The key to productivity isn’t having more hours to burn, it’s having the fuel to power the time we do have. Being your best at work comes down to energy management, says Jim Loehr, PhD, co-founder of the Human Performance Institute and author of The Only Way to Win. "It’s energy that makes or breaks our lives. We have [periods] in which we have maximum alertness, the most focus, and we can engage almost effortlessly," Loehr says.
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Learning when those most productive moments are, and how to build your workday around them can make a huge difference in your performance — not to mention your stress levels. According to Loehr, there are even ways to broaden the hours when you’re at your best — which, when it comes right down to it, is even better than being granted extra hours in your day. Here’s how to maximize your energy levels for a more productive, and less stressful, workday.
Your hours of peak performance are largely determined by your circadian rhythm or sleep-wake cycle. Whereas night owls come alive after 5 p.m., morning people are ready to go when they wake until about noon, says Mareike Wieth, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychological science at Albion College. Morning people are those who don’t have a problem waking up in the morning and want to get up and get moving. Evening people stay up much later, have a harder time getting up, and hit the snooze alarm repeatedly. "The trick is to schedule your hardest, most demanding work during your peak hours," says Karen Leland, president of Sterling Marketing Group, and author of Time Management In An Instant.
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"Because they have to get up with the rest of the world, night owls get less sleep, are tired in the middle of the day and don’t start coming to life until early evening," says Loehr. That might be okay if you’re self-employed or do shift work, but if you keep traditional hours, you’ll never maximize your potential. Though it may feel like your propensity to burn the midnight oil is set in stone, you can actually change your sleep patterns. And, if you work in a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. environment, Loehr strongly recommends it. "When we change people from night owls to early birds, they become much happier — and more productive."
Here's how: Go to bed at 10 p.m. every night. Set an alarm away from your bed, so that you have to get up to turn it off. As soon as you turn it off, turn on all of your lights and pull back your curtains. Wakefulness hormones are triggered by sunlight. Though it's a difficult transition at first, the body is very responsive and will eventually automatically switch over, says Loehr.
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Even though most of us are at our peak in the morning, we squander those hours by chatting with coworkers or checking email as soon as we arrive at work. "Without question, you want to tackle the items that require the most brain power, decision making, focus, and effort in your most productive time of day," says Leland. To that end, she insists on not checking email first thing in the morning (or, for night owls, when your workday begins at 5 p.m.). "Instead, decide on an important project you want to make progress on and spend your first hour or so working on that," she says. Don't waste it doing paperwork, making routine phone calls, or surfing the web.
There is one type of important project that is better left for your non-optimal hours. Wieth, who studies circadian rhythms and cognitive performance, has found that creative pursuits are best accomplished during our least productive time of day. Though it seems counterintuitive, fatigue makes our mind wander. This inability to stay rigidly focused makes us more likely to dream, think big picture, and land on out-of-the-box solutions. When your attention is naturally waning during these less productive times of day, try scheduling brainstorming sessions or working on innovative projects.
Never give yourself an entire day to work on a project, because you will fritter away most of that time, says Charlie Gilkey, CEO and founder of Productive Flourishing. According to Gilkey, we can stay energized and focused for about two hours at a time. For that reason, he recommends scheduling your day in two-hour chunks. "Anything that needs to happen can be done in two hours," he says. "This gives you enough time to get into any task so you can make significant progress, but not long enough that you get burned out." Between projects, take mini breaks. "We are physical creatures. Our energy waxes and wanes, so we need those recharge periods. You will be far more productive than if you try to sit there for eight hours straight," he says. Another live-by rule: Never eat where you work. "It forces you to change context, which can give your brain a mental refresh," explains Gilkey.
Whether a night owl or an early bird, we all experience the mid-afternoon slump, says Wieth. "We shut down a little bit, partially due to eating lunch and partially to hormone secretions," she explains. According to Loehr, this is when the entire animal kingdom rests or preens. Since we can’t very well tell our boss we’re checking out for a siesta, Loehr recommends using this time to make phone calls, or to do something that gets you up and moving.
"Doing detailed work is very difficult," he says. Still, if a deadline looms and you have no other option, you can counteract this sluggishness with quick bursts of exercise. Oxygen fuels the brain, says Loehr. Take a brisk walk outside or climb up and down the stairs at what he calls the "no-sweat threshold." Invigorate yourself as much as you can without getting sweaty for five minutes. Do this every 30 to 45 minutes, and you will be much more focused, energized, and productive than if you tried to simply power through the fog. Going to bed early also helps ward off the effects of the afternoon slump, says Loehr.
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