Learning your unique productivity cycles--what times of the day you work best--is the key to optimizing your time.
I graduated from college a year early—not because I was a brilliant academic but because I knew how to manage my time and resources extremely well. I chose my own workweek, scheduling all of my classes on just two days. Those two days were long and challenging, but I had a day off in between, and I enjoyed a four-day weekend every week. This experience planted a seed in my mind about choosing your own workweek, which would later become one of the fundamentals of my Less Doing productivity system and of my recent book, Less Doing, More Living: How to Make Everything in Life Easier.
To be clear, the idea is not to have a two-day workweek; rather, the key is to learn the unique timing and cycles that exist in your life so you can do your best work at the best time. If you take the time to self-track, monitoring when you feel the most productive and when you prefer to do certain tasks over others, you’ll start to notice patterns—such as when you do your best creative work (for me it’s after 9 p.m.), or when you are more effective on the phone (after noon), or even when you like to workout (6 p.m. is my sweet spot). This information is empowering because it allows you to let go of the stress that comes with trying to prioritize your tasks. For example, I received an e-mail asking me to write this article around 11 a.m. I had other things to do, but this article was suddenly my number one priority. However, if I tried to write at 11 a.m., it would have come out terribly. Knowing this, I accomplished all the other tasks I needed to, and then tackled this piece at 9:30 p.m. No time was wasted worrying or staring unproductively at my computer.
Managing your time this way and, in essence, defining what your workweek will look like also helps you avoid a common problem in today’s workplace—the “gear shift” mentality where you begin to answer an email, then get a cup of coffee, make a phone call, open an Excel spreadsheet, answer some more emails, and then find at the end of the hour that you’ve done 45 different things but haven’t gotten anything of real value done. Multitasking does not work. You need to single task, and, more importantly, “batch” your work so that you are doing similar activities at the same time. Attend all your classes on only two days, check email for only one hour each day, make lunch for the week on a Sunday then portion it out—all of these are examples of how you can batch your tasks and begin to choose your own workweek.
Of course, all the planning in the world can’t account for certain emergencies, and that’s OK. As long as you can apply this method to the vast majority of the things in your life, the little hiccups won’t be as big of a deal.
But a critical question is: how do you train the people you interact with to start working with you on your schedule? Keep this in mind because it’s an important paradigm shift that needs to take place in your mind. Your cell phone, your email, your instant messenger—those are all your tools to communicate with your world. They are not meant to be leashes for the outside world to grab you whenever it wants. Naturally, you can’t tell your boss of your 9 to 5 job that you only want to take his calls between 11:30 and 11:45 in the morning. But you can gently nudge people into your corral.
One tech tool that will help is ScheduleOnce. This web app creates a public-facing appointment page where anyone can go and request a meeting or call with you. On average, it takes seven emails to schedule a meeting. ScheduleOnce can reduce that number to one or even zero if you put your “schedule a meeting” link in your email signature like I do. That’s a side benefit. And here’s a tip: choose your own workweek and show only certain days or times to be available. My workweekis Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Ari Meisel blogs at LessDoing.com and owns a productivity consulting service, drawn from the tools he used to optimize his life and manage stress after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. His book based on this popular framework, LESS DOING, MORE LIVING: Make Everything in Life Easier, was recently published by Tarcher/Penguin.