How to make the most of your workday

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time management strategies

Boss Magazine – 10 October 2019

Working in tune with your body clock, rather than the wall clock, could transform your productivity.

Many of our productivity problems come about because we are operating on autopilot. We don’t think about what, when or even why we are doing things; we just do them in the order in which the tasks came to us, or how they’re written on our to-do list.

Just like the default settings of a computer program, our brain has ingrained settings: if I’m hungry, I eat; if I’m afraid, I run. These settings are designed to keep us alive. Yet some of our less instinctive settings have been developed over years of learning, repetition and reward: in the morning, I check my email; in the afternoon, I hold a department meeting.

It can be difficult to change settings that feel as if they are hardwired. It takes understanding, discipline and practice. But when you learn how your body clock works, you start to understand that there are optimal times for better brain performance at work.

This means you can schedule the types of tasks you do to make the best use of your most productive time. It starts with the first two hours of your day, and continues every two hours after that.

For most of us, our most productive time will be first thing in the morning. Then by the afternoon our body and brain will be ready to switch to routine tasks. For most, peak alertness is at 10am and best co‑ordination time is around 2.30pm. How does that match up with the way you work on a typical day?

If you are like most, you rush through your day from one crisis to another, answering as many emails as you can in the gaps between pointless meetings. It’s probable that when you get home from work, you will spend the evening catching up on correspondence, preparing presentations and getting work done when your body wants to slow down and rest.

You’re stuck in a vicious cycle, and it’s doing you more harm than good.

We are generally more alert, cheerful and energetic in the morning, and we suffer with decision fatigue by the end of the day. Hence, we need to think about our work schedule more through the lens of when we are doing it, rather than what we are doing.

Difficult jobs first

Most of us work an average of eight hours a day (or at least would like to) so I carve up the day into four two-hour sessions: proactive, reactive, active and “preactive”.

The first two hours is when we have the greatest levels of alertness and mental capacity, so we need to make the most of it on the most difficult jobs or the things that require great attention. Protect this time – block it in your diary so you have greater control over how it is used.

There are three types of email: action, information and junk. In your first two hours you should only be handling the action emails.

If you are a manager in a corporate environment, this is when you should be putting together slide decks for an important meeting, coming up with a project plan, solving problems or resolving conflict with others, making important decisions, and executing considered and thoughtful replies to emails.

Do not waste time on non-important emails. There are three types of email: action, information and junk. In your first two hours you should only be handling the action emails, so get into the habit of scanning your inbox first thing in the morning and deciding what requires action, and when.

The second two hours are about reacting to others’ needs. Your intensity is still high and your alertness is good, so your ability to process information and be creative is now available for others. Use this time for catch-ups, one-on-one meetings with team members, carry-overs from the first two hours, helping out and a quick email scan.

Remember that it is important to meet wisely and with people, and projects, that truly need your attention.

Unless your workplace encourages siestas, the time after lunch is at risk of being a waste. But while it’s for our low-intensity and low-impact work, it’s still time for work, not milling around the coffee machine.

This is the time you can finally do your email. Only about 10 per cent of email requires a considered response (which you will have done in the first two hours), so now you can manage and process the remaining 90 per cent that doesn’t require your brain to be at capacity. Other things to do during this time include learning and training, filing and shredding, creating lists and even taking a break.

Wrapping up

The final two hours is usually when people have a heart attack because they realise they’ve been answering emails all day and haven’t actually got around to any valuable work.

But if you’ve been following the rules, you will find that the last quarter of the day is all about wrapping up the current day and preparing yourself for the next one. That’s why, in many respects, I believe the last two hours of the day are as important as, if not more important than, the first two.

Now we are being preactive, which means planning what needs to be done. Things that you do here help reduce the number of decisions you have to make the next day, when you start your first two hours again.

The fourth two hours is about taking the time to review what you have done and acknowledging what you have achieved and the impact it has had. Obviously, if you didn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, you need to acknowledge that and plan appropriately for the next day. Ask yourself: Was it a realistic deadline? Were there unexpected things that came up to prevent me from completing the work? What could I do differently tomorrow to give me a greater chance of getting stuff done?

Once you have reviewed, reflected and acknowledged what you have done, you may find there are a few loose ends that could be tidied up before packing up and leaving. These should be things that will have a great impact on your work, but don’t need too much intensity or brain power.

Other last-minute actions include scanning your list and email for any last-minute urgent things, compiling a to-do list for tomorrow, double-checking what’s happening the next day and printing out documents that might be needed.

Working this way gets you out of the vicious cycle of exhaustion, stress and inefficiency and into the positive cycle of energy, enthusiasm and productivity. It may take a few weeks to reap the benefits, but you will feel much more in control of the important things in your life.

This is an edited extract from The First 2 Hours, by Donna McGeorge, published by Wiley.

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