How to Maximize Your Productivity
Addicted to efficiency? Start by finding your lowest point in the day.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
My name is Jenny, and I’m an efficiency addict. It started in college when a professor told everyone in our class to use an app to record how we spent our time. Soon it wasn’t enough to know how much I was working. I also wanted to know how well I was working. Four years later, I now spend my downtime devouring the latest wisdom from writers like Tim Ferriss and Marie Kondo.
My most recent obsession is Daniel Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Pink outlines what he refers to as the hidden pattern of everyday life—the idea that each of us has a unique “trough,” a specific time during
the day when our energy and mood severely flag. While there’s no avoiding it, Pink believes that we can maximize our productivity by planning around it. Step one is recording your behavior in a daily time tracker for a week to find out when your low point occurs. Every 90 minutes beginning at 7 A.M., you answer three questions: What am I doing? How mentally alert do I feel? How energetic am I? My data showed a clear dip beginning between 3 and 4 P.M. and bottoming out at 5:30. In other words, my peak hours are 10 A.M. to 3 P.M.
Once you identify your trough, Pink offers a few suggestions that anyone can use to make better use of their time. (For example, many of us waste our most productive morning hours on e-mail.) But I wanted to truly optimize my daily schedule. To that end, I devised a three-week test. In the first week, I worked during my trough. In the second, I scheduled my lunch break for that time. In the third, I took an hourlong lunch at 12:30 and a couple of ten-minute breaks at other points. I kept a strict journal, and what at first felt like a highly subjective experiment yielded some surprisingly useful results.
Working during my trough period is something I’ve done my whole life, and it’s exhausting. By 4 P.M., I often have to talk myself into moving forward with a project. Before the test, I’d scroll through Twitter or chat with colleagues on Slack. But now I had a rule: no unscheduled breaks. So I slogged on. By Thursday, I’d resorted to buying a fancy face mist to spray myself during my afternoon slump. It didn’t help me focus, but according to my notes, it sure felt nice.
During the second phase of my test, time flew by. I aimed to check off all my most demanding tasks (drafting reports, analyzing data, writing proposals) by 4 P.M. Then I took a break, leaving the more mundane stuff on my to-do list (responding to e-mail, finding photos for Outside’s Instagram account) for the end of the day. I tried several break strategies: going to the climbing gym, practicing yoga at home, running errands, and taking a nap. It was blissful, but my brain was still foggy afterward. I often found myself staying late at the office, because it took me longer to get back in the zone.
Taking my lunch around noon felt like a disruption—it cut my morning flow in half. But the ten-minute breaks were lifesavers. Preparing and eating a healthy snack, taking a walk around the building, and popping into coworkers’ offices to chat were the practices I found most restorative. If you don’t have a flexible office culture, add your breaks to your calendar and treat them as seriously as a meeting. As Pink writes: “What gets scheduled gets done.”
I’ve stuck with the schedule from week two, with a minor tweak—I work uninterrupted until midafternoon, then take an out-of-office break around three. (Breaking an hour earlier gives me time to settle back in.) The workday passes much more quickly than it did when I forced myself to take lunch at 12:30, which completely zapped my productivity. This entire process has been great, but I know I’ll be restless again soon. Anyone read any life-changing books lately?