There are certain times in everyone’s day when they are not as productive as they are at other times. Sometimes we’re fighting to stay awake, fighting to focus, or we’re simply not working productively.
The opposite is true as well. There are some parts of the day when we are amazing; we can get more done in one hour than we’d normally do in four hours.
It’s of matter of understanding when we are at our peak, and when we aren’t. And, more importantly, understanding what to do when we are in each of those modes.
To simplify the concept I’ve slotted people into three categories of birds. Are you a lark, an owl or a robin?
The lark considers the phrases “4 a.m.” and “in the morning” to be synonymous (for the rest of us, 4 a.m. means “the middle of the night”). Larks like to get up early. They take their time, relax and enjoy the quiet of the early morning. They like to either sit with their coffee and read the newspaper, or exercise very early in the morning. They also typically get to work quite early.
The lark is most productive in the first two to three hours of each day. That’s when the lark is able to give the best he or she has to give. As the day progresses, especially after lunch, the lark’s efficiency goes down.
If you’re a lark
It makes the most sense for you to postpone the social activities of the morning until at least 11 a.m. Meet someone for coffee later, not when you first arrive at work. You can talk about what happened on Dancing with the Stars later. First thing in the morning, you should jump into your heavy brain activity tasks such as budgeting, project management, difficult reports and strategy. The afternoon (or late morning depending on what time you get to work) is great for answering email, running routine reports, typing up minutes or mundane tasks.
Be careful that you don’t get caught up in other people’s emergencies in the morning, which would push your high importance tasks until later in the day. In fact, that’s precisely why larks like to get to work before everyone else. They want to tackle their high priority business before everyone else gets to work.
If you can, adjust your working hours so that you start at 7 a.m. or earlier. Even if that means you leave earlier than most people, those are low-productivity hours for you, anyway.
If the description of the lark gave you hives, you just might be an owl. The owl is the opposite of the lark.
Just like larks, owls are often awake at 4 a.m.—except they haven’t gone to bed yet. Owls don’t like mornings. They often say that they need caffeine to get going in the morning. They build up steam—and productivity—as the day progresses.
They avoid others until at least until lunchtime. It’s not that they’re grumpy in the morning, it’s just that they aren’t quite at their best then.
Owls get smarter and more productive as the day progresses, so mornings are best for things that aren’t urgent or important. The problem is that most work-fires arise (and have to be put out) in the morning. That’s when meetings are often hastily arranged by managers to handle an urgent issue, it’s when something has hit the media the night before and needs to be dealt with right away—the morning is typically when unplanned work happens.
Unfortunately for the owl, it’s not their best time in terms of alertness or productivity; and yet, they often have to put out the fires, anyway. This often means owls have to re-do work from the morning that they didn’t get right the first time, later in the day when they’re thinking more clearly.
The problem with owls is that they typically don’t leave work on time. They are usually in the middle of something when it is time to go home. If they carpool or have children in daycare who need to be picked up, they are forced to leave work, even if they don’t want to, and that can get very frustrating for them and sometimes for their co-workers or spouse.
If an owl has access to email at home, it is probably not unusual for them to log into the office computer at 11 p.m. and get another couple of hours work done. Owls love their smartphones and are likely very responsive after work hours.
If you’re an owl
If you can arrange it, don’t start work before 9 a.m. Set your clothes out the night before, pack your lunch, and get everything ready on your desk before you leave work. This will make your mornings easier. Not easy, but easier.
Spend the morning doing things that are easy to do. Perhaps that’s meeting planning, travel arrangements, schedule management, and attending (not running) meetings. You will likely be (and perhaps should be) more of a silent participant in the morning.
After lunch you should plan to get down to the more serious work tasks. After lunch is when owls start to wake up, start to think strategically, and start to really make a difference.
If neither of these quite describes you, you just might be a robin. A robin is the most common type of worker and straddles the two birds above.
Robins are not early morning risers, but they’re not late morning risers either. It seems that regardless of the time of the alarm, the bed is always more comfortable. However, once awake, robins are not going back to sleep, so they should just get up (regardless of what that time is—5 a.m. or 7 a.m.).
Robins are not as cheery or as friendly in the morning as the lark; nor are they considered off-limits or grumpy the way many owls are.
Robins tend to be very social first thing in the morning, though. Larks are hard at work, and owls are drinking as much coffee as possible, while robins want to know how your evening was. They want to connect with you before tackling their day.
Robins will be very productive (once they get started) for about two hours. Then it’s break-time and that will cause them to lose some of their momentum. A coffee or a cigarette break is a bad thing for a robin, because it creates a distraction, causing them to become unfocussed. That also makes it hard for them to gear back up after the break—and it’s all lost productivity.
Robins hit another peak efficiency period around 4 p.m. That might make it difficult for them to leave work on time because at 4 p.m. they’ve just started working on an important report, and although quitting time is 5 p.m., they’re on a roll.
If you’re a robin
If you are a robin, it is important that you force yourself to be very disciplined first thing in the morning. If you need to be social, just get to work a little early. Leave the larks (who are working on important tasks) alone. Get up-to-date with other robins (which isn’t difficult, because this is the most common type of worker), but limit yourself to 15 or 20 minutes.
If you think that should be really easy to do, time yourself tomorrow and you’ll probably see that it’s about 45 minutes until you are finished your morning routine (Facebook, chatting with co-workers, zipping through your email, your twitter feed, your horoscope). It isn’t that you’re wasting time (although to others it might look that way)—it’s simply your warm-up routine.
Limit your warm-up routine to 15 to 20 minutes and then shut down your Internet browser, pull something important out and get to it. Force yourself to pull away from more entertaining distractions.
I believe we need breaks, but I also believe we need to work within our natural rhythms and schedule our most important work for when we are most efficient. If you start work at 9 a.m., don’t take a break before 11 a.m. If you start at 8 a.m., try to make it to 10:30 before you stop for a break.
Recognize where your peaks are, and try to schedule your work accordingly. Discipline will be the most important thing for you because robins are easily distracted.
Go with the flow
Regardless of what bird category you fit into, it is important to carefully watch what works for you, and to know what doesn’t. What makes sense with your job, and what doesn’t.
The reality is that often our executives, our teams and our office hours don’t work optimally with our personality strengths, so we need to adapt. That’s normal. Understanding your best working rhythms will make it easier to be successful in terms of your time and workload management.