“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I sit down to write in the afternoon, but after only 15 minutes, I get so distracted that I can’t make any progress on my writing. I schedule my session for two hours, but can’t get anything done. Then I feel guilty for not writing like I was supposed to. I am frustrated that I waste so much precious writing time.”
Does this conversation with a junior colleague sound like you? Here’s how the rest went:
“When you’re not writing, how do you feel in the afternoons?” I asked.
“Well, I’m usually pretty tired, and I struggle to stay focused, especially after teaching. I usually have a dip in energy and have a hard time concentrating. I get distracted easily.”
“This is the tough love part,” I told her. “But why are you scheduling your writing sessions when you know you struggle focus? Your schedule is setting you up for failure!”
“Imagine you had a runner friend. She‘d only ever run 10 minute miles. All of a sudden, she decides she should be able to run a 6 minute mile. And then, when she doesn’t, she beats herself up. What would you tell her?” I asked.
After our conversation, she immediately began scheduling her time proactively to maximize her focus. Her schedule changed in two important ways. She now only schedules tasks that require less focus for her afternoon dip. She schedules her scholarly writing for the time when she naturally has the most focus: the morning.
Do you find yourself struggling to write? If so, your schedule, like hers, might be to blame.
Your Focus and Performance Change throughout the Day
Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (Get the Audio Book free with a free Audible Trial), reveals a startling discovery: “our cognitive abilities do not stay the same throughout the day.” According to Pink, time of day can affect your focus and performance by up to 20%.
So, writing during your non-peak time can effectively make writing 20% harder.
Why make writing harder than it needs to be? Here’s how to set yourself up for success.
Track Your Energy and Focus for One Week to Identify Your Peak, Trough, and Recovery Periods
If you have never tracked how your own energy and focus shifts throughout the day, I highly recommend you do so for about a week. Chris Bailey’s book The Productivity Project (Get the Audio Book free with a free Audible Trial) offers useful recommendations for how to do so.
Most people’s peak lasts from when they wake to lunchtime. Their trough lasts for a few hours in the early afternoon. The recovery period is usually in the late afternoon/early evening. Night owls, however, go through the phases in reverse, and start their peak in the late evening.
Proactive, Focus-Based Scheduling: Align your Tasks to the Peak, Trough, and Recovery
As I highlight below, each of the three phases is best for certain types of tasks. Before scheduling a task, ask yourself how much focus will it take and whether it’s analytical or big-picture thinking.
According to Pink, the peak is when we are most focused, but also most vigilant. This means that the peak is the ideal time for analytical work. In fact, he said that he wrote the book When exclusively during his own peak time, from 8 am to noon. He never once expected himself to write during non-peak times.
Takeaway: Whenever possible, you should guard your peak times fiercely and save them for your most mentally demanding tasks.
Best tasks for the peak: Writing and analysis. Tasks that require accuracy and focus.
Worst tasks for the peak: Mundane, routine, and administrative tasks (save those for the trough). Email and errands (trough). Big picture thinking (save for the recovery).
Most people experience an afternoon dip in energy, somewhere around 2-4 pm. The trough is characterized by an overall decrease in cognitive performance. Your mood might decline. Whenever possible, you should avoid at all costs scheduling tasks that require intense focus for the trough.
Takeaway: The trough is not for your scholarly writing. It is for routine and administrative tasks.
Best tasks for the trough: Email. Routine administrative tasks such as data/grade entry, travel paperwork, making photocopies, posting things to course management systems, or making to do lists. Importing references into your reference manager (I use Endnote). Formatting documents or bibliographies. Checking page numbers. Looking up scholarly sources. Wholistic and low stakes grading. Listening to non-academic books or New Books Network podcast interviews in your field.
Worst tasks for the trough: Generating text or revising. Planning large projects or systems. Anything involving analytical thinking.
You experience a recovery period each day, but you might never have noticed it. Pink compares the recovery to the peak: your cognitive abilities and focus return, and your mood improves. Yet the recovery is different from the peak in one key way: vigilance. Whereas during the peak, both your focus and vigilance are high, during the recovery, your focus is high but your vigilance is low. This means that you are much better at brainstorming and big-picture thinking during the recovery than you are during the peak. Your recovery is likely in the late afternoon or early evening.
Takeaway: You can return to your scholarly projects during the recovery, but should take a big picture perspective.
Best tasks for the recovery: Generative writing or large picture thinking about new projects. Brainstorming. Planning programs and systems. Talking to other people about your projects (collective brainstorming). Macro revising (structure and organization). Planning courses and assignments.
Worst tasks for the recovery: Analytical tasks. Administrative and routine tasks.
Applying Proactive, Focus-Based Scheduling
Now that you know what types of tasks best align themselves with your peak, trough, and recovery, you can begin to schedule your days around those blocks. You might also consider breaking your to-do lists (if you keep them) into “peak,” “trough,” and “recovery” categories.
Does the peak, trough, recovery model strike a chord with your own daily experiences? Do you currently schedule your writing sessions for your peak? Do you struggle to write during your trough? What obstacles have you encountered to keeping your peak times sacred? Or, what other productivity and focus-based questions do you have? Let me know in the comments below or by email!
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