How To Seize Your Most Productive Hours To Get Things Done

Getting into a flow isn't easy when so many obligations are grabbing at your prime time. Here's how to tame the day.

It’s standard time management advice: match your most difficult tasks to your most productive times. But what if seizing your most productive hours is easier said than done?

I was thinking about this question the other day while studying a time log I received for my Mosaic project (a book I’m writing on how professional women with kids spend their time). This particular engineer kept track of her time for a week and noted that she got into a real flow at work right around 4 p.m. The major meetings were done, and so were the interruptions. She’d been mulling over her problems and had put together solutions. Unlike some of us, she still had enough energy to conquer the world.

The problem? She needed to pick up her kids from after school care. Add in buffer time for traffic and she was getting precious few of these peak minutes to work.

While not everyone has the same situation, the inability to use peak hours as you wish is a common problem. Some people find themselves on a roll at 10 a.m.--just in time to be required to attend a daily team meeting. Night owls want to work until 1 a.m., but with clients expecting alertness at 8 a.m., these nocturnal sorts have to cut into their best hours or risk chronic sleep deprivation. Or maybe you show up at work at 8 a.m. ready for anything, but your colleagues all feel the need to ease into the day by stopping by your desk to chat about the weather. You don’t want to be rude, but all the while, this productive window is slowly closing.

The inability to use peak productive hours for productive work contributes to people feeling like they have no time. They do have time, they just don’t get to use it as they want.

Fortunately, there are many ways to deal with this problem. In the engineer’s case, she’d come to a brilliant realization: just because something doesn’t work every day doesn’t mean it won’t work at all. She and her husband decided that he would pick the kids up one day a week, so she could stay in the flow until the late evening exercise class she’d signed up for that particular day.

This engineer also had some extended family around. So one day per week, the kids went to Grandma’s after school. Grandmothers are usually more flexible about pick-up times than schools or daycares.

That gave her two afternoons when she was exempt from the hard-stop. Getting to work through your most productive hours two days a week isn’t bad. If she felt frustrated on Tuesday while leaving for pick up, she could remember that Wednesday was just around the corner.

This same thought process can help in any situation that puts your best hours at risk. Remember to think in terms of 168 hours (a week) not 24 (a day) and look for ways to carve out space just once or twice a week. If you keep getting interrupted at 8 a.m.--when you work best--maybe you can work from home one day a week and start whenever you want.

Or if you work in more of a face-time culture, one day a week you can say hello to your boss and colleagues, briefly, then ensconce yourself in a faraway conference room for an hour. When earth doesn’t crash into the sun, you can try doing this two days a week. Night owls can try arranging a calendar to have one day with no obligations before 10 a.m. That makes the night before free game.

When you get to use your most productive hours sometimes--even if not all the time--you can make a lot of progress. And progress is motivational. Indeed, it may even inspire you to take bold steps to free up this time more often, like trying to kill those 10 a.m. meetings once and for all.

Have you figured out your schedule to be able to work at your most productive times?

[Image: Flickr user Bert Kaufmann]

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