It’s classic productivity advice: Match your most important work to your most productive hours. If you do that, you’ll get a lot more done.
But this advice assumes you know when your most productive hours are. Many people don’t, says Daniel Gold, a productivity specialist and author of Evernote: The Unofficial Guide to Capturing Everything and Getting Things Done, among other life management books. "We’re too often stuck without thinking about the bigger picture," he says. If you’re constantly in reactive mode, or your life features irregular hours or travel, you may not be familiar with your own internal rhythms. Getting there is "really just about taking that uncomfortable step inwards," he says. Here are strategies for paying attention.
Ideally, you can study some relatively open days, or days you might be working from home, and hence able to approximate your natural schedule. If you’ve got kids, you might even look for a day they’re gone (e.g. at sleep-away camp) to figure out your internal rhythm. But if this step isn’t possible, just skip to the next step. Any mindfulness is better than none.
To spend your time better, you need to know how you’re spending it now. "Track what you’re doing," Gold says. "It’s nothing very complicated. It can be on a piece of paper." (See our list of 10 time-tracking apps that will make you more productive.) Write down how you spent your minutes and keep notes on how you felt. Be honest. Sometimes you can identify that you feel "on a roll," which is a good sign that you’re figuring out something about your productivity. So is feeling like you’d really like a nap.
"Patterns will show themselves if you start tracking it," Gold says. If you were able to work on a substantive project for 90 minutes or more with only small breaks, that’s a sign you’re operating at peak productivity. Conversely, toggling back and forth from one thing to the next, or noting that "I was on Facebook for 45 minutes," says Gold, is a sign of disengagement. You’ve probably figured out an energy trough.
At some point in your life you were less busy than you are now. At what time of day did you do your best work then? The fact that you stayed up until 3 a.m. studying in college doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a night owl, but it might. If you wondered why your classmates complained about 8 a.m. classes in college, look closely at the morning hours on your time log, because you may still have that trait.
Even if you’re not sure when your best time is, your colleagues and friends might have opinions. They definitely have opinions about your worst times. Go ahead and inquire. If you find out that your assistant has stopped scheduling you for meetings at 2 p.m. because she’s seen you fall asleep in your office chair too many times, that’s worth knowing.