Don’t waste your ‘power hours’ in meetings

When planning our days, it isn’t enough to think about what we need to do, we must also consider when we should do it. (Image: Pixabay)
When planning our days, it isn’t enough to think about what we need to do, we must also consider when we should do it. (Image: Pixabay)


Want to be more productive? Figure out the best time to let your mind wander.

An advertising executive on the West Coast came to me for help because he felt he could be more productive. I asked him when his energy was highest and he replied, “The morning! I’m definitely a morning person." So I asked, “Oh great, so you do most of your heads-down strategic work in the morning?" He replied, “No, I’m in meetings with East Coasters all morning," which meant he was doing most of his work when he felt sluggish in the afternoon. Reader, it was easy to see why he didn’t feel like he was doing his best work.

When planning our days, it isn’t enough to think about what we need to do, we must also consider when we should do it. Our blocks of time aren’t equal. Certain times are often best for certain tasks, and these preferences change from person to person.

We all have some sense of when we’re at our brightest and most energetic and when we need a nap. When many of us began working remotely, some of us started at 5 a.m. and took walks midday, others buckled down after dinner. Liberated from commutes and neckties, we could see our personal energy flows with new clarity. Some people are night owls, others like to greet the dawn. It’s built into our systems.

But as many of us have returned to offices, we seem to be forgetting these things about ourselves. Many of us are finding we have more meetings than ever. And meetings about those meetings. We’ve made it cool to be too busy, confusing busyness with importance. It’s no way to create a sustainable working environment. It’s also not terribly productive.

Recent research, including a 2016 study by the Sleep Society and published by Oxford University Press, suggest that our chronotype—or personal circadian rhythm—is largely determined by biology. Knowing these patterns about ourselves can help us plan certain tasks when we are most likely to get them done.

To get a better sense of your own personal rhythm, spend two weeks writing down the conditions any time you’re feeling really productive. I’ve learned that I feel most in the flow between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., while listening to instrumental music and after eating a filling (but not too filling) meal. I seem to work best when no one else is in the room.

As it happens, my husband and I are on exactly opposite schedules. I usually feel like I’m crashing around 2 p.m., just when he loves starting a workout. I like getting ready for the day at 6 a.m., while he prefers to talk about finances at 11 p.m., when I’m basically asleep. This might seem awkward, but it works great: I’m up making breakfast for our children in the morning, and he has more energy for them at bedtime, when I’m running out of steam.

Once you’ve figured out your productivity patterns, you can narrow down what I call your “power hours"—the two to three hours a day when you feel most productive at focused, strategic work. It would be a real waste to spend those hours in low-energy meetings.

Your power hours will sometimes overlap with inflexible obligations, such as meetings or dropping your child at off school. That’s OK! Securing even just one of these hours several times a week will make a difference. The executive I mentioned earlier began reserving two mornings a week for work that demanded more serious attention. He shifted his East Coast meetings to the other three mornings, which he said increased his overall productivity by almost 30%.

What About Off-Peak Hours?

On the flip side of power hours are your “off-peak hours," when you feel more sluggish and inattentive. If you’re a morning person, these probably fall in the afternoon. If you’re a late-afternoon person, you probably need to ease into your day. These hours are great for handling activities that don’t demand sharpness, such as catching up over coffee or submitting expenses. They also happen to be when we are most creative.

In a study of the problem-solving powers of hundreds of undergraduates, published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning in 2011, Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks found that students were far better at solving problems that demanded a flash of insight during “non-optimal times of day" (e.g., the morning if they were not morning people). This might seem counterintuitive, but when our brains are “fuzzier" and less focused, we are better placed to consider a wider range of ideas and connections.

When I ask executives when they think of their best ideas, their top three answers are while showering, commuting or doing something restful and unrelated, like cooking or walking a dog. Their answers never include when they’re knee-deep in meetings or when they’re triaging their inbox. There is less space in those activities for making creative connections. Our brains need downtimes to recuperate and spark new ideas. This is why it’s a good idea to go for a walk when you’re feeling groggy, as the change in scenery will encourage your mind to wander even more.

It’s important to remember that while our chronotype is mostly biologically determined, we need to test our assumptions about when it’s best to accomplish certain tasks. I had assumed that I’d write best during my power hours, but I discovered I felt most creative and in the flow when I wrote during my lower-energy times. My power hours were better spent outlining and editing, so I adjusted my schedule accordingly.

The best way to think of this is: When am I in the mood to do this type of task? Hint: If you sit down at your desk to do something and you’re thinking, “ugh!" it’s probably not the best time to do it. You want to feel like you’re floating downstream, not paddling against the current. Give yourself permission to rearrange your schedule, which often means tackling the toughest jobs when you’re best equipped for them.

Laura Mae Martin is the executive productivity advisor at Google. This essay is adapted from her new book “Uptime: A Practical Guide to Personal Productivity and Wellbeing," published by Harper Business.

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