Late last year, Virgin CEO and entrepreneurial-wisdom-giver Sir Richard Branson proclaimed the death of the 9–5 workday within the next decade. Technology, societal changes, and the rise of knowledge and remote work, he explained, make a strict daily schedule seem like a dusty remnant of the past.
But the best argument against the classic daily work schedule isn’t just that it’s outdated, but that it’s bad for business.
According to our research, knowledge workers have just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive time each day. That’s a far cry from the 8+ hours we typically spend at work. And while there are plenty of factors that inhibit our productivity each day (from stress and procrastination to a lack of focus) one of the worst is simply working at the wrong time.
We all know that aligning our most important work with our most productive time each day is a no brainer. But how do we really know when we’re working at our best?
How the most productive people do more in less time
If we’re only truly productive for around 3 hours a day, why spend all that extra time at work?
The truth is that the 9-5 schedule wasn’t designed for modern workers. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 mandated a 44-hour workweek to curb the 100-hour+ workweeks many factory owners were demanding (and to outlaw child labor).
But creative knowledge work isn’t the same as working on an assembly line.
As Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, explains, the most productive people often focus on just a few productive hours a day:
“There are writers, scientists, and mathematicians who work on really hard problems. And what you see is that they’ll work in the morning, have a quick lunch, and then go out for a walk for one or two hours. It turns out that during the walk, they’re continuing to gently think about the problems they’d been working on.”
What these people know is that our energy and focus follow a natural cycle during the day. And because of this, they know there’s no point doing focus-intense work when your energy levels are low.The most productive people don't fight their natural energy highs and lows. They work *with* them. Click To Tweet
When our energy is low, we’re less creative, have a harder time making decisions, and get more easily stressed and overwhelmed. On the other hand, studies show we’re up to 500% more productive when in a state of flow.
As entrepreneur Srinivas Rao told us:
“What matters more than the length of time you put into a thing is actually the intensity of focus. Because if you have an intensity of focus you can actually reduce the amount of time spent doing it to get the same or better results.”
The goal here isn’t to completely remove the less productive time you have each day. Rather, if you can understand your most productive times each day, then you can be more effective, efficient, and productive overall.
How to figure out your most productive time each day in 3 steps
Understanding when you’re most productive each day comes down to awareness, experimentation, and raw data.
Instead of relying on self-reporting or trying to track your mood and focus throughout the day, it’s much easier (and more accurate) to use a time tracking tool like RescueTime to automatically gather your personal data for you.
Let’s run through how you can use RescueTime to find when you’re working at your best each day.
Step 1: Gather your data
Once you’ve installed RescueTime on your devices, it will start to gather data on what apps and websites you’re using as well as how productive you’re being throughout the day.
After about a week of raw data, you can start to dig in and find some meaningful trends.
First, look at your Weekly Dashboard to get a baseline on how you’re spending your time.
In this case, I see that I’m spending the majority of my work hours on productive tasks like writing and design. Great! But there’s always room for improvement.
Next, let’s look into my productivity trends for an average week. This is under Reports > Productivity > Time of Day. Here’s where you get a clear picture of when you’re most productive.
In this example, my productivity clearly follows a bit of a daily trend. First, it’s the highest first thing in the morning and then drops in the early afternoon.
However, you can also see there’s a decent amount of distracting time spent during my most productive hours. This isn’t ideal and is definitely something I want to address in the next step.
Lastly, let’s dig in further to this data and look at my Top Categories by Hour.
This shows not only productivity trends but how that time is being spent right now. For example, my most productive work is writing. Knowing this, I can see that my most productive time each day for writing is 10am–12 pm.
Step 2: Schedule your high (and low) energy work times
Now that we have our raw productivity data, we can start to work this into our daily schedule. At a high-level, we want to schedule:
- Focused heads-down time during peak hours
- Meetings, calls, and email when energy levels are low
- Breaks when you’re most likely to be hitting a slump
One of the best ways to work all of this into your schedule is to use time blocking.
Simply put, time blocking is when you fill your schedule with dedicated “blocks” of time for each activity. The benefit here is that instead of being open to interruption and reacting to other people, you’ve set your ideal day already.
Here’s an example of what a time blocked schedule might look like based on your most productive times each day:
This schedule works for a number of reasons:
- High-value work when energy is highest. There’s time set aside first-thing in the morning and post-afternoon-slump for deep work (when my energy levels are typically higher).
- Shallow work when energy levels are lower. There’s time for less cognitively intense, or “shallow work” like admin and meetings when my energy is typically lowest (between 1:30 – 3:30 pm).
- Enough breaks. Time away from work helps keep your energy levels up throughout the day. You’re more likely to take breaks if you schedule them into your day.
Step 3: Track your progress and adjust
Here’s where most people mess up when they try to schedule their work to their energy levels.
Most of us have deeply ingrained workday habits. And just because you’ve blocked out your day doesn’t mean you’re going to stick with that schedule.
In order to keep up with your new energy-efficient schedule, you need a system in place to monitor your progress and help nudge you back on the right track. This is another place where a tool like RescueTime comes in handy.
RescueTime’s Goals & Alerts let you set guardrails to your day. Here are a couple of examples:
First, set a Goal for X hours of your most meaningful work in the morning.
For example, I have a RescueTime Goal set for 2 hours of writing time in the morning. This way I can track my progress over days, weeks, and months to make sure I’m keeping up with my goals.
Next, set an Alert for if you spend more than 15 minutes on social media in the morning.
Looking at my top activities report, I can see that I’m most likely to get distracted by social media during my most productive times each day.
To counter this, RescueTime will give me a pop-up notification when I spend more than 15 minutes on social in the morning. This Alert will also automatically trigger a 30-minute FocusTime session where all distracting sites are blocked.
What to do if you don’t have this much control over your schedule?
However, this doesn’t mean you can’t follow these strategies in some way. Here are a few suggestions to make more of your most productive times each day:
- Follow the peak, trough, recovery cycle: According to Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, most of us go through three stages during the day. First, a peak where we’re most suited to analytical, heads-down, and focused work. A trough where our energy is limited. And then a recovery when we get a slight lift near the end of the day. If you’re a night owl, the timing will be different but the pattern will stay the same.
- Work with your Ultradian Rhythm: One other energy cycle you can follow is called the Ultradian Rhythm. These are 90–120-minute sessions of alertness that our mind cycles through before needing a break. Whenever possible, cap your deep work sessions at 90-minutes or less to keep your energy up.
- Use “bursty” communication: Email and chat are some of the biggest distractions and energy sucks during the day. To avoid letting them mess up your peak hours, schedule “bursts” of communication a couple of times a day. Research has shown teams who work this way are more productive and creative than those who communicate all day long.
You can’t always control your day. But when you understand your most productive time each day, you can at least be sure you’re setting yourself up for success.