How to determine your own productivity period

Every day, there seems to be something new to digest, process or adjust to. The ripple effect of COVID-19, the novel strain of the coronavirus has impacted nearly every industry and country globally seems to just keep on going. One of the biggest shifts for many professionals is learning how to work remotely. And as many have quickly realized, it’s not always easy to remain focused when your bed is nearby, you spend all day in pajamas and all meetings are conducted via video chat. While creating a routine and trying to recreate normalcy can be beneficial, the truth is, not everyone is motivated at the same time. 

And that’s okay! Research explains everyone experiences different productivity peaks—whether first-thing in the morning, midafternoon or late evening. Learning how to optimize your schedule to effectively take advantage of these will set you up for success. The first step is figuring out when you’re the most on your A-game. Here, experts shed insight on how to navigate the wild west of remote work and keeping yourself accountable from afar:

Experiment with different scenarios

As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. It can be tough to know when your attention span is peaked without trying different times of the day. As Spencer Waldron, the head of remote work and director of global communications for Prezi shares, he’s been remote for six years and it’s taken him many trial-and-errors to strategize his schedule. Because most of us need a solid mix of heads-down work and collaborative meetings, it can help to carve out time blocks to test your skills.

Once you figure out the best periods, guard them in your calendar. “It is vitally important to partition your day to find and make the most of your peak productivity times. For me, I start the day going through emails and then spend the morning on any deep work such as writing or brainstorming, as I found it to be my most creative time of day,” he explains. 

However, in the afternoon, he takes care of all meetings and administration work, which can still be conducted when he’s active but perhaps, not as imaginative. It may be opposite for you, or a mix of both. Whatever the case, try to structure your day by prioritizing your brain’s preference. 

Avoid the energy tax

Hassan Riggs, the founder, and CEO of Smart Alto says it best when he describes energy is finite. We all wake up each day with a limited supply—and every decision we make has a cost or an ‘energy tax.’ What’s that mean? Where we put our attention is. To help keep our levels as high as possible, avoid those situations where we have to make one choice after another, Riggs suggests. As an example, he explains leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs intentionally avoid making unnecessary decisions—like choosing what to wear or what to eat for lunch. If your energy is peaked in the morning, get going on your tough stuff, ASAP. “You should focus on meaningful assignments one at a time before decision fatigue settles in,” he continues. “Do your most challenging work when you have the brain energy and willpower to think things through.”

Stay in your zone when you’re in it

Not-so-fun fact: research conducted at Microsoft concluded it takes an average of three minutes of working on a single task before we’re interrupted, and then about 20 minutes to return back to that task, according to Mary Czerwinski, a Microsoft partner researcher. “Imagine every time that happens throughout the day—that’s a lot of wasted time,” she notes. That’s why it’s essential to capitalize on those minutes or hours when ‘you’re in the zone’ by avoiding any and all distractions you can. These include Slack messages from your co-workers, text messages from your pals or social media notification. Place value on when everything is flowing so you can use it to your advantage. If you can’t practice self-control on your own (hey, we’ve all been there!), there are many tools available that will turn off all notifications for a set amount of time. Or, better yet: simply turn off your WiFi if you don’t need it to save yourself the temptation.

Choose the telescope over the microscope.

Waldron says many of us choose to look through a microscope by getting stuck in the details and letting the day take us from one task to another. This can leave us feeling like our schedule isn’t ours but rather, dictated by surrounding forces around us. To optimize our productivity, it’s better to take a step back and look through a telescope so we can see a clear picture of our work and responsibilities. This gives us the unique perspective and opportunity to restructure. How can we do this? Waldron suggests keeping a journal for a week or two that outlines how you spend your time and what your energy levels are throughout the day.

“While you are keeping time, don’t analyze what you do or how you feel: just write,” he continues. “At the end of the journal period, look for days and time periods where you lost time, when you were the most productive and where your energy and attentiveness are at its highest. As you analyze your work process and determine patterns, start to structure your day according to what you consider wins.”

Remember, productivity periods may vary, dependent on the task.

Not all work-related responsibilities are created equally. After all, it’s easy to go through emails, respond, file and sort. But to create a 10-page proposal or a 20-slide presentation? More is required out of your brain. That’s why the morning is best for some people to focus on difficult, mental-heavy tasks, while others savor the quiet of the evening. As career coach Nancy A. Shenker explains, it’s not just about the person…it’s about the task. “I am definitely a morning person when it comes to certain kinds of writing. If I don’t get a writing project done by 1 p.m., it’s probably not happening. However, I can post on social media, create spreadsheets, or talk to people at all hours. I plan my workload accordingly,” she shares.

Don’t underestimate the power of fresh air.

When was the last time you got up, opened the window and breathed in fresh air? Especially when under a stay-at-home order, it can be easy to go days without enjoying the great outdoors. However, when we aren’t feeling productive, a short break can make a big difference. “Our research has shown that that brief time can significantly increase your creativity. Walk outside if possible before heading back to the screen to continue the project you were working on: it will revive your inspirations,” Czerwinski shares. “You’ll be more energized and should be able to focus and make better-inspired decisions post-break.”