09/09/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

How to Be Less Manic and More Productive: An Effective Executive's Surprising Workday Routine

Today's business leaders are in a constant state of rush and hurry.

There's much more to do than time in which to do it; a mountain of emails to answer, a forest of fires to put out... and that's before we even get to the "real work" we're supposed to get done in a given day.

So we work longer hours, sleep less, and take our smartphones to bed with us, all in an effort to squeeze the very last drop of productivity out of each and every day.

But it doesn't seem to work; we're still hurrying and harried, frazzled and frustrated by the to-do list that seems to never end, no matter how late in the night we work to chip away at it.

The problem is frustrating, but the answer is surprisingly simple: most business leaders experiencing all this are applying their efforts to solving the wrong problem...

The "Simple Math" of Business Productivity

The math appears to be simple.

One variable is the number of hours of work that you need to complete all the tasks on your to-do list, and another variable is the time in which to do it.

And that math doesn't seem to work out; there's more work than available time - so what can we do? The options seem to come down to...

  • Work more hours (which only goes so far, since there are only so many hours in the day)
  • Do less work (not a good idea if you're committed to career and business growth)

Fortunately for the multitude of overworked entrepreneurs and executives out there, the math isn't as simple as it seems at first blush...

Peak Hours and Variable Productivity

The insight missing from most of these time vs. work calculations is that all hours are not created equal; most peoples' effectiveness and output will fluctuate dramatically throughout the day, as they transition from "peak" to "off peak" hours, and back again.

The times will vary from person to person; some of us are morning people, who are far more productive at the start of the day. Others are evening people, who do their best work when others are already burnt out and ready to turn in.

And let's face it, whether you're a morning person or an evening person, you probably already know it.
What you may not know, though, is that focusing your high-impact work on your peak hours is like being gifted extra hours of productivity every single day.

This realization came to me in a casual conversation; I had been asked whether there's a time of day that I'm most productive, and I answered reflexively, honestly, and without thinking, that "yes, I get the majority of my work done before lunch, even if I work until dinner."

It took just a moment for my own words to register in my mind before the next obvious question became clear: "Then why in the world do I keep working after lunch?!"

How I Changed My Work Day Routine

Like many executives, I used to start the day by reaching for my smartphone.

I'd set straight into those emails, and spend most of the morning replying to emails, returning calls, and taking care of all the administrative work that had piled up on my desk. By late morning, I'd be done, feeling like I'd run a tedious mental marathon, before even starting in on the significant work of the day.

But then I flipped my schedule upside down, and my effectiveness has skyrocketed as a result.

The first big change is that I no longer check my email first thing in the morning. In fact, on many days, I don't check my email in the morning at all.

Instead, when I arrive at my desk, I set right into whatever the most important deliverable of the day might happen to be - and I won't even open my email until after it's done, or I've at least made significant headway.

I'll check my email close to noon, and then spend the less productive afternoon responding to emails and doing the admin work that don't require my peak focus anyway.

The result? More focus, better work, and a lot less nagging stress in the back of my mind as I work.
And the best part is that, knowing that I've already done the most important work of the day, I'm completely comfortable clocking out in the early afternoon on many days, secure in the knowledge that I've already been more effective that day than many of my peers.

Tips for Designing Your Own Workday

The key here isn't necessarily to avoid email or administrative work in the morning (though it's a good idea to set your own priorities, rather than let whatever appears in your inbox set them for you!).

Rather, the idea is to get clear on whether you're a morning or evening person, and focus your high-impact activities (business development, planning, client problem solving, strategy, etc.) at those times.

And remember, changes don't have to be drastic to be effective. So rather than flipping your entire work schedule upside down, it's easier to start small; block off 60 minutes at the start of your peak work times for whatever your day's priority might happen to be, and start there.

There's a good chance it will turn out to be the most productive hour of your day!