Research shows that your focus, drive, and energy peak at the same time every day. Use these five strategies to tap into it
Most people's mental energy is a roller coaster, says Chris Bailey, the author of The Productivity Project. "There are certain hours when you naturally have much more drive than at other times," he says. Which means it's completely normal if one minute you're cranking out work like nobody's business, and the next, you hit a wall and even answering email is a struggle. The tricky thing is that the time of day when mental energy peaks is different for everyone. The unique rhythms of your body clock play a large role, coupled with factors like what you eat and how much you sleep. Fortunately, your highs tend to occur at about the same times every day, Bailey says, so you can learn to plan your schedule around them and maximize your productivity. Here's how to take advantage of your personal power hour.
Pinpoint your peak
Pay close attention to the times you feel inspired to dive intosmall and easily completed tasks, like going through your in-box or organizing your desk, suggests David Gard, Ph.D., the director of the Motivation and Emotion Research Laboratory at San Francisco State University. Taking on simple to-dos indicates you're craving a sense of accomplishment, which is a sign that yourmotivation is starting to peak, he explains. Track your productivity for a few days in a row and you should notice a pattern. (Finding it hard to get to the gym, period? Studies show it might be the reward you give yourself that matters.)
Next, choose just one challenge to conquer
Your instinct may be to get as many things done as possible when your motivation is high. But it's actually more efficient towork on one task that requires sustained energy and focus, like creating a presentation for an upcoming meeting or batch-cooking a week's worth of lunches, Bailey says. More ambitious tasks may be daunting at first, but they're ultimately more motivating. "Pushing yourself to complete something difficult is really rewarding," Gard explains. As a result, you'll be less likely to get distracted or run out of steam along the way. Plus, over time, as you accomplish your goals one by one, your brain will start to associate your powe rhour with achievement, which will make you even more productive.
Prime your brain to concentrate
A ritual—like writing a to-do list or taking a walk—right before your power hour can help strengthen your brain's natural increase infocus. "It's classical conditioning. After practicing the same behaviorfor several weeks, that activity
can cue your mind to get ready fora productive work period," Gardsays. For example, Shape reader Cheryl Laughlin works during the day as a jewelry entrepreneur, but her night (and dream) job is screenwriter. "To mentally shift gears between the two, I have a funny desk jockey routine," she explains. "For 15 minutes, I line upstaplers, pens, and Post-its. Doing that lets me zone out, so I can zone back in on writing my screenplays."
Exercise is an especially powerful cue. "My studies have shown that your ability to focus your attention is improved for up to two hours after a single 50-minute workout session," says Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and the author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life. If your power hour doesn't fall at a time when you can easily get to the gym, try doing a few yoga poses or squats before you start your work. (In case you need some help, here are 18 Motivational Quotes to Inspire You to Crush Your Workout.)
Set yourself up for success
"Before you begin a project, breakit down into exaggeratedly small steps," Gard advises. If you'reworking on a presentation, for instance, step one might be to open PowerPoint and get your document cued up and ready to go. If you'll be batch-cooking, assemble all your ingredients and utensils and preheat the oven. When your motivation is cranking, you don't want to waste precious time and energy on mindless tasks, Bailey explains. Getting all the necessary prep work out of the way beforehand lets you dive right into the tough stuff.
Before your power hour kicksoff, Gard also recommends eliminating potential distractions.That's what Kate Sandoval Box, Shape's beauty director, does. "My peak time starts at 5:00 p.m. The pressure is on to get my work done so I can get out by 6:00 to head home to my 1-year-old. I close out of my Internet browser and email account, stash my phone at the bottom of my bag, and take mylaptop and hide out in a secluded corner of the office so that I can really focus," she says. (If pump-up music is your jam, try this motivational playlist.)
To kick your motivation into high gear to complete your project, take a mini-break halfwaythrough. "Science shows that the brain can concentrate for only so long," Bailey says. "After 20 to25 minutes, your productivity is shot. But you can cultivate and prolong your energy by taking frequent breaks. And no, check-ing your inbox doesn't count, Gard adds. "It's better to get out of your environment," he says. "If you're at your desk, get up and visit a coworker for five minutes. Afterward, you'll be primed to finish what you started."