Maximizing your efficiency during the busy season involves planning your day. For many of us, tax season doesn’t leave a moment to spare. Getting the job done requires a consistently high level of performance. Getting the job done, however, cannot come at the expense of accuracy. Productivity and accuracy are necessities that can lead to an increased sense of stress and an inclination to work around the clock. While it may be tempting to put your head down and plow through, it’s far from beneficial for efficiency or quality of work. The best way to be efficient during the busy season isn’t to work until you’re bleary-eyed, but rather to learn your personal rhythm and match your workflow to that rhythm.
The terms “early birds” and “night owls” have seemingly existed for as long as there have been people watching the sun rise and set. Science supports the existence of these two basic categories which are identified by when a person is most likely to sleep and certain behaviors associated with each. However, mastering your personal rhythm requires more effort than simply labelling yourself as a morning or night person. Before you can begin to apply strategies to maximize your productivity cycle, you must know when it starts and ends.
The clock inside your body and mind
Our bodies don’t register minutes, seconds or hours, but they do repeat a pattern every day called a circadian rhythm. According to the National Sleep Foundation, that rhythm “is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It's also known as your sleep/wake cycle.” Your circadian rhythm may start or end on a different interval than someone else’s, but we all exhibit our own pattern.
While you can find countless versions of rhythm charts online, the most salient features of them for the purposes of timing your work day are two dips in energy and wakefulness that occur roughly 12 hours apart. One of these troughs will hopefully fall during your nightly sleep cycle, but the other one will not. The best way to learn when your dips occur is to establish a consistent sleep schedule, even during your busiest times, then monitor when you feel yourself starting to ebb during your wake time. The average person’s performance tends to lag between 1 and 3 p.m.
Use your rhythm to your advantage
If you remove the sleep cycle from the equation, your daily energy cycle remains. This cycle informs your productivity and decision-making. In fact, your internal rhythm affects you in ways you may not realize. Noted business writer Daniel H. Pink examines these patterns in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Pink writes, “Across continents and time zones, as predictable as the ocean tides, was the same daily oscillation — a peak, a trough, and a rebound.” For early birds, the cycle occurs earlier; for night owls, it’s later. But the cycle itself doesn’t change. Understanding when your peak, trough and rebound occurs will help you get the most out of your day.
Have you ever wondered why a task can seem impossible for one moment, only for you to return to it later and find it a breeze? Your internal rhythm holds part of the answer. Let’s say you tend to peak early, firing on all cylinders from the moment you start working. In that case, it’s best for you to start your day with your most important and intensive work. As you begin to plateau during midday, it’s a good time to complete obligations like checking email or other straightforward administrative tasks. Once you feel yourself rebounding, you can revert to more complex activities. By synchronizing your workflow with your circadian rhythm, you don’t waste peak productivity hours on tasks that could be accomplished with your eyes half-closed.
Rhythm and lifestyle
In addition to being able to better plan your workday, understanding your rhythm will help you make better choices throughout the workday. The importance of breaks has been well documented—when you take your breaks and how you spend them makes a crucial difference. Ideally, you’ll want to take a break as you’re approaching a trough. During that break, you should eat healthy food, rest and maybe even take a nap. Sleeping on the job may seem taboo, but if it allows you to return to work refreshed and at your best, don’t feel bad about it. If napping isn’t your thing, maybe you’d prefer a brief meditation session using an app like Headspace or Calm. These strategies can help re-center your energy and allow you to rebound faster and more fully.
5 easy steps to work in rhythm
Take 10 minutes at the beginning of your day to identify what you need to get done. If you can, order these items in terms of importance and estimate how long each will take. Block time on your calendar.
Pick one to three tasks you want to complete that day. Checking them off gives a great sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
Match intensive, important assignments with peak periods of time when you have the most energy. Similarly, use downswings to handle lesser tasks to stay productive when your energy is ebbing.
Incorporate 5-15 minute breaks into your day to reset and refresh between tasks. These breaks in your work cycle are a great chance for a snack, drink of water or brief meditation. A refreshing activity allows you to perform your best during a demanding workday.
Note when you most enjoy doing certain duties during the workday and design your schedule accordingly.
Working with your energy patterns will relieve stress and boost productivity. Every minute counts during busy season, but not all minutes are created equal. When you know your internal rhythm, you can use every moment to your advantage—including moments best spent recharging your battery.
The takeaway: you will achieve better performance when you harness the power of your natural rhythm.