It's nearly impossible to improve your productivity without establishing one important piece of groundwork: You first need to take stock of how well you manage your time, attention, and energy already. These two experiments gave me valuable intel into my time-management abilities before I set about improving them.
You're probably already aware that your energy levels can fluctuate quite a bit over the course of the day.
If you’re an early bird, you have more energy early in the morning. If you’re a night owl, you have more energy late at night. After you drink a coffee, you may feel a sudden energy boost and then a crash later on. And if you’re like many people, your energy levels may tank in the early afternoon, following a spike after a large lunch.
Energy is the fuel you burn over the course of the day to become productive. If you have no fuel in the tank to do good work, or if you’re burned out because you don’t tend to your energy levels throughout the day—for instance, by eating well or getting enough sleep—your productivity will plummet, no matter how well you manage your time or attention.
To get to the bottom of how my energy levels fluctuated over the course of a typical day, I kept a log every hour of the day to assess how much energy I had over the course of three weeks. During that period I also did the following:
- Cut out all caffeine and alcohol from my diet
- Ate as little sugar as possible
- Ate small, frequent meals throughout the day for fuel
- Woke up and fell asleep naturally, without setting an alarm
My reasoning behind this experiment was simple: by tracking the natural ebbs and flows of my energy over a few weeks, with as few stimulants as possible, I would get an accurate picture of how much energy I naturally possessed and how I typically portioned it out. I could then use that knowledge to use it more productively.
For example, I would be able to work on my most important tasks when I naturally had the most energy, or take steps to increase my energy when it dipped. Everyone is wired differently and has different energy patterns throughout the day, depending on how their biological clock is set.
After three weeks of recording my energy level hour by hour, I discovered an interesting pattern: Every day between 10 a.m. and noon, and again from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., I had more energy than at any other time. Experts refer to these peak periods by different names, but my favorite is "biological prime time" (BPT), a phrase coined by Sam Carpenter in his book Work the System.
By taking the time to observe how your energy fluctuates, you can work on your highest-impact tasks during your BPT—when you're able to bring the most energy and focus to them—and then work on your lower-impact tasks when your energy levels dip. Getting a handle on your body’s natural rhythms is one of the best ways I’ve found to work smarter instead of just harder.
Of course, your energy is just one of the three ingredients of productivity. Becoming aware of how intelligently you spend your time and attention is just as important.
Much like calculating my BPT, tracking how I spent my time every hour for a week was simple in theory but tedious in practice. I used a printed log that looked similar to an Excel spreadsheet, with a grid with the hours of the day in rows and the days of the week as columns.
Since you’re logging how you spend your time every hour (or half hour or 15 minutes, if you prefer), keeping a time log also makes you accountable to yourself every hour, instead of just at the end of the day, when you reflect on whether you accomplished what you intended to. By the same token, some studies have found that dieters are likely to lose more weight when they keep a food log. I started my first time log halfway through my project, and the results were remarkable.
These days, I don’t maintain a time log very often, largely because it takes so much effort. But every few months or so I make an effort to track how I spend my time to see how intelligently I’m using it. Of the three ingredients that most impact productivity, your time is the most limited. While there are many ways to get more focus and boost your energy, there’s no way to get more time. But without becoming aware of how you currently spend it, there's no way to know whether you're acting in ways that actually match up with your values and priorities.
This article is adapted from The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey. Copyright © 2016 by Chris Bailey. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.