Some things are demanding or complex enough to require a person's best.
There are probably times during your day when you operate at peak efficiency, and others when you’re probably better off taking a nap. The good news is, these times are usually predictable.
There’s even better news on this front: These peak times will evolve as you develop personal habits. I’ll get into that part later.
The whole trick here is to find those peak times, and to my knowledge there’s no real test to determine what those are. As far as I know, there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned trial-and-error method. That, and running an audit of yourself.
Once you know your peaks and valleys, you can plan your day somewhat. If you’re self-employed, this knowledge is huge. If you have one of those day jobs where you have some control over your work flow, this is still good stuff to know. If you have one of those on-the-line jobs where you make grommets all day, it’s still good information.
If you have a day job and are exercising those creative muscles by building something for yourself in your off hours, this knowledge will be like gold.
What I found out: Some surprises
I did this audit recently, and came up with a few surprises. I have two peak periods a day where I’m really smokin’ and dealin’ — but those peaks are several hours apart. Which means if I was working for someone else full time and need to be at my best for the whole time, a split shift is the thing. But no single employer deserves that much from me.
My peak periods run from about 9 a.m. to noon, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Each of these periods is followed by a three-hour stretch where I start to wear down but am still good.
But from 3 to about 5 p.m., forget it. I’m useless. Anything requiring brain power takes considerable effort.
Gee, maybe that explains why I was such a strong starter but not a great finisher on my former day job. Getting toward the end of the shift I was sucking on fumes. If that job required any brains, it would have been worse than it already was.
I’m still trying to figure out how the morning thing got into the picture. Like, how did this longtime night person manage to operate in a halfway intelligent manner in the mornings? I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll get to it; just let me lay my story out right.
Trust me. That monkey mind will get ya.
I’m writing this at 9:30 a.m., right there in my wheelhouse. My peak periods are reserved for writing and brainstorming; the real high-impact stuff. A problem is that my mind is so active during these stretches that I’m particularly susceptible to distractions. Especially in the morning session, when I top-load most of my work, I use a timer to keep me focused. Otherwise, monkey mind takes over.
I use my declining periods for some editing, pitching some work, research and work-related correspondence. I try to put the most important stuff toward the front of this time while I still have something.
From 3 to 6 p.m. I’ve shut work down. Forget it. I’m borderline useless. No writing or editing then, otherwise I’ll make a mess of things. Save that for reading, some correspondence, some social media. As I get older I’ve come to appreciate a good nap, and that’s the time for me to do it.
Although I always thought my chunked-up day was because I’m a max-effort kind of guy, after talking to other creative types I find two separate peak periods in a day isn’t all that unusual. It’s like the brain and body catch that second wind. Even when I try to push against my personal tide and try to get stuff done during my useless period, I still perk up in the evening. The only real difficulty here (besides the monkey mind) is that I need to bring things to a hard stop; otherwise I’ll go past midnight. This old guy needs his sleep.
Using the chunks instead of blowing them
OK, so you have a day job and maybe you’ve identified two peak periods in your day. Give one to your employer because that’s the right thing to do. Put your more intensive work into that time slot, and use non-peak times for the more mundane tasks. But if your employer demands both of your peak periods, he’s stealing.
If that other peak time is in the evening, use it for the stuff that demands your best. Write that novel. Work over the chord changes of “Giant Steps.” Build that Next Big Thing. The declining time is still good for engagement, social stuff, and anything that requires you to be present.
Appendix: Peak times will evolve
I find it interesting how my peak times adjusted over the years. I’ve always been a night person; I even sought the midnight-to-8 shift whenever possible. Mornings were for other people. I just don’t do mornings, and anyone who called me before noon usually caught an earful of naked hostility.
I’d like to think I’ve matured, but that’s not likely (no future in that anyway). More than likely it was that aforementioned day job. I had to hit the ground running at 7:30 a.m. each day, no fiddling around. That, I think, trained me to those hours.
Some further reading
OK. I’ll admit falling asleep is an issue for me, especially when my mind is in overdrive. I noted it on Twitter the other night:
* * *
Ugh. Still up. #amwriting at 12:30 a.m., BDT. That’s #Bipolar Daylight Time for the uninitiated around here. #brainshutup
* * *
Gets rough around here sometimes.
Liisa Kyle, Ph.D and Lisa Rothstein, those outrageously multitalented ladies at davincidilemma.com, came out with a blog post about things to do when you can’t sleep, and it’s really interesting. Kyle, who wrote the piece, suggests our current model of falling down and sleeping for eight hours is a fairly recent phenomenon. She cites a BBC piece as evidence.
It seems the normal sleep pattern until the 20th Century was to fall asleep for about four hours, get up for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four. The straight eight started to catch on the late 17th Century, and pretty much took over by 1920. You could say increased industrialization and shift work more than contributed to this change.