“Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change—this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision, fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.” — Bruce Barton, American author.
“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm, and harmony.” Thomas Merton, American writer and Trappist monk.
“Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity.” — Plato, ancient Greek philosopher.
Forget company politics, who you know, how early you arrive in the morning, or how late you stay: in the daily workplace round, simple time management skills reign supreme. You can’t accomplish much in the corporate world without learning to break down your working life into distinct tasks you can easily keep track of, so you can prioritize them by value and schedule them logically. Only then can you make the most of your workplace productivity, while still allowing yourself enough time away from the job for all those other activities that make life worthwhile.
Oh, working like a dog can get you by in the short term, but working too hard for too long just wears you down and burns you out. You can’t do your best work when you always feel tired, or just don’t care anymore. If the economy takes a downturn, or your superiors simply feel the need to cut costs, you may find yourself out of a job as a result—no matter how hard you worked last year, or even last week.
So let’s stipulate that an effective to-do list, a personal organizational system, scheduling prowess, and all the other basics of time management are critical tools for making it in the big time. This still leaves you with a lot of leeway to experiment with the details. Among other things, you can test various ways to structure your tasks so you get into a rhythm of work that takes into account not just your personal characteristics, but also human psychology and the way American business has structured the standard workweek.
Your Private Rhythm
Human beings experience certain natural rhythms, marked by peaks and valleys in both mood and energy during the day and week. For example, most of us have more energy in the mornings, though this is by no means true of everyone; your peak may occur just after lunch, or at 3:00. Whenever it occurs, take advantage of your productive surge. Rather than waste it on housekeeping chores or taking a break, tackle the tasks that require greater focus and effort when you feel your best. You can handle less important things later, after you wind down a little. If you’re a morning person, you might try sitting right down to an important project first, rather than checking your email. You may have to shake up your current routine a bit as you work to match the correct task to your energy level.
On a weekly scale, you may have a hard time getting started on Mondays, as your body and mind readjust to the workweek; and by Friday, you may feel ground down by the week’s stress and strain. If so, these may be days when you should avoid tasks that require a lot of thought or focus, choosing instead to do things like organizing, planning, or dealing with simple people-related issues. Other the other hand, you may find that the core of the week, Tuesday through Thursday, represents your most productive period. On such days, it really pays to put your head down and push through your most difficult and important tasks, while you have the capacity to do so. Or if you’ve been traveling, you may find the day you get back dedicated to just regrouping, reorganizing, and figuring out what’s on your plate.
Finally, consider the fixed actions you know you’ll have to take part in or take time off for, and try to build them into your rhythm. If you have a special meeting the first Wednesday of every month or need to drive your daughter to ballet class at 4 PM on Tuesdays, make sure you take those items into account. Arrange your schedule so you don’t have to bring a particular activity or group of activities to a screeching halt in order to take care of your fixed events.
You don’t operate in a vacuum, so be sure to consider other people’s rhythms whenever you can. On a grand scale, suppose you have to drive across the city to a branch office on a weekly basis. Don’t try to make your trip during the morning or evening rush hours; instead, maximize your productivity by choosing some time like 10:15 AM, after the morning rush has cleared and before people have started to head out to lunch.
At the intra-office level, recent research suggests that the best time to have effective meetings is on Tuesday afternoons. Even if Tuesdays don’t work for you, you may want to establish a specific meeting day for yourself—one day a week when you do little else but have face-to-face interactions and conference calls with others. I tend to stack all my meetings in one day, rather than spreading them out over several days, so I have larger blocks of time on some days to focus on creative tasks.
Closer to home, try to get to know the general rhythms of the co-workers you deal with most often. If you can predict when regular events in their lives will affect the rhythm of your own, then you can take those things into account when building your schedule.
A Rhythmic Composite
Determining the work rhythm that maximizes your productive potential requires openness to experimentation, a sharp eye for your own rhythms and those of others, and a willingness to keep trying until you find something that works. The ideal approach probably won’t make itself obvious right away, though the tips I’ve outlined should get you started.
Just get moving and keep your eyes open. Eventually, you’ll hit your stride in a way that instinctively takes into account your peak energy periods, your scheduled tasks, the rhythms of your coworkers, and the world at large. That will help you maximize your overall productivity at work, while giving yourself enough free time to enjoy life outside work.