Match Your Tasks to Your Energy Level



Although we all enjoy the same 168 hours per week, the quality of our hours throughout the day varies depending on our circadian rhythms, sleep quality and quantity, stress levels, and the demands upon our time. In the summer, many academics have more flexible schedules, at least during the months when they are not teaching. Knowing how to best match your tasks to your energy cycles can help you work better and have more time for relaxation.

Even if I could wave a magic wand and give ten people the hours between 1:00-4:00 pm free of other constraints and commitments, they wouldn’t all be able to use them equally well. According to the current terminology, some of us are larks (morning people), some of us are (night) owls, and some of us are hummingbirds (in between). To the extent that you can adjust your life and work schedule to match your natural tendency, you’ll probably be happier and more effective. But most people have had to adapt their natural circadian rhythms to fit those of the industrial world, or the routines of their family. So knowing what your innate energy patterns are can actually be somewhat difficult. This lark/owl quiz (derived from a self-assessment instrument published in the International Journal of Chronobiology) asks about your preferred wake up and sleep times, as well as when during the day you would prefer to do physical exertion or mentally demanding tasks.

Over the course of the day, one’s energy goes through peaks and valleys as well, as Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz explain in The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. They emphasize the need for regular breaks throughout the day as well as longer periods of rest and relaxation to pace your energy throughout a long project. Although you probably have a few peak hours in the day, you’ll have other times that are good for different kinds of work.

Psychologist Ron Friedman has designed a quiz that can help you discover when your 2-3 peak hours occur during the day. (Note: to take his quiz online requires you to input an email address.) Along with questions about preferred sleep and wake times, exercise, and food, his quiz includes some work-specific questions like:

  • At what time of day are you best able to process critical feedback from a supervisor or client?
  • You need to review an important document and make sure there are no typos or grammatical errors. What time would you choose if you wanted the document to be perfect?

When considering how to best match your tasks to your energy it’s helpful to consider all the different kinds of work you do, and when would be the best time to do them. Even if you know that you’re naturally a morning person, for example, that alone may not help you best arrange all of your activities, since you can’t do everything first thing. Are you writing? editing? coding data? researching citations for a literature review? creating slides? preparing lecture notes for class? For each activity, consider when you would be best able to do that work well.

You might not know the answers to all those questions yet — so simply observing when you are intuitively drawn to do certain kinds of work, and how difficult or easy it is to complete the task at different times of day, can help you design your schedule to better match your tasks to your energy.

For example, I’ve learned that although I prefer to write in the late morning, if I’m writing code I do much better later in the day. Outlining and planning a project happens best earlier in the day, while taking notes or cleaning data is for me an afternoon or evening activity. For many people, different kinds of work activities better match their natural energy early or later in the workday. The same holds true for exercise, running errands, or other activities of daily life. Paying attention to your natural energy cycles can help you work with your body’s clock, rather than fighting against it.

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