Whether you’re a seasoned work-from-homer or still adjusting to it in these Pandemic Times, you’ve probably run into the whole “all hours are now potential work hours” problem. Without distinct separation between home and office, it’s hard to know when to work and when not to—especially when you’re combining work with parenting, cooking, exercising, taking your dogs out for their daily walks and everything else that goes into a typical day.
But there’s a flip side to the “always on the clock” thing, and it’s the idea that, in some cases, you can choose the work hours that work best for you. Yes, I know that you might still have to do the 8 a.m. Zoom meeting and that you might not really be able to work during the lunch hour because that’s when you’re feeding your kids (and, if there’s time, yourself). Still, you probably have more control over your work schedule than you’ve had in a while—which means it’s worth learning how to hack your day to get the most amount of work done in the least amount of time.
I am very familiar with my own productivity rhythms, having worked at home for the last eight years. I know, for example, that mornings are my most productive and focused hours—so I try to do as much work as I can before lunch. I process my email, check in with the students I’m teaching online, write my Lifehacker posts and do any administrative work that needs to get done. In the afternoons, I can maintain focus on a single freelance assignment, but I don’t really have the energy to switch between tasks or tackle finicky administrative stuff, so that’s when I schedule projects that require a few days of research and writing. I also make sure to build in one buffer afternoon per week, just in case I work so hard in the morning that I feel burned out after lunch (in which case I can take the afternoon off and still hit all of my deadlines).
If you don’t yet know whether you’re a morning person, an afternoon person, an evening person or a night owl—maybe because you’ve spent so long working a 9-to-5 that you’ve never had the chance to consider other options—here’s an exercise I give my writing students:
At various times throughout the day, try to write a six-word story. (Think Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) Start as soon as you wake up. Try to write a new story every time you remember the exercise exists.
When you complete a six-word story, note the time of completion—and look for patterns. Are there times when stories just pop into your brain? Are there other times when you think “I should write a six-word story” and your brain responds “nope, not right now”?
Keep this up for at least three days. By then, you’ll have a good idea of your most creative and productive time periods. You’ll also know which times of day are creative dead zones (which is good, because then you’ll know when not to schedule your creative work).
Of course, you might not really need to do the six-word story exercise to know where your productive peaks and valleys are. You might already be aware of when your work comes easily versus when you feel like you have to slog through your own tired mind to do something as basic as sending an email. That means that you can immediately start adjusting your work schedule to get stuff done during the peaks and take breaks during the valleys.
A lot of us have postprandial work slumps, for example, because our circadian rhythms really, really, really want us to take a nap after lunch. If the post-lunch hour is your least creative time period, and if your job and your household give you enough space to lie down and close your eyes for a bit, why not do it? That’s one of the benefits of working from home, after all—the ability to take a nap when you need one.
The other big benefit of working from home is that you can embrace your inner lark or night owl. If your most productive hours all take place after midnight—or if you like to start your days before sunrise—take advantage of this opportunity to do your best work during the time you work best. As long as you keep up with your assignments and projects, hit your deadlines and show up for any mandatory online meetings, you should be able to adjust your work schedule to maximise your productivity.
And if you end up getting more work done in less time, well—that’s the goal, isn’t it? Fewer hours spent working, fewer hours spent trying to get work done during creative dead zones and more hours to spend on the rest of your life.
Because if you’re in a job where any hour can be a work hour, it’s worth your time to figure out which hours are best for getting work done.