Article: "Understanding Your Personal Energy Cycle"

An important piece of productivity concerns what time of day you select to work on which activities. Everyone has a natural time during the day when they are "UP" (prime time) and a natural time when they are "DOWN" (down time). During prime time, your brain is "on"; your batteries are charged and you're able to focus. During down time, your brain feels "slow"; it's difficult to muddle through your work. 

First, let's chart your energy levels. Get out a piece of paper and draw a big "L" for a graph with a vertical and horizontal axis. Mark the vertical axis "0" to "100" to represent your energy level as a percentage. Mark the horizontal axis with your work hours, in one hour increments. When you arrive at work in the morning, draw a dot where energy intersects with time, to indicate how you feel in terms of your energy level. As the day progresses, draw a series of dots horizontally to show how your energy ebbs and flows. Then connect the dots and analyze your line chart. 

Draw a dotted line at about the 75% energy level mark across your line drawing to represent your peak productivity zone. Write these exact time ranges out to the side of your graph. These are your "expensive" hours, compared to other times during the day, because your brain is capable of doing higher-level activities in that range. It’s important to know when you’re in prime time, because you can get so much more done. The key is to focus on:

Important tasks 

Critical decisions 

Problem solving 

Complex thought 

If you wait until you're in down time to work on these types of activities, it will take much, much longer and be much, much more painful. The challenge for most people is that when they're in prime time, they feel GOOD! The last thing you might feel like doing when you're "up" is working on that report, writing a proposal, or analyzing those figures. But if you wait until you're going down, you've lost the opportunity to get it done quickly. The trick here is a lot of self-discipline. Resist the urge to do “fun, easy, trivial” things during this period or talk to your friends. 

I actually have two prime times: one in the morning, and one early afternoon. When I'm in prime time, I need to make my marketing calls, because I need to be "up" and on top of the conversation. Sometimes, I will purposely let my voice mail pick up my calls, when I know I'm in down time and won't be as articulate as I'd like to be with a client. I will also respond to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) sent by prospective clients in prime time. I want to write quickly and succinctly, and my prime time is the key opportunity for that work.

Similarly, I listen to my body when I'm in down time. When I feel my energy level waning, a quick glance at the clock will usually tell me why. I know I need to get up, stretch, perhaps go for a quick walk around the block, eat an energy snack, or make a cup of tea. Then I will go back and work on some different activities, not necessarily ones with low priority, but those that don't require the brain power of the prime time tasks. If I don't listen to my body's signals and respond appropriately, I will get a rip-roaring headache, preventing me from taking advantage of my second prime time.

Another consideration is when to hold meetings. If you're a manager or professional with the ability to call a meeting during a certain time, really think about when to hold them. It's often eye-opening to do this prime time graphing activity with your staff or the people normally in attendance. I think you'll find that corporate America has trained most people to be “morning people.” Our natural energy cycles cause us to be “up” or have “prime” time first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, most people insist on holding meetings at that time. *Some* meetings are good to have during prime time, like those involving brainstorming, problem solving, or strategy. But routine staff meetings, project updates, or information-only meetings should be held during lulls in productivity. If you are stuck attending these meetings with no control over when they are held, a phone call to the chair with this graph as a team-building activity might be well-received. Also send that person this article! 
I think about my energy level like a dimmer switch my hubbie John recently put in our bathroom. People don't operate at "OFF" and "ON." You're not running full-tilt all day long, then sleep at night. It's not "0" and "100%" but rather various levels all day. People are more like dimmer switches. Or cats.

My kitty Emma follows the sunshine all day. She plays some, sleeps some, eats some, and pays attention to her own desires. People say things like, "I *have* to check email at (x) time of day." Why? Better to schedule times to handle email when you're in down time and stick to a self-imposed limit. Rarely to people need to be going a hundred miles an hour to handle email. Pay attention and slow down when your brain and body tell you to.

Be a cat. Be a dimmer switch. Follow your rhythms and work with your brain's and body's desires for you throughout the day. Remember, it’s costly to have key people, including yourself, tied up in routine meetings during periods of peak energy and productivity. And it's costly for you to work on things you can do in your sleep during your peak productivity zone. Once you know what that zone is, protect it for all your worth! Be self-disciplined when you're "up." And listen to yourself and rest when you're "down." Meow. 

© Copyright 2003 Laura Stack, MBA, CSP. All rights reserved. Portions of this newsletter may be reprinted in your organization or association newsletter, provided the following credit line is present:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,"® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at