'When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.' ~ Marcus AureliusClick To Tweet
I know you’re brilliant. You know you’re brilliant (even if sometimes you forget). But I would still be willing to bet that there are times when genuine productivity eludes you. When you just can’t seem to get going. Like wading in treacle. Or honey.
When I was a kid, I hated mornings. Ask my Mum.
The number of times she had to come in to my room and tell me to get out of bed in the morning used to drive both of us up the wall! My middle sister, on the other hand, was always an early bird. She would be wide awake (and often singing loudly) any time from about 5.00am… We got on well, as you can imagine!
A couple of years ago, though, I reached the somewhat painful conclusion that to get a bit more out of each day, I needed to get up earlier… so I did! And now I would happily describe myself as a morning person.
Today’s article isn’t about the benefits of rising early (although they are many). Today I want to talk about tuning into your own body and figuring out when you do your best work. Regardless of whether you are in paid employment, you’re an entrepreneur or you are a parent managing a busy household, understanding your own daily energy flows can be a huge help in getting a little more out of every day.
Circadian rhythms and sleep/wake homeostasis
'Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.' ~ Paul J. MeyerClick To Tweet
Every ‘body’ has their own subtly different circadian cycle. This wonder of human biology is predominantly driven by a finely balanced biological and chemical/neurochemical dance that controls when you feel awake, when you feel sleepy, and when you actually sleep.
Adenosine is a hypnogenic molecule that builds up in your bloodstream while you are awake. Only very low levels of this chemical are produced while you sleep, so adenosine breaks down quickly, allowing you wake in a more alert state. Coffee (or caffeine) can block adenosine receptors, which is why a strong cup can disguise the effects of fatigue… but it doesn’t make it go away.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland in the brain. It is triggered by darkness, creating the onset of sleepy feelings, and then counteracted by light, in the morning. It’s worth noting that the colour of the light matters too – this is why all the advice about getting a good night sleep involves turning off all your screens… they produce a very ‘blue’ light, which your brain interprets as signalling the onset of morning. It is melatonin that creates havoc for shift workers and international travellers who end up ‘out-of-sync’ with their natural daylight/night-time cycles.
In essence, these two processes operate independently (that’s why shift workers can feel exceedingly tired at the end of a busy working ‘day’ due to the levels of adenosine in their bloodstream, but have trouble sleeping because they lack sufficient melatonin. Their brain is telling them it’s time to be awake, even though they’re exhausted.
Now you’ve probably heard that exercise produces endorphins, but it has also been shown that sunlight produces endorphins too. Making you feel good.
Now while endorphins aren’t a direct player in either the circadian rhythm or sleep/wake homeostasis, I’ve included it because it helps us understand why sleep – healthy sleep – isn’t simple or straightforward. These various processes are largely independent of each other… and they interact with each other. This is why it’s not as simple as saying people are usually more productive in the morning, and less productive in the late afternoon and evening.
There is also an increasing body of evidence linking sleep (or lack thereof) with mental illness – particularly depression. If you think this is a problem for you, please seek professional help. (In New Zealand, go here.)
There is also a seasonal impact on these cycles caused by the shorter days most of us ‘enjoy’ in winter.
Productivity is biological and environmental
'Each minute is a little thing, and yet, with respect to our personal productivity, to manage the minute is the secret of success.' ~ Joseph B. WirthlinClick To Tweet
Now armed with this information about how the ‘average’ body works, you are better placed to figure out when is likely to be your most productive time of day. For most people it isn’t the late afternoon or evening – even if you think you are a night-owl!
Your body’s reaction to stress, caffeine intake, medication and a range of other factors can affect your body’s response to the natural underlying cycles above, but equally there are a range of environmental factors that will impact your productivity too. What else is going on in your workplace? When do you get the most disruptions? Interruptions? When do most of your meetings or appointments get scheduled? What are the productivity cycles of the other people around you? Your boss? Your co-workers? Your spouse/significant other? Your kids?
A really simple way to make sense of the chaos that can be the average day for most busy people is to start a ‘time-log’ (you can find a handy printable here) and record both what you are doing and how you feel energy-wise, at 15 minute intervals for a few days – ideally a week.
Then you need to step back and assess whether there are any patterns in the data.
- Do you crash after lunch?
- Do you get a second wind in the evening?
- Do you need a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning?
- Do you have a time of day that works best for ‘deep thinking’ and creative work?
- Do you find your memory gets a bit fuzzy at certain times of the day?
Then armed with this information you can do one of two things.
You can either deliberately choose to do things in a way that ‘syncs’ best with your own natural cycle – for example schedule quiet time for deep creative work when you’re at your peak mental state, then add meetings and admin tasks around some of your less productive times.
Or, if you’re like most of us and have only limited control over how you spend the bulk of your day, conduct some experiments and keep tracking your time:
- What happens when you drink more coffee… or less?
- What happens if you take a power nap in the early afternoon?
- What happens if you add meditation to your daily routine?
- What happens if you get up 30 minutes earlier in the morning?
- What happens if you go to bed 30 minutes earlier in the evening?
- What happens if you eat more frequent smaller meals throughout the day?
- Follow up on any pattern you think might be relevant…
Then, do what you can to manage your energy alongside your work so that you can perform as close as possible to your best!
I’d love to hear what tips and suggestions you have for performing at your most productive when you need to! Let me know in the comments below.
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