If you find yourself struggling with productivity and dips in energy throughout the 9-5 workday, you are not alone. While it may seem completely natural to go to work at 9 a.m. every day and come home at 5 p.m., the truth is that the concept of a full-time 8-hour workday is a social construct that’s relatively new. That means that we’re forcing our minds to be productive during times that may not work best for us.
You may also notice that you struggle to complete certain tasks at different times of the day. That’s because not all work is the same — for example, in a product management position, sending an email doesn’t take up the same amount of brain power as drafting a product roadmap.
By understanding what time of the day works best for you to complete different tasks, you can increase productivity and maintain your energy levels throughout the day.
Read on to learn more about:
- What deep work is and why it’s important
- What science says about the best time of day to work
- Working with your body to find the best time to work
- How to schedule deep work for peak productivity
What is deep work?
Deep work is a concept coined by Cal Newport to describe an extended period of time working on critical tasks. Newport differentiates between deep work and shallow work. Deep work is the kind of work that takes up a lot of energy — it’s high level work that often requires creativity and/or critical thinking skills.
Because deep work requires a lot of energy and concentration, it can only happen successfully if you work on the task for a large block of time. Interrupting these tasks to check social media or even do smaller work tasks can take you out of the state of concentration needed to do deep work. Examples of deep work are writing a blog post, drafting a product roadmap, or writing an expense report.
In contrast, shallow work is any task that doesn’t require a lot of concentration or cognitive abilities and is easily replicated. These are tasks that you can do while distracted and often add little value to your overall goals. Shallow work includes data entry, checking and responding to emails and Slack messages, or scheduling meetings.
Both shallow work and deep work are critical parts of our workday, but it’s important to allocate the appropriate amount of energy and focus to each type of work. Deep work is only possible when you are at peak cognitive performance. This is when you feel most alert, awake, and able to concentrate for a long period of time.
On the other hand, shallow work requires very little concentration, and can be done in short bursts of time. The catch is that shallow work also consumes energy, and makes you less likely to be able to focus on work later in the day.
Therefore, it’s critical to schedule deep work when you are most awake and alert, while not wasting peak energy levels on shallow work that can be just as easily completed when your energy levels are lower.
What does science say is the best time of day for deep work?
While everybody is different, most scientists agree that people typically follow a predictable pattern that can determine when the best times to work are.
According to this basic pattern, we start the day in good spirits. This makes the morning the perfect time for habit forming activities, which is why it’s so great to work out or do physical activity in the morning. Our good spirits typically peak at noon, so working on high value tasks in the morning makes sense. Distractions are easier to ignore in the morning, and speed and accuracy are heightened in the morning as well. Critical analysis, deduction, and logical reasoning are also highest in the morning.
According to this basic pattern, scheduling deep work for the morning is a good idea. Positive feelings and increased critical thinking make the morning a great time to work deep. In the late afternoon, energy levels decrease along with critical thinking skills.
But what about someone who is a night owl?
Mornings aren’t for everyone, and some people take longer than others to feel good during the day. Even if you’re not a morning person, everyone follows the same pattern of an early peak, and an energy slump later. If you get up late, then your peak may be 3 p.m. instead of noon. As we age, too, our peak energy time changes. Adolescents are notorious late risers, and therefore have a later peak in energy, but older adults tend to be early risers.
Part of finding the best time to work is understanding the natural cycles of energy that your body goes through.
Finding the best time to work: circadian vs. ultradian rhythms
You have likely heard about the circadian rhythm, but did you know that circadian isn’t the only rhythm that dictates your energy levels?
The circadian rhythm, otherwise known as our internal clock, is a 24-hour cycle that our body goes through. It dictates when we go to sleep, when we eat, and what our energy levels are throughout the day.
The ultradian rhythm, on the other hand, is a cycle of energy that repeats many times throughout the day. Ultradian rhythms are typically 90-120 minutes long, and they control our energy levels and general well-being. These cycles typically have 90 minutes of peak performance, followed by 20 minutes of rest and recovery. Your ultradian rhythm is what’s responsible for you feeling “in the zone” for an hour, and then feeling out of focus, tired, and craving a snack.
It’s important to remember that ultradian rhythms are good. So instead of panicking that you’re already losing focus by 10 a.m., remember that it’s just the end of one ultradian rhythm. Naps, walk breaks, and snacks are all great ways to rest so that your body is ready for the next rhythm, and to avoid burnout. Scheduling breaks in your day can also help improve your work-life balance, ensuring that you have energy after work for everything else you want to do.
Deep work is best done during the 90 minutes of peak performance in your natural ultradian rhythm. It can be tempting to fill in the tail end of the rhythm with shallow work, but remember — your body and mind need rest. And while shallow work is not as energy intensive as deep work, it still does require energy and attention.
Paying attention to your natural circadian rhythm can also help you get better sleep. Getting enough sleep is crucial to allow your ultradian rhythm to continue cycling, while sleep deprivation can disrupt your natural rhythms.
Now that you know what science has to say about energy levels throughout the day, you can use this information to schedule deep work at the best time for you.
How to schedule deep work for maximum productivity
A big part of scheduling the best time for deep work is understanding how your own individual energy levels fluctuate throughout the day. You can start by keeping a journal and noting how you’re feeling every hour (or every other hour). Are you struggling to focus? Do you feel like you have energy? Do you feel like you need a nap or a snack?
Keep a log for a few weeks, and you’ll start to see patterns emerge throughout the workweek. Pay special attention to when you get your best work done. Schedule deep work for times when you have the highest levels of focus and energy. For most people, somewhere between 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. is peak energy, but that may differ for you.
Build a schedule that takes into account your energy levels. Be sure to leave plenty of room for short breaks when needed. Of course we don’t usually have 100% control of our work schedules, and that’s okay. Create a schedule of your ideal workday, giving yourself something to aspire to.
From there, you can see what you’re able to move around to approximate that ideal workday. You may even be able to speak to your employers about changing your schedule to accommodate deep work times. After all, scheduling deep work correctly can only improve productivity, which is an easy sell for any employer. If you do have control over your work hours, then scheduling deep work during your peak energy hours should be easier.
Time management skills will help you find time for deep work. An important part of deep work is that you need large chunks of time in order to truly enter the deep work state. At Clockwise, we’ve seen how giving people uninterrupted Focus Time increases productivity. Taking our natural ultradian rhythms into account, Focus Time should be a minimum of 90 minutes, and we even have a setting to help schedule meetings according to your circadian rhythm.
Meetings can cut into the Focus Time needed for deep work, so it’s important to try and schedule meetings for times when you’re not engaging in deep work. Some meetings — like brainstorming sessions — are deep work, and some meetings (those that usually could have been an email) are shallow work. Try to schedule deep work meetings for times when your energy levels are highest, and leave the shallow work emails for the end of the day energy slumps.
With Clockwise’s Flexible Meetings feature, it automatically finds the ideal times for flexible meetings to continuously create Focus Time.
Another way to get your most important tasks done during deep work is to use the “big three” method. This means listing out the top three tasks on your to-do list to work on first thing in the morning. You must complete these tasks before doing anything else.
These tasks should always be high value tasks. If there’s an important email that you need to send, consider sending it at the end of the previous day. Plan out your “big three” for the next day at the end of the day so you don’t waste peak energy levels in the morning on planning.
After you’ve kept an energy log and adjusted your calendar, you’re hopefully using your peak energy times to work deep. Even so, it can be difficult to stay on task for so long. You can use the Pomodoro method to keep you hyper focused, with plenty of short breaks in between.
Deep work is an essential part of our workday. It’s when high value, creative tasks get done. It’s important to schedule deep work for times of the day where we have the highest energy levels and are at peak cognitive performance. Follow these tips to design a schedule that works with your natural energy levels.
Clockwise can help you take control of your schedule, to increase productivity and effortlessly schedule with your team. Flexible Meetings helps you schedule and move meetings without having to send out emails, and Focus Time ensures that your team has the time they need to get their work done. Get started for free!