Most people’s mental energy is a roller coaster, says Chris Bailey, the author of “The Productivity Project.” “There are certain hours when you naturally have much more drive than at other times,” he says. The tricky thing is that the time of day when mental energy — and motivation — peaks is different for everyone. Fortunately, your highs tend to occur at about the same times every day, so you can learn to plan your schedule around them and maximize your productivity. Here’s how to take advantage of your personal power hour.
Pinpoint your peak productivity hour
Pay close attention to the times you feel inspired to dive into small and easily completed tasks, like going through your inbox or organizing your desk, suggests David Gard, Ph.D., the director of the Motivation and Emotion Research Laboratory at San Francisco State University. Taking on simple to-dos indicates you’re craving a sense of accomplishment, which is a sign that your motivation is starting to peak. Track your productivity for a few days in a row and you should notice a pattern.
Next, choose just one challenge to conquer
Your instinct may be to get as many things done as possible when your motivation is high. But it’s actually more efficient to work on one task that requires sustained energy and focus. More ambitious tasks may be daunting at first, but they’re ultimately more motivating. Plus, over time your brain will start to associate your power hour with achievement, which will make you even more productive.
Prime your brain to concentrate
A ritual — like writing a to-do list or taking a walk — right before your power hour can help strengthen your brain’s natural increase in focus. “It’s classical conditioning. After practicing the same behavior for several weeks, that activity can cue your mind to get ready for a productive work period,” Gard says.
Exercise is an especially powerful cue. “My studies have shown that your ability to focus your attention is improved for up to two hours after a single 50-minute workout session,” says Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and the author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life.
Set yourself up for success
“Before you begin a project, break it down into exaggeratedly small steps,” Gard advises. If you’re working on a presentation, for instance, step one might be to open PowerPoint and get your document cued up and ready to go. If you’ll be batch-cooking, assemble all your ingredients and preheat the oven. Getting all the necessary prep work out of the way beforehand lets you dive right in to the tough stuff. Then, eliminate any potential distractions — your phone, your in-box, noisy co-workers — and get to work.
To kick your motivation into high gear to complete your project, take a mini-break halfway through. “After 20 to 25 minutes, your productivity is shot. But you can cultivate and prolong your energy by taking frequent breaks. And no, checking your in-box doesn’t count, Gard adds. “It’s better to get out of your environment,” he says. “If you’re at your desk, get up and visit a co-worker for five minutes. Afterward, you’ll be primed to finish what you started.”
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Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.