Knowing your productivity peaks

I’ve always known I’m a morning person.

But for the past week or two, I’ve been testing out “evening writing time” vs. “morning writing time.” It’s definitely not working. By the end of the day, I’m 100% wiped, have a random new event or dinner to attend, and I’m trying to find time to spend with my husband. It’s a huge distraction to my personal, professional, and social life to add writing on top of it.

I read once that 11 a.m. is the hour of peak productivity for most people. And while this is just an average stat, it doesn’t surprise me that there are ebbs and flows in everyone’s day.

When I think about highly productive people in my life, Ben Franklin comes to mind quite a bit. I’ve long admired his insanely simple (yet effective) schedule of keeping himself in check.

Ben Franklin’s daily schedule, as penned in his autobiography (via https://curiosity.com/topics/benjamin-franklins-daily-schedule-for-productivity-was-rigorous-curiosity/)

Each morning, he would wake up at 5 a.m. and spend the morning in deep reflection about the day ahead, which would include light study and breakfast.

From 8 a.m. — noon, he would work, then have lunch (I assume, with friends at local taverns) and resume work for another four hours from 2–6 p.m. before his denouement period of four hours from 6–10 p.m.

What’s incredible to me about this schedule is that it’s so simple. He has blocks of time (often in 3 or 4-hour chunks) but is not at all prescriptive about what will happen there.

I recently went through a calendar categorization exercise for my work life —I color-coordinated the most common meetings I take into categories:

Green: Internal meetings with people at USV
Orange: Network-related with people at portfolio companies (arguably my most important meetings)
Yellow: Planning time (I tried to assign a block each day to a different thing I should be spending time on)
Blue: External meetings (arguably my least important work, though I have been interviewing a lot of people for a role on our team this week, which is why there’s more blue than usual)
Red: Side projects (I’m on two non-profit boards; this took up more time last week than it should have)
Gray: Personal meetings

Here’s what my schedule last week looked like (names and locations blurred for anonymity in most cases):

You’ll notice it’s pretty packed. I take a lot of meetings for work, and part of my goal in color-coordinating this was to get a better sense of where I’m spending my time. I was happy to see that I had a lot of orange and green on there, but disappointed by my lack of yellow. Unsurprisingly, my daily allocation for planning time was so limited that fitting it into my already jam-packed life felt overcomplicated and moderately disastrous.

While I’ve clearly noticed that mornings are my most productive times, I found it impossible to perfectly block every hour of my day into this beautiful time-boxed grid. And then, of course, once you miss one day of morning planning, the next day, everything goes to hell and you feel like you’re immensely behind in everything that you’re working on.

In an ideal world, I block 8 - 11 a.m. every day for my own planning and deep work productivity time. But during weeks like the one I’m in now — in the throes of hiring and on the cusp of the holiday crunch — there’s no mercy in my schedule for long strategy time. This is super problematic.

With a schedule like this, it’s little wonder that I had to spend 5 hours of my Sunday getting through emails and project backlog that I didn’t have time to tend to during the week.

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
- Ben Franklin

I think about Ben Franklin’s schedule wistfully but then also consider the contradiction between this minimalist view and the messy complexities of something like the American Revolution. Then I realize it must have been pretty hard for him to keep that up too.

I bet Ben had to say things like, “Sorry, Thomas. I can’t interrupt my morning breakfast to review another draft of the Declaration of Independence. Any chance we can do this over tea in the afternoon?” By keeping to a strict 10 p.m. bedtime, I’m sure people saw him as quite a drag for fun times after hours. I’m sure he had to decline invitations to Boston tea party re-enactments, housewarming parties for every time a home in Philadelphia was protected by his fire department, and new post office stamp release parties. “You know, George?” He might say, in response to an invitation from President Washington to visit his home in Mount Vernon, “I’m sadly a little behind on this year’s Farmer’s Almanac, so can we rain check for next month? Oh, you’re going to Europe for six months? Let’s put a pin in this until next year.”

The point of course is that the best schedules have built-in flexibility on top of them. And if someone like Ben Franklin, who was literally the man-about-town in Philadelphia for years, can manage to stick to a regular routine with simplistic time-blocking, then we should be able to do so as well. It’s just a matter of discipline.

Scheduling and calendar management is an incredibly personal, iterative, and evolving process. I hope that by the end of the year, I’ll conclude upon a system that works better for me. But at least for now I know two things: I need to write in the morning and I need more than a one-hour chunk of productivity time at the start of each day. Maybe there’s not enough time in my day to simultaneously plan and execute an American Revolution with my closest friends. But I think that’s okay.

VP @ BolsterTalent, alum of @USV, @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC