the afternoon slump is normal: work with it; not around it

i’ve written at least twice about how to best structure a work day, but the afternoon slump (that terrible period of time, usually after lunch, where you “can’t seem to get anything done”) comes up so often when i’m talking to people that i figured it deserved its own piece.

high-level summary: everyone’s energy generally diminishes over the course of day. there are exceptions and it’s not a linear decrease, but everyone finishes with less than they started with. knowing that, the way to maximize your productivity is to do the right type of work at the best time of day for that work.

the strategy: in my observation and experience, doing your most difficult or heaviest-thinking work in the morning and saving meetings and tedious/mechanical tasks for the afternoon is the best overall strategy. and, as always, everyone should test and figure out what works for them because nothing works for everyone, but something will work for you.

ok. here are the bits of theory and experience that build up the above insight:

time management fails knowledge workers

the whole idea of an eight-hour workday came about as a worker protection when people’s work tended to be mechanical during the industrial era (details here). however, at that point, because people made more widgets than think, all hours were basically created equal. however, for knowledge workers (people who are mostly paid to think and then occasionally execute on their thinking), all hours of the day aren’t the same.

so we need to evolve past thinking about productivity as time management. my favorite productivity blog, barking up the wrong tree, often gives the advice that you should manage your mood, not your time. tony schwartz, another productivity guru, believes it’s critical to manage your energy, not your time. i’m sure there are other frames through which to analyze this, but either way, breaking your work up into time blocks irrespective of what the particular hour is good for is working against your body and that’s almost never a good call. so the solution: match the work you have to the type of energy you have at a given moment (note: getting to the perfect world of this takes time, especially if you have a highly collaborative, but rigid work environment. however, the more productive you prove you can be, the ammo you’ll build for your coworkers and boss to let you do what you want).

save your “mechanical” work for the afternoon (i.e. don’t do it in the morning, no matter how strong the temptation)

because of things like cognitive budgets and decision fatigue, i have read (and observed) that it suits many people to do their difficult or heavy-thinking work first thing in the morning. i think every productivity book i’ve ever read discussed this.

it works for three reasons:

  1. you need the most and your best energy to do your most difficult or creativity-intensive work (i wrote about that over here). people often fall into the trap of doing easy or mechanical things in the morning (email, quick tasks, printing things, whatever) because they make us feel productive, but then we waste our good energy in the morning and find ourselves fighting to do the hard stuff in the afternoon which takes much longer (because decision fatigue).
  2. heavy-thinking work is often the most “flow”-like work. interruptions are loath to this type of work. in fact, a single interruption (planned or unplanned) can prevent a heavy-thinking task from being completed (see paul graham’s piece on maker vs manager schedules). doing your heaviest-thinking in the morning, especially between the hours of 6 and 9a, minimizes potential to be distracted. there’s also a good window of low-interruption time in the evening, but if you’ve been up since the morning time, it’s less likely that you’re going to have the right energy by that time of day. it’s not impossible; just less likely.
  3. when you deploy your cognitive budget on the right things at the right time, you optimize your whole day. almost everyone has creative work (planning, making, producing long and/or complex documents or content) and tedious work (research, email, printing, meetings, prep for other things, phone calls) to do everyday. doing the right work at the right time allows you to get it all done in the least amount of time possible, and then be free to everything else in your life (including love).

holy shit i just wrote for 30 minutes. that has never happened before. this piece is 3x longer than most of my others. yikes! sorry! #flowiguess