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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 work standard office hours, 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. Everyone goes through productivity slumps during the workday, and yet they still try to power through and keep working, even if it means substandard output.

This often leads people to work evenings and weekends to make up for their less-than-productive workday hours. This is especially true of business owners – a recent survey by The Alternative Board (TAB) found that  84 percent of business owners put in well above 40 hours of work per week, and 1 in 10 feel continuously overwhelmed by their workload.

But Kelly Allder, vice president of people programs at Ceridian, noted that logging more hours doesn't necessarily add up to productivity.

"This shift in office culture should not be the standard daily activity [for] maximum productivity to be restored into the workplace," Allder told Business News Daily. " [Being more productive starts with planning out your workday. Here's how to do it right.]

There's a scientific reason that working too much kills productivity: According to an infographic by project management software Podio, 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 daily habits, as well as your energy and focus levels. For example, you likely know whether you're an early bird or a night owl based on when you're feeling most alert and attentive.

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. In fact, the TAB survey found that 35 percent of respondents cited poor time management as their top productivity killer.

A 2015 user survey by time-tracking software Toggl found people face numerous obstacles in proper time management:

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

Virginia Fraser, senior communications editor at Insights Learning & Development, said that keeping an informal diary about what you accomplish throughout your work day can help you identify your productivity peaks.

"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."

Once you understand the periods of the day in which you feel most productive, you can begin planning your tasks accordingly.

"Planning is the best way to reduce hours spent on necessary, yet time-consuming tasks such as email and meetings," Jodie Shaw, TAB CMO, said in a statement. "Set aside a defined block of time each day for responding to your email and create a thorough agenda/timeline for meetings. These tactics will help cut out the extra minutes that add up to extra hours each 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 added.

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 eight-hour workday (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.

Julia Judge, customer journey ambassador for Planday and a former Podio representative, advised being 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.

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 … to explain [to your boss] 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 manager 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.

If you're the one managing, 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.

"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.

Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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.