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Is the 9-5 Killing Productivity? Harnessing Your Natural Rhythms to Get More Done

The 9-5 working day is so ingrained into modern day society that we barely think to question it. But is sitting at our desks 8 hours a day really the optimal solution for the workers of today?

Observe exactly what you do at work over the course of a day (there is software to track this or you can simply write down everything you do from checking emails to making coffee) and you’ll probably find that the number of hours spent doing actual work is surprisingly low.

Most people will find that while they may be at work for 8 hours a day, up to half that time will be occupied by checking emails, making coffee, shuffling papers and sneakily checking in on Facebook.

The fact is that it is physically impossible for most people to engage their brains in activity that requires intense concentration for more than a couple of hours. Even if you take regular breaks, there will be times when you can get an amazing amount of work done in a short space of time and other times when you sit staring at your monitor, getting nowhere.

We know this and yet nearly every company in the modern world is set to operate between the hours of 9-5 or thereabouts. Why is this?

The origins of the 9-5 working day

Prior to the industrial revolution, workers’ hours were dictated mainly by the hours of sunlight and the weather. This did not mean less work – in fact many people would work up to 16 hours a day during the summer when the days were long.

The average pre-industrial worker was not sitting at a desk for 16 hours a day however. A large percentage of the population worked outside and labor was mainly manual. A long working day is suited to physical labor but for people whose work involves creative and strategic thinking, it is very impractical.

At the start of the industrial revolution it was still common to work up to 12 hours a day. Hours were set to maximize production and make the most effective use of electric lighting and machinery. As workers rights were slowly introduced, the maximum number of working hours per week was reduced, until we reached the standard 5-day 40-hour week that is so familiar today.

But the majority of today’s population is no longer toiling in the fields or working in factories, so why are we hanging onto this archaic working arrangement?

Understanding your natural energy rhythms

Everyone has different times of the day when they do their best work. In general most people will achieve their highest concentration and focus in the morning. After a couple of hours, concentration starts to wane and productivity decreases. Most people have a slump after lunch in the early afternoon where they feel sluggish and don’t get much done. Later there is often a second peak of energy, although not quite as pronounced as the first.

These two main energy peaks seem to be fairly standard, although they may happen at different times for different people. A study of professional violinists in Germany in the 1990s discovered that the practice of the ‘elite’ violinists was divided into two main sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The musicians who were judged to be of more average ability were more likely to spread their work throughout the day.

We are all individuals, not drones of the industrial revolution. Some people are night owls and do their best work as the rest of the world sleeps. Others are early risers and find they are most productive in the morning.

For example, I am a natural night owl. I have always been most productive and done my best and most creative work at night. However since having children and moving to a country where it is common to rise before dawn, I’ve found that I can now get the most work done early in the morning and I am too tired to be productive at night. The double energy peak does indeed seem to be true for me though – if I can get over the 9 or 10pm hump when my energy levels are at their lowest, I get a second wind and can work happily and productively until 2 or 3am.

By working at the times when you are most alert and productive and using downtimes as an opportunity to recharge your batteries, you will maximize your productivity and effectively reduce your number of daily working hours while getting the same amount of work done.

Following your natural rhythms to be more productive

When you’re trying to figure out your most productive times, it helps to keep an hourly record of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. After a week or so, a pattern will emerge and you can start to plan your work accordingly.

Most people can divide their work tasks into three different categories:

High-energy tasks require the most concentration. Depending on your particular area of work, these may include:

•    Strategic planning
•    Chairing meetings
•    Writing
•    Coding
•    Design
•    Any demanding or critical tasks.

Medium-energy tasks still require concentration but less effort than the high-energy tasks. These may include:

•    Attending meetings
•    Making telephone calls
•    Making notes
•    Work scheduling
•    Replying to emails
•    Proofreading.

Low-energy tasks are often things that provide the least value to your work:

•    Checking in on social media
•    Reading blogs
•    Filing paperwork
•    Making coffee.

It makes sense to schedule your high-energy tasks for the times when your energy and concentration is peaking. This is one of the main reasons why productivity experts recommend doing your biggest, hardest task before anything else (see the book, Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracy for more on this theory).

Save the necessary but lower-energy tasks such as replying to emails and non-critical meetings for times when your energy is a little lower. When you’re feeling really sluggish, feel free to do lower value tasks like reading blogs, as you are unlikely to be able to do productive work during this time anyway.

You can still optimize your slower periods by using technology like Specific Feeds to ignore the superfluous stream of information and concentrate only on what’s important to you.

It’s also important to take regular breaks away from the computer every couple of hours, whatever your energy level. This is a good time to take a short walk, do some stretches, or go get a coffee.

If you work for yourself, try making some adjustments to your working day and seeing how much less time you can spend working and how much more you get done.

The modern work place does not always make it easy to work to your natural rhythms. If you’re still tied into a 9-5 routine, have a chat with your manager about the advantages of working at your most productive times. Even if you’re not permitted to leave the office or take longer breaks when you’re feeling unproductive, there are normally some lower value tasks such as sorting out paperwork or your emails that can be done.

Do you have any suggestions for making the most of your natural rhythms to get more done? Let us know in the comments.

Written on 8/10/2013 by Rachel Adnyana. Rachel Adnyana is a regular writer for, a blog on increasing productivity. When she’s not scouring blogs for productivity and time management tips, she’s busy kid-wrangling two small children at their home in Bali.

Photo Credit: Food Loves Writing

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