How to combat productivity dips

Silver fox? The older you et, the more likely it is that you'll want to start earlier

Discovering the secrets of your body clock can make a serious difference to efficiency

Forcing yourself to work through the afternoon slump is often an unpleasant necessity – modern life rarely provides the opportunity to pay attention to our body clocks.

But you don’t have to rely on cold, hard determination, brisk walks and endless caffeine to maximise your day. Just take stock of the growing body of evidence around when and why we perform best. Steve Kay, professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California, for instance, claims that understanding the circadian rhythm our body follows can give “us an edge in daily life”.

For any night owl, US author William Feather’s words will probably ring true: “Early morning cheerfulness can be extremely obnoxious.” Although most individuals are pretty flexible in terms of when they work best – “hummingbirds” – studies are increasingly confirming that the two other distinct “chronotypes” – early birds and night owls – peak at different times of the day, in terms of physical and cognitive ability.

Circadian rhythm affects everything from body temperature to hormone production and brain activity. Kay explains that the majority of adults do perform best in the late morning, once their body temperature has risen, with productivity tapering off as the day progresses. And if you are a night owl, simple steps like showering first thing can kick-start mental activity, helping you conform to the conventional working day. Self-proclaimed late nighter Barack Obama gets into the office at 8.30am or 9am, making time to exercise beforehand – another way to warm the body.

Significantly, if you find waking up difficult now, this is likely to change later in life. Recent research published by Elsevier shows that our choices on when we work change as we age – the older you are, the more likely it is that you’ll express a morning preference.

And if you’re already lucky enough to be an early riser, there are some tricks that can maximise efficiency further. Sending emails as early as possible means they’re more likely to get read, according to a study by web marketing specialist HubSpot.

Ron Friedman, author and founder of ignite80, recommends protecting your most productive periods. “Once you’ve identified high-potential hours, consider treating them differently – for example, by blocking them off on your calendar”, discouraging colleagues from bothering you.

Prioritising your hardest tasks first – however arduous – could also mean a more productive day. If you’re not sure of when you are less productive, turn to something like Rescue Time (see the recommended app) to help identify when you’re slowing down.

Friedman goes on to suggest also applying the same rules if you’re organising things for others. A staff meeting, for example, could be moved to after lunch, when metabolisms have slowed down, safeguarding those precious morning hours. Moreover, forcing a team to interact will heighten alertness, re-energising them for the rest of the afternoon.

Despite tiredness seriously limiting analytical skills, it’s a different story when it comes to creativity. A 2011 study in the journal Thinking & Reasoning suggested that fatigue can actually enhance creative ability. The researchers asked 428 students to solve two problems, one analytical and one requiring novel thinking. The students’ analytical ability stayed the same over the course of the day, but they became much more creative when they were tired. According to study leader Mareike Wieth, a lack of focus quickly led to more innovative solutions, suggesting it pays to use sleepy periods to work on ideas.

Target sluggishness

Rescue Time
Basic package is free

Recommended by the founder of Reddit, this software runs in the background on your computer, tracking where you go and how long you spend there, and delivering a detailed report to you at the end of each day. You can then block distractions, or set alerts so you can keep track of regular digressions.

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