
Keep an energy journal
Throughout the average workday, we experience energy peaks and valleys of ultradian rhythms, which run in 90- to 120-minute cycles. If you've ever started a task feeling motivated and energized but an hour later found yourself scrolling Twitter and reaching for the M&Ms, then you understand ultradian rhythms.
Energy ups and downs are normal. We simply can't sustain maximum focus all day long. That said, we can harness the power of our energy cycles by understanding our individual rhythms. An energy journal is a great place to start.
Author Yulia Yaganova recommends a three-week experiment where you rate your energy, focus and motivation at the end of every hour using a scale from one to 10. I've done it myself, and I can attest: You'll be shocked to see how quickly certain patterns emerge. After just a week of journaling, I realized that my high-energy levels, or "prime times," occurred just after my morning gym session, before lunch and later in the day, around 4-5 p.m.
This journaling exercise is also an opportunity to note which tasks energize you and which feel tedious and draining. For the latter, you can consider whether any steps can be automated to conserve your brain power. For the former, keep reading.
Pair high energy with the "big stuff"
Once you identify your prime times and most meaningful, energizing work, you can synchronize the two on your daily schedule.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, professor Christopher M. Barnes explains that managers who want to maximize employee performance should consider circadian rhythms when setting assignments, deadlines and expectations. Employees should also be mindful of their own rhythms when planning their days.
Barnes writes: "The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness (within an hour or so of noon and 6 p.m.). The least important tasks should be scheduled for times in which alertness is lower (very early in the morning, around 3 p.m. and late at night)."
Of course, not everyone's rhythms are the same. Flexibility is the key when planning schedules or creating deadlines according to energy levels.
Consider if you need a shift
There's no denying: Certain activities are more likely to happen if we plan them earlier in the day. Take exercise — even if you're not a morning person, you have a better chance of getting to the gym if you plan on going first thing. It's unlikely that you'll get pulled into a meeting or tempted by happy hours at 6 or 7 a.m.
Though our energy levels are naturally occurring, they are not static. In order to accomplish your daily goals, you might need to shift your natural clock. Just be sure to make the changes gradually.
As Kimberly Fenn, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies sleep and learning at Michigan State University, explained to the New York Times, waking up earlier isn't just shifting your bedtime, it's shifting your entire circadian rhythm.
Cortisol, the hormone that wakes us up, floods our system in the morning. "But if you suddenly switch your alarm clock from 8 a.m. to 6 a.m., your cortisol levels won't be high enough when it rings and you may struggle more than usual to get out of bed."
Gradually nudging your bedtime can help you to effectively shift your energy cycle.
Maximize your chances of success
You've created your energy journal, identified your prime times and planned which tasks and activities to complete at which times.
Maximize your chance of success. To do so, prepare ahead of time by automating as many steps as possible.
Chances are, you can save time and ensure you're staying on schedule using automated tools — and many of them require no coding and are free. All you need to do is put them in place, and they take care of the heavy lifting.
For example, use a calendar app to carve out time for your big stuff. When the time comes, there's no deliberating over what to do next. You simply go. If you're trying to begin a new habit — for example, doing morning pages — declutter your workspace at the end of each day and automate the tasks that usually swallow your morning hours, like sending out your newsletter, making sure bills are paid on time or verifying new subscribers. (My new book contains an index of automated tools for all of that and more.)
In the end, it's about setting yourself up for success to leverage your biorhythms and maximize your creative energy. As we go through life, we develop habits that run counter to our innate cycles. But it's never too late to reverse those habits. Take a tip from children and listen to your body's natural rhythms.