Managing your time is not just about about how many hours you have in the day, but how much energy you have to tackle those hours.
Because the brain fatigues and needs rest to regenerate, the best way to blitz that to-do list is not to hunt down and pencil in hours on the calendar. Instead, the key is to confront different aspects of your workload when you have the right mental stamina for it.
According to Josh Davis, author of new productivity book Two Awesome Hours, we're often unaware of the factors that might sap our energy and lead to mental fatigue.
"Even some of the common ways in which we pass the time when we are taking a break—presumably for the purpose of refreshing our minds—probably fatigue it even more and should be avoided if they come just before we have to be on top of our game," he says.
"For example, we often turn on the news, or check out a news website, which focus on reporting on the latest tragedy or an upsetting political development. It can require a good deal of self-control to manage our knee-jerk reactions to these kinds of stories, and it’s easy to get carried away emotionally by them (e.g., getting riled up over a political figure’s latest scandal). So avoid these activities before you have to be at your best."
Here are four simply ways he recommends to work through the dips and conserve your energy so you're at your brightest and best for the most important tasks throughout the working day:
Tackle your most creative tasks first-thing
There’s scientific truth to the advice to complete your most important work first thing in the morning before your brain has been depleted from hundreds of small decisions. Think about the most creative and interesting task on your plate right now, or the one with the biggest long-term upside, and spend one to two hours first thing in the morning on it. And when I say first thing, I mean first thing – that is, before checking email or looking at any media such as TV, newspapers, smartphones, computer, etc.
Allocate 'other' tasks to a slump time
Consider the tasks on your to-do list for the day, and label each of them as Important Decisions, Creative, Other. Carve out time late in the day (perhaps after your lunch, during your food coma?) to complete the tasks in the “Other” category. Knowing you’ve scheduled time to turn to these will make it less likely that you will try tackling them earlier in the day, when your mental reserves are highest.
Check your email for one hour in the afternoon
Try checking email for only one hour in the afternoon and reflect on whether staying off email improved your ability to focus more clearly on tasks that require problem solving or creativity. I know this is a terrifying suggestion for some people. And it’s true that some days don’t allow for this, but try it once or twice and you might be surprised to find it more possible than you may fear.
Make small decisions the night before a big day
Make a few decisions the night before you have a big day, so you won’t have to make them on the big day. They can be small – like what to wear or have for breakfast and lunch. And they can be larger – like deciding what tasks actually matter to you to accomplish on the big day, and making your to-do list that way.
Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis is published by HarperOne a division of HarperCollins and is available now priced £15.99.