The workday, for me, has a predictable arc: Those first glorious hours of possibility and productivity; lunch; dead-eyed stare/coma; revival in which a hour or two of work is accomplished; and then one final hour of trying not to click on Olympians curling with cats.
I'm not alone: A request on r/LifeProTips asked for advice on how to get through that final, draining hour of work, and garnered some pretty helpful responses, ranging from a snack (an orange, some almonds) to a short nap.
But for the definitive, backed-by-research answer, I turned to Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of several books about business, productivity, and behaviour, including the new When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He weighed in via email with a few suggestions for how to make the final stretch of the workday more productive.
Take a Break — But the Right Kind of Break
Everyone knows you can't work hours and hours without stopping — especially if your work requires any kind of creativity or focus. Pink says, "Science is showing that breaks are more important in restoring our mood and our mental sharpness than we realise. The best kinds of breaks are social rather than solo, moving rather than stationary, outside rather than inside, and are fully detached rather than semi-detached."
In other words, grab a co-worker and go for a short walk, or arrange to meet a friend for a quick coffee. "Talk about something other than work — and leave your phone behind."
Schedule a Brainstorming Session
The early morning, say, 6am — noon, is typically my most creative, focused time. (Once I look at the day's news, it's all over.) But I'm pretty much always up for a fresh cup of coffee and a chat session with co-workers after that. Pink says, "During the late afternoon and early evenings, we're typically less focused than we are in the morning. But we're also in a better mood. That combination — rising mood and less inhibition — makes a great time for creative, iterative, and freewheeling discussions."
Keep a Log
You track data for your exercise, your diet, your finances ... why not your work? Take the last few minutes of the work day, Pink advises, to jot down what you've accomplished that day. "The work of Harvard's Teresa Amabile has found that the single greatest day-to-day motivator on the job is making progress in meaningful work. But without tracking our "dones", we often don't know whether we're progressing.
Ending the day by recording what you've achieved can encode the entire day more positively." This can be especially helpful if you're the kind of person who tends to feel bad that the day hasn't been productive enough.
Point Your Wheels Downhill
I learned this some years ago — I think from Finish Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day: End the day by setting yourself up for success the next morning. In my case, if I'm working on a piece of writing, I stop in the middle of a thought and then pick it right up during my next work session.
Pink says, "Take advantage of the Zeigarnik Effect — our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. So if you're writing something, stop midway through a sentence. (Ernest Hemingway used this trick.) You mind will keep working on it. And when you return to the office the following morning, you'll have instant momentum." This means you finish the workday on a high note — you're in the middle of a productive task! — and you can jump right in the next day.
All good advice. But Reddit has a point: Don't forget about the wonders of a snack and/or a nap. If you're exhausted or are having a blood-sugar dip, that last hour is going to draaaag. And it helps to cut yourself some slack once in a while — sometimes your brain needs a break.
If that means 10 minutes of cat videos, so be it. You'll be ready to hit the ground running tomorrow.