Our productivity cycles dictate when we should focus on our most difficult work and when we should slog off a bit and do tasks that require less brain power. There’s a corollary benefit of saving up your easy tasks, if you can manage to do them at a time of day when you allow for interruptions.
Let me explain through an example.
Let’s say you tend to do your best work in the first half of the day. Maybe you’re a morning person, so you wake up refreshed and your mind feels most alive before, say, 11 a.m. From a productivity perspective, you’d do best to tackle your hardest tasks then, while your mind is functionally optimally. Additionally, let’s say you tend to slump after lunch. You find it difficult to focus between 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sometimes you can get into the groove of some good work around 4 p.m., but by 5:30 at the very latest, you’re completely sapped. According to your productivity cycle, you should spend the afternoon doing tasks that are simple and not very cognitively intense. And if you can help it, you should let people around you know that if they’re going to interrupt you for some reason, they really ought to do it in the afternoon rather than the morning. For this reason, you should shut down your email program in the morning (emails are a constant source of interruptions) and never schedule meetings early either. Additionally, you should make a habit of taking meetings only in the afternoon, a time of day when you should also answer email, file papers, and chat with colleagues.
Protect Your Productive Hours
It always strikes me as odd when I meet people who fester away their most productive hours doing work that doesn’t require optimal brainwork, such as answering emails or taking meetings.
To be your most productive, it’s essential to figure out when are your peak productivity hours and then make a habit of both protecting them from interruptions, as well as from your own mundane tasks.
Interruptions Speed Up Simple Tasks
A few studies (but notably Speir et al., 1999) show that when we are interrupted during simple tasks, we actually complete them quicker and with the same accuracy as people who were not interrupted. The theory in part is that to get simple tasks done, we need to ignore irrelevant information, focus only on what’s important, and act quickly. The pressure on time and focus created through interruptions causes us to do exactly that.
The same researchers found that when completing more difficult tasks, interruptions cause us to take longer to do them, but again with the same accuracy as someone who was not interrupted.
What Can You Do?
So for efficiency and therefore productivity’s sake, save your simple tasks for a time of day when you’re more likely to be interrupted. It not only protects your productive hours, but it also might speed up how quickly you get those boring tasks done.
Speier, C., Valacich, J. S., & Vessey, I. (1999). The Influence of Task Interruption on Individual Decision Making: An Information Overload Perspective, Decision Sciences 30, 337–360.
Image by Tim Welbourn, CC.