Not too long ago, I had an office job that was, at times, highly stressful and very demanding of my focus and energy. There were often “do or die” projects that needed to be completed, reports that needed to be carefully written and filed, and lots of computer code to be designed and written.
Since I didn’t have a real grasp on how to maximize my own levels of energy and focus yet, I would often find myself going through tired periods at work where I couldn’t focus on what I needed to achieve. This sometimes meant spending late evenings at the office or taking work home with me, neither of which I enjoyed doing. I’d spend periods at work doing very little because of an energy-focus valley and spend evenings working when I should have been spending my energy and focus on my wife and family or on other personally-fulfilling projects.
Eventually, I did figure out how to escape this routine and it had a transformative effect on my career and on my personal life. I found time and energy and focus to strengthen my marriage, be a better parent, and build The Simple Dollar essentially out of thin air.
One of the things I did to climb out of that rut was to become more effective at managing my time, largely thanks to the ideas found in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
The other big factor in fixing that rut was to figure out how to maximize my daily energy and focus. In other words, I started to take a serious look at how my energy and focus ebbed and flowed throughout the day and began to map my high-energy and high-focus tasks, as well as my low-energy and low-focus tasks, to that ebb and flow.
Here’s exactly how I did that.
First, I kept an energy diary for two weeks. Every thirty minutes, I wrote down in this diary how I felt my energy and focus were doing on a scale of one to ten. I also noted whenever I ate and slept. I used a stopwatch to constantly remind me to do this.
Next, I analyzed that data. I figured out my average energy and focus level over the course of a day and in relation to meals and sleep. I made a chart that included every half hour interval throughout the day over two weeks so I could compare all the days side by side, along with the averages.
What I found was quite valuable. My energy level and focus were highest in the mornings between 7:30 and 10 AM, provided I woke up at my normal time (around 6 AM) and quickly ate something for breakfast after awakening. My energy would bottom out for about two hours after lunch, then rebound in the middle of the afternoon. I’d valley again in the early evening before dinnertime, but then rebound again at about 8 PM for a few hours until I quickly became tired and went to sleep.
So, my high focus and energy periods were in the early morning, the mid-to-late afternoon, and the post-supper evening. My low energy and focus periods were in the early afternoon and the early evening.
This actually has held true ever since then. As long as I get up at a consistent time (around 6 AM, usually) and eat a breakfast of some kind within an hour, my energy flow over the course of a day looks something like that.
Sleep affected things as well. If I got a bad night of sleep, I could usually knock a little bit of energy and focus off of my levels during the morning of the subsequent day and then again over the entire course of the day two days later. So, if I slept terribly from Monday into Tuesday, Tuesday morning would be a bit slow, as would all of Wednesday.
How did I use this information?
First, I shifted all of my high-focus tasks to the morning and all of my low-focus tasks to the afternoon. Writing computer code and reports filled up the morning. Sifting through email and doing backups would fill up the afternoon. By simply shifting my day around in this fashion, I actually found myself getting far more done than before. I would get almost a full day’s worth of coding done in the morning, then I’d end the day caught up on all of my emails, backups, routine reports, and other mundane things. I began to take less work home and found myself with more energy and focus in the evenings for my family.
Second, I started harnessing that late-day peak for productive things. That post-supper energy and focus peak that goes on for two or three hours is the exact period in which I launched and grew The Simple Dollar. I devoted that period to The Simple Dollar for years while I was still working at another full-time job.
Today, I harness it for other projects of various kinds. Over the last year, I’ve used it to work on two projects in particular that I look forward to discussing in detail on The Simple Dollar in the future.
Finally, I use those early morning hours for “deep focus.” When I start my workday, usually around 7:30 after the children have left for school, I set things up for a period of “deep focus.”
I turn off all of the distractions around me – my cell phone, the ringer on the house phone, and so on. I get all of the materials I might need in a pinch open in front of me. I start up my “work profile” on my computer, which blocks almost all distracting websites.
Then, I get to work.
Many days, I slip into a “focus zone” where I get a lot of things done in just a few hours. I take care of my Simple Dollar articles, any freelance things I have going on, and some personal responses to emails. Usually, the focus will break when my stomach starts rumbling for lunch at around 11 AM. This is the true heart of my workday and I try to jam as much productivity into it as I can.
I know I’m not nearly as focused in the afternoon, so I often do things that don’t really require focus. I’ll take care of household tasks or go on “field trips” that I use to generate writing ideas. I mostly just try to keep moving during my low-energy and low-focus period. In the late afternoon, I usually spend focused time with my children and with my wife, which is a fairly high-energy and high-focus period. I use the late evening period for an hour or two of focused work on any other projects I’m working on along with some time spent with Sarah.
Simply knowing how my body handles energy and focus enables me to get far more done in a given day than I would have before. I used to waste an incredible amount of time trying to do high-focus and high-energy things when my body and mind weren’t geared up for them. Now, I realize I’m far more productive if I listen to my body and mind.
You can easily apply this in your own life, too. Make your own focus and energy diary, then see what patterns you can figure out from that. If you can, position your work throughout the day to take maximum advantage of your peaks and valleys, and do the same for your personal life and time at home. Get the mindless things out of the way during low-energy and low-focus times, and save the rest of the time for the tasks that deserve your focus, like the hardest parts of your job, your family, your children, and your projects of passion.