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Lead Your Team Personal Growth

What's Your Most Productive Work Time? How to Find Out

What's Your Most Productive Work Time? How to Find Out
Credit: Balazs Kovacs Images/Shutterstock

If you're like many of today's office workers, you begin your day between 8 and 9 a.m., end between 5 and 6 p.m., and spend the eight or nine hours in between juggling meetings, conference calls, emails and project deadlines — along with a few trips to the coffee maker to keep you alert and productive.

Sound familiar? If it does, then you probably also know that, despite your best efforts (and caffeine intake), you're not always at your peak when you're trudging through the daily stream of work. All 9-to-5ers go through productivity slumps during the workday, and yet they still try to power through and keep working, even if it means substandard output. But why do they do it?

According to an infographic by project management software Podio, the eight-hour workday evolved as a response to poor factory working conditions during the British Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. It was later popularized in 1926 by Henry Ford, who was able to boost productivity and profits by setting a fixed eight-hour schedule for his workers. This may have been ideal for assembly line employees, but it doesn't cut it for the modern, always-on workforce. [10 Easy Ways to Be More Productive at Work]

"Unlike manual work — the kind that was most prevalent when the set eight-hour day was desirable — knowledge work isn't simply about productivity; it's also about creativity and devising innovative ways to solve problems," said Julia Judge, a member of Podio's marketing team. "This often requires a little more freedom, as inspiration can come at different times, and it's usually not when you're at your desk all day."

Kelly Allder, vice president of HR programs at human capital management technology company Ceridian, noted that while today's employees often work well beyond the standard 9-to-5, logging more hours doesn't necessarily add up to productivity.

"Employees are so busy with their work that they often forget to take the one thing that keeps them productive throughout the entire day: frequent breaks," Allder told Business News Daily. "It's not uncommon for a worker to skip their allotted lunch break and quickly snack on something at their desk while completing a work-related task. This shift in office culture should not be the standard daily activity in order for maximum productivity to be restored into the workplace."

There's a scientific reason that working for eight straight hours kills productivity for office workers: The Podio infographic said that your brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes, at which point it needs a short break before you can launch into your next 90- to 120-minute period of focus. This cycle is known as your ultradian rhythm, and, therefore, it's important for you to learn your own rhythm to maximize productivity.

You can find your most productive work times and patterns just by paying closer attention to your habits. The first step to accomplishing this is conducting a self-evaluation about when your energy and focus levels are highest.

"Are you an early bird or a night owl?" Allder said. "If there's a clear answer, then schedule your work hours based on this [if possible]. Regardless of starting time, always be sure to prioritize your tasks based on importance and/or deadline. If there's a big, time-sensitive assignment on your to-do list, [work on it] when you have the most energy."

Next, determine what holds you back from getting all your work done. Productive people will often say that their secret is excellent time management, but not everyone is naturally good at it. A recent user survey by time-tracking software Toggl found that, while most people do practice some sort of time management (only about 4 percent said they don't), there are numerous obstacles they face in doing so. Among the top answers were:

  • Not setting priorities
  • Poor planning
  • Distractions
  • Underestimating the effort a task will take
  • Procrastinating        
  • Multitasking
  • Doing things last minute

Once you know what's hindering your tasks, you can work on adjusting those habits to become more productive. For instance, if your issue is prioritizing tasks (as it was for more than 20 percent of Toggl users surveyed), you need to learn how to create clear, measurable objectives for yourself to track your own progress. Mark McDonald, co-CEO of Android app developer Appster, advised using the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) methodology for this.

"OKRs ... create structure for companies, teams and individuals," McDonald said. "The benefit of OKRs is that they can be used by employees to keep an eye on what they've accomplished, but are also simple and straight-forward."

Virginia Fraser, U.S. marketing manager at Insights Learning & Development, said that keeping an informal diary about what you accomplish throughout your work day can also help you identify your productivity peaks.

"After looking at a week of this style of notes, you can begin to see patterns that could help you restructure your work day to align with your most productive work patterns," Fraser said. "It can also help to ask colleagues when they observe you to be at your top form and when you appear lackluster."

You'll want to experiment with different work patterns to see what's most effective for you. Here are a few popular ones that Podio's infographic suggested:

15-minute breaks: Plan two 15-minute breaks during your 9-to-5 day (one midmorning, one midafternoon) to break up long stretches of work.

The Pomodoro Technique: Named for the tomato-shaped "pomodoro" kitchen timer, this technique involved breaking your day into half-hour segments called pomodoros that include 25 minutes of focus followed by 5 minutes of rest. Complete four pomodoros, then take a 15-20 minute break.

90-minute windows: Split your day into 90-minute windows and assign a single task to focus all your energy and attention on for that period. Then, take a 20-minute break from work before your next 90-minute window.

Judge noted that when you're trying these patterns, it's important to be honest with yourself about how much you're getting done, how you feel about the quality of your work and how happy you are doing it. You also need to figure out how these different schedules play with the rest of your team.

"If you find something that suits you but causes a big inconvenience for others, then that's not going to fly in the long run," Judge said.

When you're able to find a schedule that works well for you and your team members, you can then start adopting habits that will make you more efficient. A clean, clutter-free workstation is a good place to start, Allder said. Keeping your desk organized means you'll be able to not only find what you need faster, but also keep yourself from getting distracted by the items on your desk.

Allder also suggested sorting your daily tasks into categories (i.e., "address now," "tackle later in the week/month," "reference materials," etc.) so you can prioritize how to address them. She also noted that the "two-minute rule" can help you get smaller tasks out of the way faster.

"If you can do [the task] in two minutes or less, do it right then," she said.

When planning out your work day, Fraser advised paying particular attention to what she called "driving" and "restraining" forces, meaning those tasks that increase and decrease motivation, respectively. For example, she said, don't set an important deadline after a meeting you know will be particularly draining for you, as your energy levels will be lower.

"In the same way, if you know you're always energized when you work on a particular topic, maybe schedule a task that is usually difficult for you to start right after that topic when you feel most energized and motivated," Fraser said.

For employees

Employers are becoming increasingly accommodating of employees' ideal personal work schedules, and many now allow for occasional or full-time telecommuting, flexible scheduling and other similar options. However, this is not always the standard, and you might need to persuade your boss to let you adjust your work time.

"Ask your manager or HR department if flextime or 'staggered hours' options are available within the organization, and if they are, schedule your work day accordingly," Allder said. "For example, your employer might say that instead of starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m., you could start at 7 a.m. and end at 3 p.m., right before the [afternoon] slump typically hits."

"It could be a good topic of discussion for your next one-on-one [with your boss] to explain how you want to take more ownership of your schedule and that you want to be judged on results ... versus clocking in and out at the same time each day," Judge added.

Regardless of whether your employer allows you to shift your hours, Allder reminded workers to schedule breaks into their days, and take their minds completely off work. You can do this by stretching, taking a walk, stepping outside for some fresh air, doodling, meditating, etc.

For bosses

If you're managing a group of employees, you need to lead by example and show your staff that their time — however they choose to manage it — is important to you. Beyond giving your team the freedom and trust necessary to work in ways that are most effective for them, you should be finding ways to discuss, recognize and reward their productivity peaks.

"Mindset is the secret to persistence and overall productivity," McDonald said. "To break through this, companies should encourage a focused mind. Remove distractions and find the right flow for clear goals, immediate feedback and a channel to discuss challenges."

If possible, employers should also consider making accommodations company-wide to help employees find a schedule that works for them.

"Employers should encourage employees to find what schedule best suits them and then provide the structural support needed to enable their workforce's ideal schedules," Fraser said.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.