Scheduling Time to be in The Zone

It’s a sad expectation that many people hold over themselves and over the ones with whom they work, that there is some sort of energy level that exists constantly throughout the entire day. The expectation is something akin to electrical current, which many have grown used to as a constant source of stable power – 110 volts, sixty cycles per second, at least in North America. The thought is that any human being can simply return to that level at will, or better yet, never leave it – working at a constant pace throughout the day.

The truth is a far cry from this. The human body operates in waves and cycles, not a continuous stream. All people have good times-of-day and less-than-good times of day, based on a collection of influences, including hormones, stress, sleep, food, interest, mood, health, and much more. A wiser course of action, one that would help more people find their zone of greatest productivity is to recognize that the optimum time comes once per day, and once it is identified, it should be defended vigorously from both external and internal attack.

Most people, eight out of ten in any group, will identify themselves as morning people. This means they feel more focused, alert and capable in the morning than any other time of the day. The other twenty percent will likely identify themselves as night owls; they are chemically aligned with the evening and are likely to do their best thinking, working between 4:00 p.m. and midnight, if the job allowed.

In both cases, morning people and night owls are identifying their circadian rhythm, an internal timekeeping mechanism that the body uses to release the hormones for healthy sleep, alertness, hunger and so on. This rhythm has peaks and valleys, much like a roller-coaster. For morning people, the pinnacle of alertness and ability happens generally between 8:30 and 10:00 a.m. and is helped along by the presence of sunlight, the ingestion of caffeine, and the energy of getting to work.

This means that the best time of the entire day for eighty-percent of the workforce is the first half of the morning. It goes downhill from there. Many morning people experience a “second wind” around 4:00 as they anticipate imminent departure from their work obligations, and conversely they often feel a deep drag on their energies during the mid-afternoon period, 2:30 to 3:30, a double-whammy of post-lunch digestion plus an oddity of the circadian rhythm that makes many humans lightly mirror their period of deepest sleep, twelve hours prior.

Finding the right physical and mental zone for optimum work must then follow two simple truths: first it only happens basically once a day, and second, it lasts 90 minutes, maximum.

This means that to get into a zone of excellent productivity, one must know when this optimum time is, schedule it into the calendar, and defend it against attack from emails, meetings, and interruptions. The norm for most North American workers is to arrive at 9:00, and immediately check email. This is somewhat on par with using a Ferrari to pull a travel trailer. All that energy and excellence being redirected towards mundane tasks.

To get into the zone, and to stay there for as long as possible, the following items are required:

  • First, as stated, an awareness of when the circadian best time of day is.
  • Second a statement, through the calendar and other communications, for people to stay away during this time. This does not have to be a negative message or a threat. Simply something like “9:00 -10:00 is my focus hour – I will be available to talk to you after 10:00.”
  • Third, set up a workspace that defends against attack. An office with a door is nice, but focused body language, and a practiced skill at avoiding eye contact also works well, even in the most open of open concept offices.
  • Fourth, an awareness that this zone period will come to an end quite quickly. This helps fend off distraction and procrastination which often happens when projects are assigned open-ended times for completion.
  • Fifth, a willingness to turn off or mute all distracting devices – the phone, email, Twitter – anything that serves to pull attention away. For people whose job requires an instant check of all emails coming in, this rule can be bent somewhat to allow the scanning of email subject lines, but to put off actual answering of all but the most urgent of messages until after the zone period is done.

This all may sound like a tall order, but human beings are not made to cruise along at a fixed level of ability. We are sprinters – using energy and conserving it in a rhythmic manner that has not changed in over 50,000 years. Developing an awareness of the timing of your “zone,” whether it be in the morning for morning people, or late afternoon for night owls, and then defending it, is a shrewd and profitable step towards optimum productivity.

More information on truly effective Time Management is available in my book, Cool-Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. To order a copy, visit the online store for paperback or ebook.