Managing the Natural Ups and Downs of Your Workweek

Ever since my college days, my typical week has followed the same general pattern.

On Mondays, I simply have a hard time coming up with good ideas. I can usually follow lists of tasks, but the creative part of my brain is simply on pause.

Tuesday through Thursday is the creative meat and potatoes of my week. I do most of my good thinking during that period, and I’m also at my most productive as well.

On Fridays, I’m often distracted by the details of the upcoming weekend and I’m prone to daydreaming and dawdling. I can usually come up with ideas on Fridays, but I have a hard time following through with them.

Similarly, my average day also follows an up and down flow. I tend to be far more productive in the morning. At about two in the afternoon, I hit a huge valley where I get sleepy and can’t think as well, then I rebound at about three or so and really crank things out for another hour or two.

As a result, I’ve found that if I arrange my tasks during a given week (and during a given day) in a particular order, I tend to be much more productive.

For example, I tend to spend Fridays heavily in brainstorming mode, just jotting down ideas and basic materials as I go through my day. On Mondays, I tend to deal with mundane tasks – dealing with the comments from the weekend, emails, and so forth. I do the vast majority of my actual writing on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Similarly, if I have a personal task I need to do, I tend to schedule it in in the early afternoon. That’s a great time to depart for a dentist appointment, have an exercise session, and so on. If I’ve stayed up late the night before, I sometimes even use the early afternoon for a nap.

The end result? I can squeeze quite a bit more productivity out of a given week by doing things in this fashion than by simply following a dry to-do list each day.

If the problem sounds familiar to you (you tend to work more effectively some days than others or at different times of the day), here are six steps you can take to help yourself become much more productive at work by matching your work to your mental energy.

1. Make an energy map of your days.
Fire up your favorite spreadsheet program and open up a weekly planner spreadsheet, one that has the days along the top and the times along the left, split up into fifteen minute or half hour increments or so. Print off several of these (so that they’ll travel with you easily). Then, just keep it on your desk where you’ll notice it all the time. Instead of using it to plan, though, just write in what you’re doing and use a number to describe how productive you feel, with a 10 being as productive as you possibly can be and 0 being asleep. Don’t worry about precision, just use a number that roughly describes how you feel.

If you do this consistently over a bunch of weeks, you’ll eventually find that you have a pretty good grasp on the points in the week where your productivity is high (lots of high numbers each week in that time slot) and when it’s low (lots of low numbers in that slot).

This “map” of your productivity tells you what you need to know about your natural energy levels. You should put your important, high-concentration tasks in periods where you’re highly productive and place less important, low-concentration tasks in periods where you’re not very productive.

2. Catalogue all of your routine tasks.
Of course, the trick is identifying which of your regular tasks require focus and concentration and which ones do not. Make a list of all of your work tasks and look at the ones that reward creativity and focus (for me, that’s coming up with ideas) and ones that require much less focus (for me, that’s approving comments and some of my correspondence).

What you’re actually doing is essentially finding tasks to pair up with the high-energy and low-energy portions of your natural day. During your high-energy portions, you should be tackling the intense and important aspects of your job – the actual programming, writing, or other truly creative and mentally engaging pieces of your work. At the other end, you want to match up your drudgery with your low-energy times – filing routine paperwork is the type of stuff you can do no matter how low your energy level is.

3. Make a rough framework schedule of your upcoming week the week before.
One task I tend to do on Fridays is assemble a rough schedule for the upcoming week. I make a list of the major tasks I want to accomplish (articles to write, brainstorming ideas, correspondence, other projects, etc.) and assign them to each day. This is in a very rough context – I usually don’t know for certain what articles I will be writing. I just know I will be writing a certain number of articles in a given week and that I’ll need to brainstorm many, many more ideas than that (and discard the ones that don’t flow well for me).

Since I know from my map the days where my concentration is highest, I tend to assign most of the tasks that require the most concentration to those days. The vast bulk of my actual writing happens on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. There are also a lot of tasks that require very little focus and are more just a matter of connecting the dots (paperwork, correspondence, etc.), or they only require little bursts of focus (brainstorming). I assign these largely to my low-concentration days (Monday and Friday).

4. Tighten up that framework the day before.
Each evening, I make a plan for what I intend to do the following day. Since I already have a general list of the stuff I want to accomplish from my weekly plan, I just organize those items in an order that takes advantage of the natural ebb and flow of my energy throughout a given day. I usually do this by making an ordered list, starting off with enough concentration-intensive items to fill my morning, followed by a low-intensity item or two for my afternoon lull, and then usually one more high-intensity item, followed by stuff I need to do at the end of the day (like setting tomorrow’s list).

I also include any scheduled appointments on this list, with the time and location right off the bat so that I can see when they are at a glance.

5. Make “appointments” for certain tasks.
Sometimes, there are major tasks – really important things – that I know I’ll need some sustained focus on over many days in order to be able to pull off. My book (it’s coming out in December, guys – be patient!) was one of these things – I knew that without sustained focus each and every day, it would never get done.

So I simply made an appointment each morning to spend one hour focused strictly on the book. I even penciled it in: 8 AM, every day, one hour, then 10:30 AM, every day, a half an hour. This allowed me to make steady progress going forward, first with a detailed outline of the book, then filling in the pieces as I went. Because of that appointment, I was able to get the book finished and meet my deadlines, even though I got a fairly late start on it, idling for quite a while.

6. Don’t force yourself to work through an energy valley.
There will come times where you can feel your energy and focus dropping, but you’re in the middle of a high-concentration task. Just stop that task and pick it up later – you’ll waste more time grinding your wheels right now than you ever would by just stopping for a while and doing a low-concentration task.

My suggestion? Write down everything you’ll need to have in your mind to pick up the task – all the little factoids and comments. When I wrote a lot of computer code, I used this to get myself into the practice of heavily commenting all of my code – it made it much easier to pick things up later on.

Together, these six tactics enable me to squeeze quite a bit out of my weeks. When I first started working, I was much less organized and much less in tune with my natural energy levels. Understanding how my body and mind work – at least to a degree – and planning things with that in mind makes my weeks much, much more productive. And being substantially more productive than the average bear can only be a positive for your career.

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