Ever noticed that as the day wears on, your patience (and fuse) in meetings or conversations at work becomes shorter and more erratic? Your colleagues start to annoy you because you’re drained and dying for a nap not productive discussion.
When faced with important decisions, ones that could cost the company you work for millions if you’re wrong, you’re more likely to sigh and randomly pick one so you can move on to something else.
This is compounded by the fact that we waste so much time and energy on email every morning when we come into work and automatically start responding to what’s in our inbox instead of getting on with high-priority stuff.
The issue is that when our mental energy is low, depleted by making lots of decisions and doing lots of little tasks like email throughout the day, our brain starts to try and find ways to shortcut thinking.
Just think about the potential impact of this reckless behaviour.
Our jobs require that we make decisions — in fact, it’s why we are hired in the first place! We need good knowledge, experience and the ability to make a sound judgement in our area of expertise.
Hence, if you are not making good decisions, then you are putting your career at risk.
So what to do?
Morning or afternoon?
For starters, making important calls, having important discussions and doing important work should be done in the morning before you suffer from ‘whatever syndrome’, aka decision fatigue.
When you leave important decisions until the afternoon, then your cognitive alertness is impaired and it’s more likely you’ll be reactive.
This is best explained by the work of Michael Smolensky and Lynne Lambert, published in their book The Body Clock Guide to Better Health, which describes a person’s typical circadian rhythm.
For most of us, our most productive time will be first thing in the morning. Then by the afternoon our body and brain will be ready to switch to some routine tasks. This is true even if you say you are a night owl because studies have shown that only 10 to 21 per cent of people can actually survive on minimal sleep and working late into the early morning.
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Hence, tasks that require attention and focus (what we would call our ‘real work’) are best done in the morning, and repetitive tasks (like email) are best done in the afternoon.
Divide your day into four
When you pay attention to what you do in your day and when then you can schedule your day according to when particular tasks are best done. This will maximise your productivity – and your brainpower.
According to Daniel Kahneman, particularly in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the brain has two systems. One that doesn’t require much energy, it moves quickly and makes snap judgements. And the other, which uses a lot of energy and is slower or takes deeper thinking. People feel tired or ‘brain dead’ if they have been using the second system a lot. (Sound familiar?)
So when we’re looking at the tasks we need to do for the day, then we should assess the amount of brainpower it will require.
The first two hours requires deep thinking, concentration and focus (high intensity and high impact, so you should do your ‘real work’, that is any tasks that require a lot of attention, energy and focus.
In the second two hours, you are still alert but have space to do low impact tasks like dedicating time to others. Think bouncing ideas around with people or something similar.
Once you get to the third two hours then you need to switch to tasks that can be done while metaphorically sleeping because they are easy and the stakes are low. These are things that are repetitive and routine in nature – like processing email.
Lastly, the fourth two hours are perfect for preparation and planning because they don’t require a lot of ‘heavy lifting’ brain-wise, but will have a positive impact. Basically, anything that sets a successful day tomorrow.
When we time it right, working with our body’s natural rhythm, not against it, then we are happier, more alert, optimistic and this makes us better at decisions, and ultimately at our jobs
DONNA McGEORGE is a speaker, author and mentor who helps people make their work work. Using a creative, practical approach, she improves workplace effectiveness while challenging thinking on leadership, productivity and virtual work. ‘The First 2 Hours: Make better Use of Your Most Valuable Time’ is published by John Wiley.