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For many Australians who now work from home most of the time, thanks to COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges is how the hours and days can blend together. And because you are no longer seeing your colleagues in person, the number of emails you are receiving has probably doubled, and phone and Zoom meetings have increased exponentially.
It’s easy for your day to feel like one long reactive slog in which you don’t feel like you are actually getting any work done.
Unfortunately, most productivity advice for working from home fails to consider something that underlies its effectiveness – your personal chronotype. Working to your chronotype can help you take back control of your workday by structuring it based on your natural energy levels.
Chronotype refers to your natural 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, which influences the peaks and troughs of your energy throughout the day.
Around one in every seven people are what chronotype researchers call ‘Larks’. A Lark is a ‘morning person’. They wake naturally and early, generally before 6am. Larks literally bounce out of bed like a human Tigger and can be deeply irritating if you don’t happen to be running on the same chronotype.
At the other extreme are ‘Owls’. Around one in every five people are Owls. As the name suggests, Owls come to life at night. They get their best work done in the evening, sometimes through to the wee hours of the morning. And unfortunately, standard office hours put Owls at a distinct disadvantage. They are far from firing on all cylinders at 9am and only start to come to life as everyone is clocking off for the day.
The key to being productive throughout the day is designing your home workday around your chronotype
The rest of us, who are neither bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning nor burning the candle well into the night, are ‘Middle Birds’. 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 of us is between the hours of 9am and midday. We then experience a dip after lunch and get second wind in the late afternoon. Owls are pretty much the opposite.
So the key to being productive throughout the day when you’re working from home is to design your workday around your chronotype. Here are three ways that you can start to align your workday to your chronotype.
Schedule ‘deep work’ at your peak
In his book Deep Work, Georgetown University professor Cal Newport writes about two modes that knowledge workers can be in. The first type of work is ‘deep work’, defined as work that is cognitively demanding. To do it well, it requires focus and a lack of interruptions, ideally for at least an hour, if not several.
In contrast to deep work, the second type of work is ‘shallow work’. Work that falls into this category includes checking emails and instant messenger, making phone calls and doing administrative work – basically, anything that is non-cognitively demanding.
The problem with the way most people structure their workday is that it tends to be random and sporadic. We flit mindlessly between shallow and deep work.
To turbocharge productivity when you are working from home, Larks and Middle Birds need to schedule deep work for before lunch. And ideally, during this time notifications that lure us into shallow work need to be switched off. Owls, in contrast, get their best deep work done at night, which can be handy for those who are parents, as this is when kids are hopefully fast asleep.
Schedule and ritualise deep work
While the intent to engage in deep work when your energy is at its peak is fantastic, if you work in a company where co-workers can control your diary, even the best of intentions can fall by the wayside.
Rather than cross your fingers for a free morning (or evening, for Owls), block deep work into your calendar. Deep work should be treated as a meeting with yourself.
At my behavioural science consultancy Inventium, which is populated mostly by Larks and Middle Birds, the majority of the team have two- to three-hour meetings with themselves labelled as ‘Deep Work’ almost every morning. Those times are respected by teammates, and the majority of meetings, both internal and external, happen in the afternoon.
Schedule ‘shallow work’ for your dip
When we hit our daily dip, which for all chronotypes tends to happen soon after lunch, we often flounder around at work. We get stuck in our inbox or sit passively in meetings, feeling cognitively foggy.
And we often beat ourselves up for not firing on all cylinders at this time of day.
Instead of fighting it, we need to proactively schedule shallow work for this time of day. The early afternoon is the perfect time to get stuck into your inbox and plough through emails. It’s also a great time to check instant messenger or your Slack feed and return phone calls from the morning.
By scheduling shallow work for your dip, the time will not be wasted; instead, you’ll be able to align your least cognitively demanding work with when your brain needs to take it a bit easier.
By aligning the structure of your workday to your chronotype, not only will you get more done when working from home but you will get to the end of the day feeling far more energised because you will have matched your activities to your biological rhythms. And for that, your brain will be truly thankful.
Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.