The science-based secret to being more productive at work

Have you ever sat in a 9 a.m. meeting with your team and wondered why one person is jacked up on coffee and firing off ideas, and another person looks like they just woke up from a 100-year sleep?

You might think, “Well, the first person is just more productive. They’re good at their job, whereas Steve is a useless lump. Duh.” 

But actually, it’s not that simple. These two people probably have different chronotypes – meaning they’re inclined to sleep, work, and recover at different times. 

Understanding your chronotype is essential to being productive and doing your best work. 

It’s time for some truth-telling: If you’re not a morning person, there is no point forcing yourself to be one. 

So let’s stop the self-loathing about not being able to get up at 5 a.m., and start building a strategic, personalized productivity plan based on your chronotype.

animated gif of a witch

What’s your (chrono)type?

The human body has a 24-hour biological clock called a circadian rhythm, which controls our sleep-wake cycle and peaks and valleys of energy. (Animals have this too, hence why my hamster threw all-night dance parties every single night). 

There are three basic levels of energy people experience throughout the day.

  1. Peak - when you have the most energy and feel like you can do anything
  2. Dip - when you’re thinking, “I could really go for a nap right now” 
  3. Recovery - when you’re feeling okay, but not at peak levels

People experience peaks, dips, and recovery at different times of day based on their chronotype. Let’s dig into the three types.

illustration of chronotype

1. AM-shifted.

AM-shifted people are the classic “early risers.” They get up early, feel energized at the beginning of the day, and annoy the rest of us with their early morning jabbering. 

To borrow a line from Jeff Foxworthy, you might be AM-shifted if you:

  • Feel most energized from 7 to 11 a.m.
  • Feel tired between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Recover (but not back to your peak) between 2 and 6 p.m.
  • Find that you sleep best from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m.

2. Bi-phasic.

Bi-phasic people, the most common chronotype, are most productive mid-morning through early afternoon.  

You might be bi-phasic if you:

  • Feel most productive from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Feel like you’re going to collapse between 1 and 4 p.m.
  • Recover and feel okay from 4 to 9 p.m. 
  • Sleep best between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.

3. PM-shifted. 

PM-shifted people are night owls. These are the people who slack you at 9:45 p.m. with a great idea for a project, just as you’re firing up a serial killer documentary on Netflix. 

You might be PM-shifted if you:

  • Feel okay – but not amazing –  during most of the workday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Feel exhausted from 4 to 6 p.m.
  • Get a burst of energy from 6 to 10 p.m.
  • Finally fall asleep around 1 a.m. – and ideally sleep in ‘til 9 a.m.

Building a strategic schedule for your chronotype

Now that you know your chronotype, you can build your day around it.

Download this template to build your own strategic schedule. Fill in your peak, dip, and recovery hours on the left, and then block off hours like so: 

1. Schedule at least one hour of important work during your peak.

This is the perfect time to do strategic work: planning out your growth strategy for the year or weighing the options in a big decision. 

2. Schedule administrative work during your dip. 

Your dip is a great time to catch up on admin work. Yawn – literally. Use this time to  respond to emails, sign documents, or do your expense reports. 

3. Schedule creative work during your recovery phase.

You’re less inhibited during your recovery phase, so it’s a good time to do work like brainstorming and solving open-ended problems. (The recovery phase is probably when I had my great idea for a movie theater run by dogs). 

download template button

Working on teams with different chronotypes (without killing each other)

Different chronotypes can cause some problems on teams. 

Think of the guy who isn’t on Slack at all during the working day, and then starts blowing up your phone at 1 a.m. Or the person who is suspiciously cheerful at 8 a.m., but then disappears during your peak hours in the afternoon. 

Here are a few ideas to help different chronotypes work together. 

1. Make a team operating manual where you list everyone’s chronotype.

Every team needs an operating manual, and a great input for that manual is everyone’s chronotype (and Myers-Briggs and Enneagram, but that’s for another post).

Hold a team meeting where you introduce the concept of chronotypes and ask everyone to share theirs. Then, you can refer back to the manual when you’re thinking, “Why TF is this person emailing me at 4 in the morning?”

2. As much as possible, let people set their own schedules.

The 9-5, 40-hour workweek probably isn’t going away any time soon. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible. Give team members the option to flex their schedule by a few hours in each direction. 

3. Schedule meetings for optimal times for your team.

Once you know your team’s chronotypes, you can schedule high-importance meetings for hours when peak and recovery times overlap. 

Download this template to build your own strategic schedule.

To learn more about increasing your personal productivity, join The Productivity Sprint, taught by neuroscientists and UC Berkeley Haas lecturers Sahar Yousef and Lucas Miller. 

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