People who work a traditional 9-to-5 schedule know they’re not always operating at peak productivity. Productivity slumps are commonplace, and there’s often no option other than powering through, even if it leads to substandard output.
However, the pandemic forced a cultural shift as many businesses pivoted to work-from-home and flexible employment models, making traditional work hours less of a factor in project goal setting and achievement. What’s emerged is a newer understanding of productivity that accepts and respects a personally guided workday.
We all have various times when we’re most dynamic and productive. We’ll explain how to identify these periods and harness this time to improve productivity and work quality.
How to boost productivity with personalized time management
Boosting productivity isn’t about working more; it’s about determining when you’re most productive, discovering what’s draining your focus, and proactively restructuring your workday to get more done.
1. Understand that working more won’t necessarily help productivity.
Too often, when professionals don’t meet their productivity targets during traditional work hours, they work evenings and weekends to catch up. This tendency is especially prevalent among — and dangerous for — business owners who already have stress-management issues.
But Kelly Heinrich, senior director of transformation and internal communication at Dynatrace, noted that longer hours won’t make you more productive. “This shift in office culture [toward working longer hours] should not be the standard daily activity [for] maximum productivity to be restored into the workplace,” Heinrich said.
With the average human attention span at just over eight seconds and topping out at just over 50 minutes, working too much can actually diminish productivity. In fact, breaks are the key to productivity: Daydreaming, meditation and even naps can improve productivity and performance.
2. Pay attention to your daily habits.
Working too much isn’t the answer. To improve productivity, you must take advantage of your personal focus patterns. Everyone’s focus cycle is different. To maximize your productivity, you must understand your mind’s rhythms. Consider the following best practices for discovering when you’re most productive:
- Monitor yourself during the day. To find your most productive work times and patterns, pay close attention to your daily habits, energy and focus levels. For example, you likely know whether you’re an early bird or a night owl based on when you feel most alert and attentive. Note when you feel most focused.
- Note when you feel thrown off course. In addition to discovering when you feel most focused and productive, determine when you feel thrown off course. For example, if you sleep in, is the rest of your day a struggle at work? If you skip breakfast or your morning walk, is your productivity affected?
- Ask colleagues for their opinions. It can be helpful to ask co-workers when they observe you to be at your peak energy and focus and when you start to struggle. Requesting feedback about your work patterns from trusted co-workers can provide valuable insight.
- Keep a diary to identify your focus cycle. Consider keeping an informal diary about what you accomplish throughout your workday to help you identify your productivity peaks and valleys. You’ll begin to identify patterns that indicate when you’re most and least productive.
3. Determine what’s draining your time.
Next, determine what’s holding you back from getting your work done. Productive people often say their secret is excellent time management, but not everyone is naturally good at it.
Ask yourself if the following time-management obstacles affect you:
- Do you set priorities? Failing to set priorities can diminish your productivity. You’ll flit from one project to another without getting vital work done. Take a few moments in the morning or the night before your workday to prioritize your tasks and projects. Tackle your most important tasks when you’re most productive.
- Are you surrounded by distractions? Distractions can kill workplace productivity. Are you surrounded by a noisy office, or are you drawn to your smartphone? Do you tend to browse the internet or get caught up in office gossip? Are meetings draining your focus? List the distractions that hurt your productivity, and create a plan to minimize them.
- Do you underestimate the effort a task will take? Not understanding a task’s scope can lead to inadequate preparation and project hiccups. Take a moment to assess a project’s scope, dedicate appropriate planning and resources to it, and set productivity milestones to stay on track.
- Do you procrastinate? The first step toward overcoming procrastination is understanding how it affects you. Do you put off projects and tasks and avoid specific situations? Do you do things at the last minute? Try using productivity apps that can help you stay focused and organized.
- Do you multitask too much? Multitasking is often necessary for busy professionals, but too much multitasking means not paying adequate attention to any one task. Give your projects the focus they deserve.
How to maximize your most productive work time
Once you understand when you’re most productive and what’s draining your productivity, you can begin planning your schedule to maximize your effectiveness.
Proper workday planning goes hand in hand with setting priorities. If you start your workday without a plan, you run the risk of aimlessly skimming through tasks and projects with no real impact.
Try these workday planning tips:
- Plan your most productive time with care. Plan your workday with your highest-priority projects slated for your most productive time.
- Plan for necessary-but-time-consuming tasks. Tasks such as answering emails and attending meetings are time-consuming yet unavoidable parts of many workdays. It’s crucial to minimize the productivity drain and wasted time associated with these tasks. For example, set a defined block of time for responding to emails, and create and adhere to strict meeting timelines and agendas.
- Plan tasks according to your energy levels. Take advantage of peak energy levels, and note when you’re likely to be unmotivated. For example, if you find yourself drained after meetings, avoid working on high-priority projects that require your full energy and attention after a meeting. Instead, consider slotting email responses or another low-energy task during those times. Conversely, if you know you’ll be energized after working on a particular project, schedule a challenging task right after to take advantage of your momentum.
- Consider a flexible schedule. Many employers are open to accommodating remote and flexible work schedules for their employees. Remote work can boost productivity for many people, and flexible workplace options can help businesses attract and retain top talent. If you feel more schedule flexibility could boost your productivity, discuss your options with management. For example, if you are most productive early in the day, see if it’s possible to work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. You’ll avoid your afternoon slump and spend your most productive hours on vital projects.
- Schedule breaks and wellness into your day. Consider your health and wellness when you’re planning your workday schedule. For example, schedule exercise, breaks and healthy meals to ensure you’re at your best. Take time to stretch, take a walk, get fresh air, meditate or otherwise refresh your mind.
Experiment with different work patterns to create the most effective workday plan for you. Not every day will be the same, but each day can have a well-thought-out productivity plan.
If you’re a manager, show your team you respect their time, and provide workplace incentives that recognize and reward their productivity.
Rethinking productivity can pay off
Whether you work in a traditional 9-to-5 workplace or have a flexible or remote situation, understanding your peak productivity times can energize your output, keep your career on track, and boost your overall satisfaction. If you’re a manager, helping your team members maximize their effectiveness can benefit the entire organization and increase morale across the workplace.
Alex Halperin contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.