Four effective ways to lift your productivity

How the world’s most productive people structure their workday, and why it makes a difference. By Amantha Imber.

Ninety-six percent of people check their mobile phone within one hour of waking according to the Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey. And for 61 percent of us, we have taken a peek within five minutes of waking.
While this may seem harmless, the act of checking our phone first thing sets us up to have a reactive day. If we open our email, other people’s priorities become our own. If good news or bad news awaits us, we are essentially letting other people set our mood for the day.
And even worse – if no news or new “likes” awaits us – we tend to feel a bit flat.
Through my podcast, How I Work, I explore the question of how the world’s most successful
and productive people structure their day differently to the rest of us. I have spoken to bestselling authors, musicians, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and business leaders to unpack what they do differently. Here are four things that have stood out.
Align your most important work with your Chronotype
Most productivity advice fails to consider something that underlies its effectiveness – your Chronotype. Chronotype refers to the natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle which influences the peaks and troughs of energy throughout the day.
Around one in 10 people are Larks – stereotypical “morning people”. At the other end of the Chronotype continuum are Owls, representing around 20 percent of the population. Owls get their best work done at night.
Middle Birds represent everyone else: those that are neither bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning, nor burning the candle well into the night. Middle Birds tend to follow the rhythms of a Lark, but just delayed by a couple of hours.
Larks and Middle Birds experience peak cognitive alertness in the two hours after they are fully awake, which for most people is between the hours of 9am to 12pm. A dip follows after lunch and people then experience a second wind in the late afternoon. Owls’ days follow the reverse pattern.
When writing his New York Times bestselling book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Dan Pink began digging into this research and as a result, completely restructured the way he planned his workday.
“I changed my schedule so that on writing days, I set myself a word count and in the morning I’ll say, ‘Okay, today I have to write 700 words’ and I won’t bring my phone into the office with me, I will not open up my email, I will not do anything until I hit those 700 words and then I’m free to do other things,” Pink explained to me on the How I Work podcast.
As a result of sticking to this schedule, When was the only book Pink said he submitted to his publishers on time.
“I use the early to mid-afternoon typically for answering email and filing and scanning things – the kind of stuff that doesn’t require a heavy load,” describes Pink.
“And then when I come out of the trough around three or four o’clock in the afternoon, I tend to do interviews or things that don’t require me to be locked down and vigilant, but just to be open to possibility, open to ideas, and a little bit more mentally loose.”
Start the process of restructuring your day by assessing your Chronotype at https://inventium.typeform.com/to/E8Kp7j . Align the work that requires your most intense brain power with your Chronotype to allow you to work most productively.
Plan your day the night before
A productive day doesn’t just happen. It requires planning. When we write down what we intend to do, known as Implementation Intentions, we are far more likely to achieve our goals.
Google’s Executive Productivity Advisor,
Laura Mae Martin, explained to me on the podcast how she plans her day the night before. To start with, she writes down her top three priorities on The Daily Plan template she created. “Underneath the first priority, it says, ‘Until this first task is finished, everything else is a distraction.’ So that’s my one thing I need to get done.”
She then plans out her day at a micro-level, hour by hour. “Even just writing down, ‘I plan to work out between 7:00 to 8:00am’ makes you more likely to do that.”
Martin’s process also includes what she refers to as “snack sized to-dos”, which are tasks she can do in between meetings that don’t require more than a few minutes.
To ensure you take control of your day, challenge yourself to use Martin’s Daily Plan for one week to create a new habit for how you approach your day. (See: https://storage.googleapis.com/gweb-uniblog-publish-prod/documents/Daily_Plan_-_External.pdf)
Develop different rituals for different types of work
Being deliberate about where you work from is another important factor in creating structure for your day. Consider doing what Georgetown University Professor and bestselling author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, does and deliberately link different locations with different types of tasks.
“When I’m trying to solve a theoretical computer science proof, the rituals I use almost always involve various walking routes around my town,” Newport explained to me.
But when doing writing work, you’ll find Newport approaching this in a completely different way.
“In my house, I had a custom library table built that was reminiscent of the tables at the university library where I used to work as an undergraduate with brass library lamps next to the dark wood bookcases. And I have a ritual for writing where I clear off that whole desk and I just have a bright light shining right down on the desk and it’s just me and my computer.”
Think about the main categories of work that you do and start to create rituals around them. The rituals might involve your physical location, background noise, and time of day. After a few weeks of practising these rituals, you should find that getting into flow becomes far easier and quicker because your brain associates these cues with certain types of work.

Avoid being 100 percent booked
It’s easy to assume that the most productive people are booked solid for 100 percent of their day. However, the world’s most successful people actually do the opposite.
Darren Murph is Head of Remote at GitLab, the world’s largest all-remote company, with more than 1,300 team members in 67+ countries with no company-owned offices. Murph explained to me that being booked 100 percent of the time is a huge risk.
 “If you have your entire day pre-booked with meetings, it leaves no room whatsoever for real life to happen. So if anything at all happens, if your child stubs their toe and you need to address that even for eight minutes of your day, it can have an oftentimes catastrophic negative impact on your mental health and on the schedules of other people.
“And if you extrapolate that over an entire company where everyone is booked at 100 percent, where’s the room for ingenuity? Teams are worried about serendipitous conversations. Being booked at 100 percent is a guarantee that your company is going to have no innovation and no serendipitous conversations because there’s no time for that.”
Instead of having a false sense of productivity if your diary looks full, deliberately schedule time to do nothing. You can use this time as buffer time for things that run over or unexpected tasks that crop up during the day. Or you can even use it for creative and serendipitous things to happen.
So rather than let other people’s priorities determine the course of your day, take back control through aligning your tasks to your Chronotype, plan your day the night before, create rituals for what you work on where, and make sure you schedule buffer time for when things don’t go to plan.  

Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, a leading behavioural science consultancy and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators

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