Why we need to redesign our workdays

As organisations slowly move away from the nine-to-five workday, it’s now more important than ever to work out when you are most productive, writes Dr Amantha Imber

You would be hard pressed to find a company that isn’t talking about or offering flexible work arrangements.

Yet despite this, most of us are still expected to be at the office (or logging on to our computers) by around 9am and stay connected until 5pm (or later). Working roughly between the hours of nine to five remains the default that no one dares to challenge too strongly.

And within these eight hours, little thought is given to the type of task and what time of day it is completed. Our days are designed reactively.

We let people schedule meetings in our diary, we check our email constantly throughout the day and let other people’s requests control what we do.And then we wonder, “What did I actually achieve today?”

But what we know from psychology is that forcing people to work within this default and allowing our days to be reactive is setting our workdays up for failure. Here are some methods to dramatically improve your work performance through re-designing the workday.

Work to your chronotype

We are not all created equal when it comes to our daily energy levels. Around 14 percent of the population are what researchers refer to as Larks. They are stereotypical ‘morning people’.

At the other end are Owls, which represent another 21 percent of the population. Owls have their peak productivity after most of us have had dinner and quite often, well into the night. If you can’t relate to either extreme, you are probably a Middle Bird. In general, Middle Birds tend to follow the energy patterns of a Lark, albeit a couple of hours delayed.

Whatever your Chronotype, you need to start pro-actively structuring your days to align with your energy levels. Larks often work best when they can start work at 6am, while Owls are better placed to not arrive at work until lunch.

Schedule “Deep Work” at your peak time

According to Professor Cal Newport, there are two modes of working that knowledge workers can engage in. The first type of work is Deep Work. This is work that is cognitively demanding and to do it well, requires focus and a lack of interruptions.

The second type of work is Shallow Work. This is work that is non-cognitively demanding, like answering emails and administrative tasks.

Because digital distractions and interruptions are rife in today’s working world, the majority of us spend our days in Shallow Work and try to fit the Deep Work in amongst it.

Bringing these concepts together, Larks and Middle Birds perform best when they schedule Deep Work for the morning. All digital distractions and communication channels should be switched off. Owls do their best Deep Work in the evening or at night, ironically, when no one is expected to be in the office.

Schedule shallow work for the afternoon

When it comes to Shallow Work, Larks and Middle Birds should schedule this for their afternoons. Meetings that don’t require deep thinking are also good to schedule in the afternoons.

For Owls, given their days essentially run in reverse, Shallow Work can be done in the middle of the day, when their energy is not firing like it does at night.

Productive Larks and Middle Birds will batch email and communication checking for the afternoons. Blocking out an hour or so to clear your inbox is a great use of your afternoons, but a waste of precious brain power in the morning.

So while flexible work policies are great, design your workday (and those of your team) based on getting the most out of people’s brains and natural circadian rhythms.