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One hour may seem the same as any hour, with 60 minutes up for grabs. But time differs because our productive energy ebbs and flows throughout the day based on our circadian rhythms, caffeine, eating patterns and mental drain.

For productivity consultant Charlie Gilkey, that means it's important to follow a policy of "time blocking," setting aside carefully considered chunks of time for appropriate tasks.

"Our tolerance and desire to work on tasks depends on what kinds of tasks they are, and some tasks can't coherently be worked on in too-small chunks of time," he writes. "We need a good mix of creation, connection, and consumption."

It's common to look at your calendar, find some random time opening, and tackle a task that can be done in that period. Instead, he suggests considering your time in four categories:

  • Focus blocks: These are 90– to 120-minute blocks of time when you’re particularly creative, inspired, and able to do high-level work that requires focus.
  • Admin blocks: Smaller, 30– to 60-minute chunks of lower-energy time when you’re not up to heavy lifting but can put some routine stuff behind you.
  • Social blocks: Ninety– to 120-minute periods when you’re primed and in the right space to meet enthusiastically and energetically with other people.
  • Recovery blocks: Variable lengths of time for exercise, meditation and self-care.

You can probably feel the difference between those four blocks of time and understand what type of tasks fit, when you tend to do them now, and when might be the best time in your calendar to assign those activities.

The idea is to divide a day in advance into these categories – not the specific tasks – and then as the week proceeds choose the appropriate activities.

If it helps, data from Redbooth, a project management software developer, suggests that 11 a.m. is the most productive hour, when 10 per cent of the day's tasks are completed.

"Productivity declines and fewer tasks are completed as the day's end approaches. By 4 p.m., very little gets done, and the percentage of completed tasks drops precipitously. Mondays are the most productive days, while everyone waits for the weekend on Friday, making it the least productive day of the week," Patrick Lucas Austin reports on Lifehacker.

Mr. Gilkey offers free monthly calendars on his website, colour codes his own time blocks and encourages a one-word descriptor for each day, such as coaching, catch-up or recording. One Wednesday, for coaching, had these eight blocks: Recovery, focus, focus, social, recovery, social, admin, and social.

He offers these tips:

  • At most, you can squeeze in three focus blocks a day. “The good news is that you can get a lot done with three blocks per day, and accepting the constraint will make your life a lot easier and happier,” he says.
  • Scheduling those focus blocks is more difficult than it seems. When advising other people, he finds that their schedules are incoherent and they can’t match a free focus block to the projects they most want to work on. They try to do their creative work after they’ve done other kinds of work – either all day, or first thing – and the right flow isn’t there.
  • For planning, count focus blocks rather than the time they amount to, as the latter can become too amorphous. Five blocks is easier to understand than 10 hours because you can think about the chunks of the projects you can do in that amount of time. You will avoid getting overwhelmed.
  • The number of focus blocks you have available is the limiting factor in how quickly and steadily you’ll be able to make progress on your high-value creative projects. “Many people misdiagnose their struggles with getting creative work done as procrastination, lack of capability, or lack of creativity, when the reality is that a more common root cause is they just don’t have any or enough focus blocks in their schedule to get started and keep going,” Mr. Gilkey says.
  • Your particular context will determine what counts as admin work, but in general it’s anything that supports your deeper work but isn’t the deep work itself. That may be work you don’t want to do – filing or bookkeeping, for example – but it’s necessary, so slot it in.
  • Many people find that once they start using their focus blocks well, admin blocks are far more tolerable – indeed sometimes even enjoyable. The admin blocks give you time to reflect upon your work and offer space and context for things to gel. Knowing that there will be admin blocks allows you to stress less about all the admin work that needs to be dealt with.
  • Many people discount the value of social blocks because they don’t feel they get anything done. Mr. Gilkey counters: “Productivity is about more than getting stuff done – it’s about using your resources in ways that bring about the most value in your life. The time you spend with friends, family, colleagues and your tribe is valuable time.”
  • You are putting out energy in those three blocks – focus, admin, and social. Like a battery, you need to be recharged in the recovery blocks. “While it might seem like we don’t need to be intentional about our recovery blocks, I’ve learned the hard way that we actually need to be more intentional about them than about any of the other blocks precisely because we’re over-focused on output,” he writes.

So give his system some consideration if you're struggling with your current arrangement of time. Make more of every hour by deciding how best it can be used.

Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues You probably have heard of Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues. For a large portion of his life, he carried around a card in his pocket with seven columns (for the days of the week) and 13 rows on it for the virtues, trying to keep them front of mind in his actions. Here are those virtues:

  • Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation, as he put it.
  • Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself.
  • Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting benefits that are your duty.
  • Moderation: Avoid extremes.
  • Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.
  • Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Quick hits

  • If you tend to rebel, even against your own to-do list, consider a could-do list, which leaves the choice to you, advises Gretchen Rubin, author of The Four Tendencies (one of which is a personality impulse to resist inner and outer expectations).
  • Consultant Josh Linkner promotes the 5-30-30 productivity approach: Five days a week, invest 30 minutes in learning and 30 minutes in movement.
  • George Shultz, secretary of state during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, took one hour each week for solitude, sitting with a pen and paper and nothing else.
  • If you tend to be in the dumps in January and February, set a “feel good” goal for yourself, something you can do (or increase the amount you do) that makes you feel good rather than another enervating obligation.
  • A new study finds that while multitasking technically isn’t effective – we can’t do two things at one time – believing we are multitasking – and sometimes that perception is a choice – does improve persistence and performance on a task.

Mark Mortensen of INSEAD discusses his findings about teamwork and how knowing what teams others are on can improve workflow

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