I am a self-confessed early bird, my partner is a definite night owl - these are common terms used to describe how we work with our own energy cycles. Thankfully we all have different energy cycles, otherwise, there’d be no one available for those early morning calls to 111 with a sick child!
Some folks are full of energy all day (and night) and others have a few productive hours in a day. I am most productive in the morning, in fact, I would say between 5 am and 7 am and then again 10 am - 12 pm. Your energy cycles are dependent on everything from your natural rhythms to the ways in which you take care of yourself. As you've heard a million times by now, sleep, diet, and exercise will all have a genuine impact on the way you function.
Peak Energy for work
You will tend to be the most productive a few hours into their workday. Assuming you start in the morning, this will probably be around 10 or 11 a.m. or so. After lunchtime, the energy will decline and hit a low around mid-afternoon.
This process is natural, and the reason why naps are encouraged around this time of day. From there, people will generally hit another peak at around 6 p.m. Take some time to notice your own energy patterns throughout the day.
You might also take this a step further and think about how the moon, the seasons and other natural cycles affect you.
Rescheduling for Productivity
Once you know what your own energy cycle looks like, you can restructure your day so you're tackling the most difficult tasks when your energy levels are naturally higher and rest or do easier tasks when they are naturally lower.
But what if you could take this idea beyond just your daily schedule and start optimizing your time and effort across weeks, months, or even years?
Setting longer cycles to increase productivity
I've been an advocate for working in smaller chunks of time for a few years. The idea of setting an annual goal but not planning it has never worked for me. For the last couple of years, I've used the 12 week year method which has worked really well for me.
In 2021 I took a six-week challenge to update my website and realised that this shorter cycle worked even better for me. I found that it fit in with my natural energy and enthusiasm as well as fitting within the school term, an added bonus for me and my family.
However, you cannot increase your productivity forever, there is a threshold, which, once crossed, means that working doesn’t produce anything of value and often leads to increased stress and burnout. I found at the end of the challenge I had achieved LOADS. I was so proud of myself, and, I was exhausted. In fact, I was so exhausted it took me another three months to replenish my energy. I had reached my threshold.
So this year I've intentionally planned my goals around an 8-week cycle - 6 weeks in action, and 2 weeks to rest. I am five weeks into my first six-week cycle and still feeling quite fresh. Admittedly, I have taken it really slow - as per my intention for the whole year. There are two big benefits that I have noticed:
Prioritising your goals
Whether you set long or short cycles, the whole purpose of them is to prioritise your goals. Most of us get distracted, interrupted and have to deal with ‘urgent’ tasks. In fact, research shows that most knowledge workers spend around 80% of their day in meetings, doing “busy work”, and on calls and emails. However, once you start thinking of your work in larger cycles, it forces you to decide what’s most important not just today, but on a larger timescale.
Seasons of work and rest
Just like setting daily cycles based on your energy for the day, setting longer productivity cycles allows you to balance periods of work with periods of rest. This gives you the mental space to work on bigger challenges and get creative - something you cannot do if you are drowning in work. Think of these cycles like the seasons.
One of the biggest benefits I have found is that you don’t need to force motivation. Because there is a fixed timeline e.g. 6/12 week goals (or sprints if you speak in the language of SCRUM) then you know that you can commit for that period of time. You can experiment, try new things and get curious.
Creating your own cycles
I accidentally discovered that a six-week cycle worked for me. There are books that you can get for helping you with a 12-week cycle or even a 2-week sprint but what if you want to set your own? Here’s a quick guide on how to decide on, create, and commit to your own cycle of productivity.
Step 1: Start with a habit
The best cycles are habitual. In other words, you do them almost without thinking about it. The best way to build habits is to start small. Think about what you want your productivity cycle to be. Do you want to do a weekly review? If so, block out a regular time in your calendar. Do you want to write every day? Commit to just 100 words or set a goal of writing for 20 minutes.
Starting small reduces procrastination and can build your action into a habit.
Step 2: Review your process
For a cycle to work (and to become a habit), you need to understand the processes you use. Check to make sure that they are clear and specific. It is more difficult to create a cycle to ‘come up with a weekly growth strategy’. But you can create one where you “write down 10 new ideas for bringing in customers.” The latter is specific and measurable, the first is vague.
Consider: What do you do? What happens first? What do you need to be aware of?
Note these down until you start to see what clearly needs to be done.
Step 3: Decide on the frequency
When do you want your cycle to take place? Your answer will depend on the cycle itself as well as a few other criteria, such as:
- How much flexibility do you need? Is this cycle based on something you’re confident in (and have a checklist for?) Or something you’re experimenting with and need more time to play around with? Don’t try to formalize a system you’re unsure of yourself.
- What’s your skill level? Is your cycle based on something you can do in your sleep and doesn’t need re-enforcing? Or is this a skill you’re still building? Longer cycles can cause your skills and interest to deteriorate.
- What level of quality are you going for? Sometimes formalising tasks (especially creative ones) can cause you to lose some of your “spark.” While other times, it might improve your output.
- Who else do you work with? Does this cycle depend on other people? Communicate what you’re doing and make sure your timing lines up.
- When do you do your best work? Understanding when you do your best work can make sure that you optimize when you should schedule these cycles.
Step 4: Don’t forget to leave time for reflection and celebration
Most productive tasks follow a similar flow: Idea + Start > Action + Progress > Completion. At that point, most of us go back to the start and look for new ideas to work on. Instead, at the end of the cycle, create some time to reflect, celebrate and rest ahead of the next cycle.
In our rush to do more, we often forget the power of celebrating what we’ve accomplished. Paradoxically, seeing regular progress is one of the biggest motivators. Yet too many of us ignore the “small wins” and rush into what’s next on our plate.