When to work: How to optimize your daily schedule for energy, motivation, and focus

How many times have you started a day on a motivational high, only to hit the dreaded 2pm crash and never recover? Not all hours of the working day are equal. And unless you’re some sort of productivity super-being, you more than likely end up riding a rollercoaster of motivation, energy, and focus as the day progresses.

This makes it incredibly difficult to know when to work and how to optimize your time throughout the day. There’s nothing worse than losing those few, precious peak hours of productivity to meetings, emails, and other distractions.

But what if instead of fighting against our body’s natural ebbs and flows we worked with them?

With a bit of experimentation, reflection, and research, you can map out when to work based on when you know you’ll be most productive each day.

What are personal productivity curves?

There are so many factors that influence how much we get done in a day. And while there are a few clear examples of ways to improve your work environment or build better relationships with your coworkers, it’s not always easy to just “be more motivated.”

The truth is that a lot of the internal things that affect our productivity are out of our control. Our energy, focus, and motivation follow their own path throughout the day—what I like to call a “productivity curve.” It’s great when our natural levels align with our work schedule and we get in a state of flow. However, this is a rarity.

Instead, we fight against our personal productivity curves (usually with more coffee), and work in a sub-optimal way. Leave this unchecked for too long and it leads to overwork, feeling overwhelmed, and burnout.

But if you learn to work with your natural peaks and valleys, it can tell you exactly when you should schedule each part of your day:

  • Focused heads-down time during your peak hours
  • Meetings, calls, and email when your energy levels are low
  • Higher-stress work for when you need a boost in energy and motivation

In short, it allows you to perfectly line up the work that matters most with when you’re naturally most suited to doing it.

Energy curves: We’re naturally more energetic and motivated at specific times of the day

The easiest of these curves to talk about is our energy curve. All of us have experienced highs and lows in our energy throughout the day. Researchers call this our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain that cycles between alertness and sleepiness.

Every person’s rhythm is slightly different, but the majority follow a similar pattern.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3017148

After waking up and breaking out of our sleep inertia our energy levels start to naturally rise. By around 10am we’ve hit our peak concentration levels that ride out until a natural post-lunch energy dip between 1-3pm.

In the afternoon, our energy levels rise again until falling off again sometime between 9–11pm when most of us go to bed.

This probably sounds natural to you (and close to how you experience your energy levels throughout the day). However, it’s not the only cycle we go through during the day.

We work best in natural cycles of 90 minutes

Further studies into our changing energy levels uncovered another cycle that researchers call Ultradian Rhythms. These are 90-120 minute sessions of alertness that our mind cycles through before needing a break.

According to sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, our minds naturally crave breaks after every 90 minutes of intense work. When we need a break, our bodies send us signals, such as becoming hungry, sleepy, fidgeting, or losing focus. However, most of us ignore these signs and think we can just work through them.

The problem is, when you work when your body wants to rest, it uses our reserve stores of energy to keep up. This means releasing stress hormones to give us an extra kick of energy.

But this is only a short-term fix. Instead, understanding and working with your Circadian and Ultradian rhythms, means you have the most energy and focus when you’re doing your most demanding work.

Stress curves: The right amount of stress at the right time can make us more productive

It’s not just your energy levels that dictate when your peak working hours are. The stress you’re feeling can also play a big role in dictating your alertness, focus, and productivity.

Sure, you might think that avoiding stress when you’re doing important work is the best bet. But studies have found we’re actually more effective when we’re stressed. Up to a point.

According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, performance of simple tasks increases with stress. But decreases for more complex ones.

Yerkes-Dodson Curve
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes%E2%80%93Dodson_law

This means that controlling your stress levels throughout the day isn’t just good for your mental health, but also your productivity. But again, this requires awareness of your stress levels and how they’re affecting the work at hand, which isn’t easy.

If you need extra help, here are a few tips on how to de-stress your workday.

Communication curves: Email and IM makes us more productive (to a point)

There’s one last curve we need to think of before getting into tactical ways to optimize when to work: Our communication curve.

Despite all the benefits of using email and IM (increased communication, collaboration, etc…) these tools have taken over way too much of our time each day. And the more we let them in, the less productive we are.

Deep Work author, Cal Newport, suggests there’s a simple curve to how email usage affects our productivity:

Email productivity curve - Cal Newport
Source: http://calnewport.com/blog/2015/06/18/the-e-mail-productivity-curve/

At the far left of the graph, no email equals OK productivity. But as we start to use more email, we become more productive thanks to more access to information and collaboration. But this only works to a point.

Once we cross a threshold, more email usage drops our productivity to a point where nothing gets done (other than answering more emails!)

It’s a hard relationship to get a handle on. However, by understanding the curve and finding your own personal threshold, you can use communication tools to their fullest. While still optimizing the rest of your day for focus on meaningful work.

As Newport writes:

“By thinking in terms of a search for optimality, such organizations could escape the e-mail is either bad or good dichotomy that often cripples such initiatives before they get too far, and instead cast the efforts in terms of process optimization.”

When to work: How to design the perfect day based on your productivity curves

So what do all these curves mean? At their most basic levels, they’re reminders that we can’t do it all and need to be strategic in how we plan our days. But on another level, they’re a roadmap for designing the perfect day based on your own rising and falling productivity.

Using a tool like RescueTime you can start to find your personal curves in a number of ways.

Discover your daily energy/motivation curve

The first place I like to start is with how my energy levels look throughout the day.

Like most knowledge workers, I do my most productive work when I’m energized and motivated. But when is that most likely to happen during the day?

By looking at my Daily Productivity Report By Month, I can start to see the outlines of a clear ebb and flow of productive work. For example, here’s my report for July 2018:

When to work - RescueTime productivity curves

How to use this information: See how I start with high productivity levels at 9am that slowly decline until a big drop at 1–3pm? This gives me a pretty good idea of when I’ve historically had more energy each day and will want to schedule my most important work.

On the other hand, it also shows me that my productivity and energy levels are lower in the early afternoon. So that might be a good time to schedule meetings, calls, and other busy work.

See when you’re hitting your communication threshold

It’s often hard to see when email or IM start taking over your day. However, now that I have an idea of my energy levels, I can see how email is affecting or interfering with them.

For example, if I dig in further and look at my Top Activities by Hour report, I can see that I’m also getting pulled into emails during some of my peak productive time.

RescueTime communication curve

How to use this information: The last thing I want to do is go over the threshold of my communication curve early in the day. Especially when that time coincides with when I have the most energy.

Instead of being “always on”, I might want to schedule a FocusTime session or Alert earlier in the day to remind me to stay focused and protect my natural energy and motivation.

Alternatively, I might want to schedule specific times to check email and IM, like during a break in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Productivity and time management aren’t always about doing more. But about using your time in the most optimal way. But it’s not always easy to know when’s the best time to do what work.

By understanding these different productivity curves, however, you’re able to take the guesswork out of scheduling. And instead of hoping for the best, you can know you’re doing the right work at exactly the right time.

Have you tried scheduling your day around these personal productivity curves? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


  1. Great article, Jory! Thanks for sharing how you dive into your stats. I’m a visual learner so I truly appreciate how you broke everything down so I can see what my stats show for my own natural cycles. Keep up the great work.

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