Circadian Rhythms of Work: When Are We Actually Productive?

Monday 02 March 2020
Productivity is an issue in workplaces across the UK. Here's how to understand your internal circadian rhythm and productivity cycles

Art Anthony works best, he says, between the hours of 4pm and 10pm. Joanna Baker-Rogers starts work at 5am, and breaks her working day into three chunks. Both of them believe that they’ve worked out the most productive 'circadian rhythm' cycle for their days.

“I have a lot of American clients,” says Anthony, a copywriter. “As they’re five or eight hours behind me, and I’m expected to jump on calls with them, it’s helpful to have that overlap. You’re getting towards midnight before their working day is closing out.”

“We’ve all been brought up to think that a full-time job has to be between the hours of nine and five, and I don’t think that works anymore,” says Baker-Rogers, who works on various diversity and inclusivity initiatives through her company Busy Life. “I think we have so many demands on our time, you have other commitments and more of us are working across different projects and portfolios. I need to work at different times.”

Emma Mills-Sheffield, a productivity consultant that works with companies of various sizes through her company, Mindsetup, agrees that the traditional 9am to 5pm working day doesn’t necessarily work for everyone: “If you’re paid for nine to five, you fill nine to five. There’s a general malaise around that.”

Mills-Sheffield previously worked in project management for companies such as KPMG and WSP. She had a life-changing epiphany after her sister, 15 years her senior, passed away. “I realised that I had something my sister never had, and that’s time. I thought: you know what? Life is short. That’s my mantra: life’s short, so crack on.”

Why Our Productivity Suffers

We see and hear in articles and through our politicians that the UK has a productivity problem. Why is that? Part of the problem is the digital noise we’re surrounded by daily. From constant phone alerts and emails to productivity tools such as Slack and Trello, we face constant distractions.

The trickier issue is more ingrained, Mills-Sheffield explains. “Within organisations, people are not trained how to work well. You’re taught the job and the knowledge, but do you have the skills to manage yourself?”

Understanding Your Own Cycle

“People have their own cycles, but typically most people are better in the mornings,” Mills-Sheffield says. “If they’re not good in the mornings, it’s often because their sleep cycles are out of whack; if they got into a more conventional pattern, they’d still achieve more by 10am than other times.”

This is where understanding your own circadian rhythm comes into play: pay attention to when you feel naturally productive or energetic, and when you really struggle to keep your eyes open without coffee. Having this understanding can help you figure out your best working hours and help shape your to-do list according to when you'll be most likely to get harder tasks done well.

“If I’m running a workshop, I have to go and write the content. That’s ‘head down’ work; I can’t go at that in chunks – I have to do that in one go. Then I do my emails, the ‘mindless task’. Then my ‘just business’ work is things like invoicing, some of the social media planning, doing a blog post.”

It’s difficult to do three hours of hard, solid, eyes-down work without a break. If you do, you’ll get fatigued later. It’s better to split your work into categories: ‘head down’ work, ‘mindless tasks’ and ‘just business’.

We asked you on social media when you were most productive – the overwhelming majority of you get the most work done in the morning: 75% of you preferred morning to afternoon on Facebook, 72% picked morning over afternoon for productivity on Instagram, and 55% of you were more productive before 11am than any other time on Twitter:

Twitter Poll

Make realistic working plans for the day, bearing in mind any commitments you might have. Understand your limits – if you’re involved in a long meeting or presentation in the morning, the chances are you won’t have the energy to do intensive work in the afternoon.”

Quick Productivity Wins

Sadie Hopson, a consultant specialising in managing stress and improving time management at various organisations, offers these tips for making instant improvements to your productivity.

Analyse Your Peak Performance Times

“Track four components over a two-week period to assess how productive you are at different points in the day. Every hour, rate your levels of energy, creativity, motivation and focus; this can be a very simple quick rating between 1-10. Use this data to plot your average highs and lows and think about how you can manage your tasks based on your peak levels in each area.”

Avoid Multitasking

“To maximise your efficiency and effectiveness, switch off the email, turn off the phone and socials and manage the expectations of others by telling colleagues that you cannot be interrupted for a set period of time.”

Set a Routine

Consistency is king when it comes to energy management and helping the mind and body focus on the task at hand. Having a set routine throughout your day, week and month helps prime your brain to switch on (and switch off) at the right times – and when you need it most. This means scheduling in certain tasks at certain times and holding yourself accountable for sticking to that schedule. It’s beneficial for your mental health to set these professional boundaries.

Allow Yourself Time to Unplug

Just like you can increase your focus and concentration with your work, it is equally possible to increase your capacity for relaxation. Take regular breaks at work, enjoy your family downtime, switch off the email at the weekend; this is your recovery time and is the equivalent to plugging in your phone to recharge the batteries.

Fuel Your Mind and Move Your Body

Your food choices and level of physical activity directly links to your level of productivity and focus. Eating regular and well-balanced meals and exercising regularly will help manage your energy and increase levels of engagement and creativity. There are also specific foods to help increase levels of motivation and productivity: anything high in omega 3 (such as tuna, salmon, walnuts) are good for memory and mental performance; matcha green tea helps enhance levels of energy; most nuts and seeds are high magnesium, which aids learning.

For more productivity tips, log into ManagementDirect and search for ‘productivity’. You can find articles like how to be an email productivity ninja and our week trying to be the most productive human alive there, too!