So I’ve been working this weekend. Sometimes it’s just unavoidable, and sometimes (like now) it’s absolutely critical. By the end of the day on Friday, I had a pretty decent sized list of things I need to have accomplished by Monday morning, which means putting in some extra time. Additionally, I wanted to do all the things I normally do on a weekend, including dishes, laundry, writing my blog post, various other projects…you know the drill. I’ve been working my way through the list at a pretty good clip, and as I stopped to ponder what to post about this week (since I didn’t have time to go to a movie and therefore couldn’t do my planned movie review), I started thinking about my work habits.
Upon reflection, I realized that compared to about five years ago, I’m getting more done, feeling less stressed, and actually have more free time…even though my personal and professional workloads have both increased. So I asked myself two questions: “How am I doing that?” and “Could the answer to the first question possibly be useful to someone else?”
And thus was a blog post born. There are all kinds of things we want/need to accomplish, ranging from professional responsibilities to blogging to personal projects, and most of us are familiar with wondering “How can I get all of this done?” or “How can I work faster and have more free time?” or “How can I possibly fit something else in?”
If you’re looking to be more productive, here’s the best advice I have. This post focuses on two “big picture” things you can do to set yourself up for success, and in part two I’ll suggest some day-to-day techniques.
1. Discover/use your natural rhythm.
For a long time, I woke up each morning just in time to get ready for work and get to my desk punctually. I would frequently work late, and then when I got home I would try to deal with whatever else I needed to do (like cleaning and whatnot), then usually spend an hour or so before bed staring at the TV feeling like my brain had turned to mush. On the weekends, I would get up and spend several hours doing nothing, then try to get myself in gear and do something productive. Usually, anything I attempted to do took a lot more time than I thought it should, and I was often cranky. Some things I just never got around to (which is why, for example, I gave up on writing for many years).
What I know now (and wish I’d known then) is that I’m a morning person. My brain starts firing on all cylinders almost as soon as I get up, and starts a sharp decline sometime in the late afternoon. It took an interesting experience with jet lag to discover how much more I can accomplish if I take advantage of the early hours. I’m way better at 4 am than I ever am at 4 pm. Now, I get up two hours earlier than I used to. Sometimes I spend an hour at home taking care of personal stuff, while other times I deal with emails or a work-related task that I didn’t have the mental energy to face at the end of the previous day. I go to work early instead of staying late. On the weekends, I clean, write, run errands, etc. first thing. I can get almost twice as much done in a morning hour than an evening hour, and that leaves my evenings free to decompress (and go to bed early).
You might be thinking, “Please tell me you aren’t suggesting that everyone should get up at 4 am.” Of course not! That’s my best schedule, but that definitely won’t work for everyone. One of my colleagues is the exact opposite; he saves his low-intensity work for the mornings, because he hits his stride after lunch, and that’s when he’s in the best mental place to tackle the hard stuff. A friend of mine takes a three hour nap every evening, then gets up and works on her dissertation until midnight. What we have in common is that we’ve figured out what works best for us, and we’re capitalizing on it.
My point is that you should really think about your most productive times (and maybe even experiment a little to discover them) and try to take full advantage of those hours.
2. Discover/create your best environment.
Here’s another area that starts with reflection. Where am I most productive? How much stimulation do I need? How much distraction can I tolerate? What keeps me grounded?
Again, this is going to vary hugely from person to person. When I decided that I wanted to start writing again, a lot of people told me to write in coffee shops. They swore by it, so that’s what I tried to do. When my first try was spectacularly unproductive, I tried another coffee shop. Then another. After my fourth try, I realized that I am not a coffee shop writer. It’s important to figure out where you can accomplish the most, so that when you have an option, you know what to choose.
I work at home a fair amount, and I tried following the predominant advice on the subject. I have a home office. It’s very professional. It’s exactly the type of environment that most experts suggest. I actually chose furniture and layout based on extensive research…
…and I do all of my work sitting on the couch in my living room. That’s what works for me, so that’s what I do. And when I figured out that the living room was my best space, I invested in it the way I had invested in my office. I bought a great couch, and a couple of folding tables that are easy to set up and take down. I can switch the room from “hanging out” to “business” and back in a matter of minutes. In fact, I’m so productive in the living room that I often choose to take some work home rather than stay at work a little longer.
So my advice is to figure out what your best space is, and then make it better. If you have a work space at your job, give it the same kind of consideration. I’m a “no plants but lots of pictures” person. I prefer to have things I need in plain view, so I have more shelves than filing cabinets. I have my own coffee maker because I’ve learned that a trip to the coffee room usually takes me fifteen or twenty minutes (for some people, a fifteen minute coffee break is a necessary chance to recharge, but for me, it’s a loss of focus that takes me far too long to recover from).
These two things have made a huge difference in my productivity, and in my next post I’ll tell you more!
Have you found your best rhythm? Optimized your work space? Or maybe you’re thinking of trying something new? Let’s talk!