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Planning Your Best Day: Natural Time Management

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Pat Brans advises aligning yourself with nature. The rhythms of your personal time clock can have a significant impact on how much you accomplish during the day. Learn an easy way to figure out your best time to crunch numbers or meet with staff and see how other successful execs harness the energy that Mother Nature provides.
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I used to have a coffee machine with a timer I could set to have a pot ready when I got out of bed. It was nice to wake up to the smell of fresh coffee brewing; that aroma helped me get going early. But this jolt at daybreak also accentuated the drop I naturally experience after lunch.

Nowadays I'm more inclined to drink espresso, and I don't always have a cup right after waking up. My change in taste may have to do with the fact that I now live in France, but I think I've also experienced small modifications in my body rhythms. I no longer want several cups of coffee first thing in the morning, and I've made a conscious effort to cut down on caffeine in order to minimize the mid-afternoon crash.

I've become aware that my body and mind go through cycles; rather than fighting against them, I try to organize my day around those changes. It's sort of like the idea of riding the waves that are already out there instead of trying to create them myself.

We all have biorhythms, and we're more inclined to perform one type of activity versus another, depending on the time of day. These changes vary from one individual to another, but for a given person the patterns are pretty predictable. Let's examine how understanding and getting in sync with your body's natural rhythms can improve how you use your time and manage your work throughout the day.

Measuring Your Cycles

To see what I mean about understanding your biorhythms, try the following experiment:

  1. On a blank sheet of paper, create a table and pencil in the following four column headings:
    • Physical Energy (your capacity to do exercise)
    • Concentration (your ability to do intellectual work)
    • Wakefulness (how awake you are)
    • Outlook (how optimistic you are)
  2. For the row headings, write the individual hours of the day when you're awake. For example, if you usually wake up at 6 a.m., make your row headers 6, 7, 8, and so on, up to the time when you normally go to bed.
  3. For one day, record every hour how you feel. Give yourself a score from 1–5, with 1 being very bad and 5 being very good. The following table shows an example of how your table might begin:

  4. Physical Energy
























  5. To get a rough average of how your natural rhythms change throughout the day, fill in the table on three separate days; then take the mean of each set of values. I'll bet there's not a big difference in your scores from one day to another.
  6. If your table shows a good deal of variation from one day to another, think about unique events might have thrown you off during one of those days. Then try the experiment again to home in on your true cycles.
  7. Once you have a pretty good idea of your natural rhythms, draw the averages on a graph to visualize the results.

Using this kind of table, I determined the following information about my own body clock:

  • My concentration is highest at around 8 a.m. and lowest at around 2 p.m.
  • I'm optimistic at most times of the day, but pessimistic in the mid-afternoon.
  • My physical energy and wakefulness are highest at around 11 a.m.

Knowing all this information helps me to plan my day. I write articles in the morning. Around 3 p.m., I try to make phone calls and meet people. Given that I'm pessimistic in the mid-afternoon, dealing with people might not seem like the best choice, but actually it works out nicely because it picks up my spirits. Knowing that my outlook is biased, I compensate in hopes that other people won't notice my pessimism.

Balancing Tasks

As much as possible, plan your work to line up with your rhythms. But also try to organize your day so that some tasks serve as relief for others. For example, going for a bike ride is good exercise and a worthwhile thing to do. You can plan this activity to coincide with a time during the day when you're likely to be frustrated by intellectual work. Cycling relieves the mental stress; and because by itself it's a good thing to do, you benefit twice.

Also be aware that you'll get sick of performing some tasks, or you won't feel like doing certain things at certain times. If you have other productive activities ready to fill the empty space, you'll be ahead of the game. For example, as president of France Etats-Unis, an American club in Grenoble, France, I have a few small administrative tasks to carry out every day. This list might include accounting, updating information about a member, keeping track of who is registered for an event, or sending out a newsletter. We try to keep the club fun, so I take these activities lightly as compared to things like preparing a workshop on time management. Also, the France Etats-Unis tasks are usually short in duration, so I keep them as a sort of "slush fund" of things I can do when I have five or ten minutes here and there, or when I'm sick of doing something else. These quick, light tasks provide relief from the longer, more serious work.

Doing It Like a CEO

I'm lucky to be able to talk to the world's most productive people about time management. All the CEOs and CIOs who have shared secrets with me are acutely aware of how their moods and energy levels change throughout the day. Instead of fighting against Mother Nature, they ride those waves as they come.

Take Scott Goldman, for example. He was the first CEO of the WAP Forum (the standards body that brought web browsing to your cell phone) and is a serial entrepreneur. Goldman says he works on email first thing in the morning. This is a time when his concentration is high, and he likes to get back to people quickly and then move on to doing other things. Goldman keeps a set of small, "mindless" tasks near his desk to work on between phone calls. One of these activities is scanning magazines for interesting articles, which he tears out and puts into a folder. When traveling by plane, he carefully reads the contents of this folder.

Similarly, Gilles du Chaffaut, city manager of Grenoble, France, keeps a list of various projects he needs to do, and he picks from the list on the spur of the moment—depending on what he feels like doing. He doesn't try to fight his moods; instead, he recommends making sure that the tasks on your list are different enough to give you a wide selection, in accordance with how you might feel during the day. du Chaffaut doesn't believe in strict time management, where you follow a careful plan no matter what happens. He recognizes that we're all human beings, with fluctuating energy and stress levels, and external distractions coming at us from all directions.

Other business leaders apply equivalent energy to important tasks when they can focus the best:

  • Ward Klein, CEO of Energizer Holdings, likes to exercise around midday and then eat a very light lunch. Klein says he's more productive on afternoons when he works out, and his light lunch prevents a lull later.
  • James White, CEO of Jamba Juice, prefers an early workout; he puts in around forty minutes of exercise first thing in the morning.
  • As soon as he wakes up each morning, Lucas Skoczkowski, CEO of Redknee Solutions, spends about an hour attacking his heavy reading. He focuses on people-oriented tasks in the afternoon.
  • Randy Rose, CEO of Schwabe North America, knows that he's emotionally best suited to deal with relationship issues in the morning. As much as possible, he plans difficult meetings early in the day—his best time for dealing with sticky situations.

Planning Your Day with Mother Nature's Help

Now that you can track your biorhythms to get a more precise idea of how you feel throughout the day, it's a good idea to repeat the process every six months or so. If you start exercising more, give up coffee, or modify your eating habits, for example, your biorhythms will probably change.

Once you know your cycles, plan your day accordingly. Intellectual activities are best performed when you have high concentration and wakefulness. Exercise is best planned for times when your physical energy is high. And it's best not to develop strategies when your outlook is either too optimistic or too pessimistic. Know your biorhythms and make them work to your advantage.

And now that I've said all that, a word of caution: Allow yourself to make spontaneous choices throughout the day. Planning is good, but you aren't a robot. Allow for the fact that your mind and body go through changes over a 24-hour period, and sometimes you need to just make choices on the spur of the moment.

Why fight Mother Nature, when she can be such a good friend?

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