How the right routine can save the day

| December 9, 2013
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Oh, holy routine! Every day, it seems, brings fresh tribute to the early morning habits of Benjamin Franklin or the five things that any successful person must do before breakfast. Success begins to sound like 1% inspiration and 99% perfect routine. 

But you can’t punch out the perfect routine with a cookie cutter. We’re all different. Special snowflakes, like our mothers always said. And, while there are some truths universal to human biology (we’ve never met a successful person who could go a straight 48 hours without sleep), our bodies and brains all work just a bit uniquely. When you factor in each person’s different jumble of workday tasks and projects — plus social demands and other commitments — it’s clear that one-size-fits-all time management formulas don’t work.

A truly effective routine begins with self-knowledge. Highly productive people, whether creative, corporate, or domestic, hone their routines to take advantage of their body’s natural rhythms. To start designing one that works for you, you’ll need to take stock of three things:

• your body’s natural rhythms of energy and alertness;
• the nature of the work that you do, and level of energy each kind of work demands;
• and the limits of your own physical powers and what you can do to recharge them.

Is your body in a different time zone than your schedule?
The human body runs on a 24-hour circadian clock, which varies from person to person.  Called a chronotype, it’s coded right into your genes. There are early morning people (diurnals) and late night people (nocturnals), though most of us are intermediary types. The diurnals — like Ben Franklin — are lucky because the modern workday matches the way their bodies function. The nocturnals among us, however, can be at a disadvantage. (Good to know: Our chronotypes change as we age. Older folks tend toward diurnal schedules, while adolescents are chronotypically nocturnal.)

When our internal clocks are out of sync with our external schedules, the result is what chronobiologist Till Roenneberg calls “social jet lag.” It’s debilitating and prevents us from being our most productive. It can also lead to health problems, including increased risk of cancer. 

Thing is, you already know your internal clock. It’s like an old friend who’s grown with you, whom you know better than anyone. Sometimes you battle it. Sometimes you’re in perfect partnership. By taking the time to finally sync up, you’ll feel better (mentally, physically, and emotionally) and get more done.

To start, take a sheet of paper and write down the timing of your different energy states, including how long they last. To surface your rhythms, consider the following:

• when your mind is naturally most active,
• when you start to feel negative or tired, and need to switch gears,
• when physical activity is easiest and most pleasurable,
• when being social is fun (versus distracting or tiring),
• when you start to space out and daydream (in a creative way),
• when you start to space out and fade (in a fatigued way),
• when emails are the absolute most that you can manage,
• when you hit the sleep wall.

You want to picture your ideal day, the kind of 24 hours you’d institute if you were the boss of the world. For example, if the urge to snooze hits you late in the afternoon, and meetings are a super-fun task at breakfast but never after — hey, no problem. On the other hand, perhaps your chronotype craves a seven-hour block of uninterrupted work time, with only short breaks for darjeeling tea, a couple zen-state daydreams, or an afternoon walk. 

You might notice that your moods — which can affect performance — are also intertwined with your internal clock, and that diet, exercise, and sleep can throw off your productivity. If you want to get really detailed about this, check out Lifehacker’s Personal Inventory Sheet to help you measure the impact of these factors. 

Next, we’ll reframe your perfect scenario into a usable blueprint.

Map out your day.
Listening to your internal clock will help you be mindful about when to schedule different kinds of work. Energy states are like buckets, and they can only hold so much before they overflow. So it’s important to map out the right times for different kinds of work, like complex immersive thinking, reactive work like fielding emails, and routine tasks.

To figure out what’s right for you, first print out the “My Ideal Routine” worksheet. You’ll find definitions for nine different types of work that you’re likely to encounter in a day. Compare the definitions with your perfect-day notes and you should start to see how you can base your work rhythm on your body rhythms. Using the colors assigned to each type of work, chart out the types of work you prefer through the different periods of a 24-hour day. This is your blueprint for building a daily routine. It’s okay if the shifts overlap a little, or you mix two kinds of work at once.  

Once you have your blueprint charted, how do you accommodate an agenda that isn’t always in your control? The key is to break up projects into different types of tasks that you can schedule according to your energy levels rather than taking it on all at once. You’ll get the job done on time, but according to your own rhythm, and probably with better results.

Here are some more routine scheduling tactics:
• Scatter simple tasks like making phone calls, gathering resource materials, and managing logistics throughout the day, as buffers to more taxing work.
• Thinking, writing, and research tasks demand more of your brain and body, so it helps to space them out over peak-energy periods of multiple days.
• If feedback or collaboration is necessary, schedule it for a time when you feel naturally cheerful and welcoming of other people’s ideas.
• When a problem is stumping you, put it on hold until you’re in a relaxed mode. Creative insights often happen at that quiet time right before bed, while taking a hot shower, or maybe during your afternoon walk.
• Try not to let your most cognitively demanding work spill over into your non-peak periods, and vice versa. 
• And don’t overschedule yourself by cramming too many tasks — or nonspecific tasks — into a single time period.

Turn off so you can turn on.
An electric company ad in the New York City subways says, “You never turn off, so why should we?” Because our bodies need to. We need REM sleep, glucose, and R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our inner clock to start fresh again.

So, when your thinking starts to fog, and coordination starts to falter, that’s your signal to rest, reset, refuel. Here are some tips to recharge:

• Avoid stressing your mind or body before bed. Possible culprits for restless sleep include an argument, social media distractions, upsetting news, a heavy meal or late-day exercise.
• Light is a cue that helps synchronize our internal clocks. Turn off screens and dim lights to signal your body for sleep.
• If your brain won’t stop spinning, download distracting thoughts or emotions in a journal that you can close and walk away from.
• The best time to nap is based on your circadian cycle. Short 10- to 20-minute naps are great for a quick recharge. If you’re lucky enough to have the freedom to take an afternoon snooze, you can use this nap wheel to chart when it will leave you the most refreshed. 
• Most of us don’t have the luxury to siesta. So power down during your lunch break. Even 15 to 20 minutes of not working is a good alternative to help you recharge. Also try daydreaming, stretching, a brief walk, or meditation. Just stepping away from your desk helps your body reset. 

While circadian clocks are genetic, our bodies are incredibly resilient and adaptable. When we need to, we can trick them into feeling more alert and energetic than chronobiology says they should. Buffering breaks, physical activity, and relaxing routine or practice work can help us stay in the flow longer, or help us get a second wind. But — caution! — use such tricks carefully. In this era that asks us to be  “always on,” we’re still better off turning off when our internal clocks tell us to.

DOWNLOAD THIS: A printable worksheet to help you chart “My Ideal Routine” 

Next week: How a lifelong procrastinator solved the productivity riddle
Last week: How to power up your productivity

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