How do we know what to do and when to do it? Those are questions that I continue to struggle with, and as a leader and manager must strive to figure out. Two books that have had a big impact on how I think about those questions are Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and Jack Knapp and John Zeratsky’s Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day. When considered together, both books provide a great starting point for considering how to answer the what and when questions of our day.
When reading these books, I was struck by how often time and time of day impacts my ability to work at peak performance. Pink argues that there are three phases of the day: peak, trough, and rebound. When those phases occur throughout the day depends on whether you’re a lark (morning person) or an owl (night person). Layered on top of these phases are types of tasks requiring different kinds of attention or focus: decision making, analytical thinking time, administrative (responding to email), brainstorming, and creativity. Knapp and Keratsky frame their approach to dividing up time as: highlight, laser, reflect. The highlight is the #1 thing you need to do that day, which often involves concentration or being at peak energy/performance level. Laser is taking a deep dive into a something you’re curious about or need to know more about. Reflecting is the time to consider the different aspects of your work and how you can connect those sometimes disparate pieces into an impactful whole.
As a lark, my peak is from 8-10am. My trough is from 11-1:30pm. And my rebound is from about 2-4pm. So how do these phases impact my work, effectiveness, and efficiency? And what kinds of tasks make sense for me to do at what times of day?
- 8-9/10am- I start my day working on my highlight. For me, anything to do with the budget, statistics, or writing a proposal or grant falls into this category. I need to be my most energetic for these kinds of tasks, and for me that’s first thing in the morning. As I wrote about in the post “Did You Get My Email”, I don’t start the day by checking email. I save that for a few minutes before my first meeting each day, and at strategic points throughout the day.
- 11-1:30pm- I use this timeframe around lunchtime for administrative tasks like checking email, dropping by a colleague’s to follow-up quickly about something, plan meeting agendas for the following week, complete the action items that came out of that week’s meetings. These kinds of tasks don’t require a lot of focus or analytical thinking, which is good because this mid-day window is definitely my trough when doing highlight or reflective work isn’t appealing or a good use of my time. If there are action items that require analytical thinking or reflection, I save those for my rebound period.
- 2-4pm- For me, tasks that require brainstorming, decision making, thinking time, and reflecting are best done during the middle of the afternoon. This is when I do my long-term planning, consider solutions to challenges me or my organization is facing, and other tasks that demand a more open mind and creativity.
Of course I don't always get to control how my time is spent. Because of my position, I spend about 1/2 of my week in meetings. To make that time most effective, I think about who is in the meeting and what we're going to be discussing (assuming I'm the one scheduling the meeting). I get to know the people in my division well so I can try and schedule our time together at a time of day that best meets out lark or owl rhythm and that is best suited to the task we need to accomplish. For example, if I want to brainstorm a new idea, I try to schedule that for mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Or if we need to review a project charter- an administrative task- I'd schedule that conversation for around lunchtime.
Taking a proactive approach to planning my time helps me to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of most days. By starting with my highlight task rather than email, I can hit the ground running faster and finish or make progress on something that has meaning and value to me. It's all too easy to feel like your time is being taken away from you. Instead, I consider how to take steps to best determine the what and when of my days.
I'd love to learn how you feel your time is best spent!