19 Aug 2016
By Belle

When I questioned my assumption that I'm an early bird I started getting way more done

Ever since I knew there was a difference between night owls and early birds, I've thought I was an early bird. Even though I didn't always find it easy to get up early, I liked being up early. When I studied my first year of Uni online and had to get up early enough to be on a train by 4am to the nearest place running a supervised exam for my course, I was grateful every time. That is, by the time I was on the train. Getting out of bed was a nightmare.

The problem with this assumption is that it never really worked for me when it came to planning my workday. I've been working from home (either remotely, freelancing, or working for my own company, Hello Code) for three or four years now, and I've only just figured out what suits me best.

It boggles my mind that I've figured it out—not because it took so long, but because I was starting to think I'd never find a schedule that worked for me most days. I thought I was doomed to a life of fluctuating productivity levels depending on my mood each day. Obviously this isn't ideal, but it's especially frustrating when you're trying to build a new company, and you need to work as much as you can without burning out.

So I tried a bunch of different schedules in an attempt to get some structure and regular productivity into my days. A couple of years ago, I wrote about how I was waking up early every morning to write. I'd get up around 6am, make a coffee, and write until 7. Then I'd shower and start my day normally.

While this did help me create lots more rough drafts, I never felt clear enough to do editing or other work during those morning bouts. I felt foggy, and drafting some new word vomit was all I could manage. By 7am I would be fairly awake, but I got so little value out of those periods that it didn't make much sense to keep it up—not as a strategy for getting more work done, anyway.

While mulling about what else to try, I had a couple of late-night coding stints, where I would figure out a solution to something, or find a bug I wanted to fix immediately and work on it well past my bedtime. This is rare for me, but I noticed I was getting a couple of solid hours of work done all at once, because I was so engrossed. I wondered if maybe my assumption about being an early bird was wrong, and I could work better late at night. But it only took two nights of trying this to realise it was a terrible idea.

I am absolutely not a night owl. I like to go to bed at 9pm. I try to go to sleep around 10pm. I don't work after dinner unless I really have to, because I'm not sharp then. Just like when I woke up early to write, I'm not at my best at that time of day. I can do it as a one-off when there's an emergency or I have a hit of motivation, but making it a habit didn't work at all.

My co-founder Josh is a night owl. He goes to sleep around 1 or 2am most nights, and gets up around 9 or 10am. He usually starts his workday properly after lunch, and sometimes continues working after dinner. Those are his sharp hours.

I like the idea of being more aligned to his day—going to bed so early and getting up hours before him means we're quite misaligned. Just like working at night, I quickly found this schedule didn't work for me. 8am, for some reason, seems to be my absolute latest getting up time for a good day. Any later than that is late enough that I start my day feeling bad, and rarely improve my mood throughout the day. The earlier I get up, the better my mood is—and thus, usually, my productivity.

And yet, I can't seem to get much done in the mornings. Even when I wasn't trying to get up especially early, most ordinary days I tried to get some work done between 9am and noon, when I'd stop for lunch. But I struggled on at least half the days. I had to really force myself to work before lunch, and I didn't really understand why.

Until I finally realised. I'd been using morning and night as a false dichotomy, completely ignoring the true time period I work best: the afternoon.

When I actually paid attention to when I get the most work done, even if I have a productive morning, I generally do the bulk of my work between lunch and dinner. It's late enough that I've had hours to wake up and get my brain ready to work, but not so late that I've lost all my energy and focus.

So my new schedule is to work from 1pm until either all my tasks for the day are finished, or it's time to stop for dinner: whichever comes first. That's usually about 4-5 hours of work time. Overall, that's not heaps, but if you think about an ordinary eight-hour workday, you're lucky to get that many focused work hours out of it in-between breaks, meals, and slacking off. It's a really tough experience to be in work mode for that entire period, with only short breaks to stretch or grab a drink, and a huge task list to work through. But so far it's been so productive I wouldn't change it. It's the best change I've ever made to my schedule.

You can see from my Exist graphs below that my productive time, number of commits, and tasks completed all went up when I made this change:

Exist graphs

Here's how I'm organising my afternoon workdays:

I make a huge to do list

Another thing I've learned about how I work is that my biggest time-waster is wondering what to do next. If I don't have a task to work on, I tend to wander around until I end up on YouTube for a half hour. Although lots of productivity advice will tell you to limit your to do list to what's achievable, I've found putting lots on my list means I work harder and faster to get through it all, and I'm constantly moving onto something new—no time to dawdle and get distracted.

I also try to make the list as varied as I can. When I'm doing freelance work there's not a lot of variety, because I'll spend several hours on one task, like researching, or writing an article. But on the days I'm working on Hello Code I'll often have a mixture of customer support and other emails to reply to, writing new content for our blogs, reaching out to press, and working on Exist for iOS.

That variety is really useful when I get bored of one type of task, because I can stay focused on getting things done without having to do the same type of work all day.

I enforce work mode

I'm serious about starting work at 1pm. I've been late twice so far, (both times I was distracted by Josh) and I call it "late" on purpose. I want to feel like I have to keep my promise to start work at 1pm, because I know as soon as I let myself start late one day, I'll start late another day, and before I know it, I'll have lost my whole schedule.

I'm also serious about staying in work mode. I stop for short breaks throughout the day, as those are important for staying comfortable and healthy while I'm working, but I won't stop to watch a movie or go run an errand. Until my work is done, or dinner time rolls around, I keep working. That focus helps me stay on task and get a lot done. There's no need to think about what to do next, because I know to just keep working through today's task list. If it's between 1pm and dinner time, I'm at work. Taking away that question of whether to work or not also takes away the struggle to find the motivation to get started.

I log my progress every day

I was already using Littlelogs to log what I make progress on every day, but it's been great to see how much bigger my logs have been (on a regular basis, too) since starting this schedule. Logging my progress is a nice way to end the day. It feels like a way to celebrate my success for the day, and it feels really great to have a long list of completed tasks to log.

I don't have rules for my mornings

Part of what makes this schedule work so well is that I still get up early, even though I start work later. I get up at 6:30 most mornings. But I don't have any rules for my mornings—I can do whatever I want. This gives me plenty of freedom every day to enjoy my time as my own, and make decisions about what to do, before starting my strict work hours.

I'd really like to use my mornings to spend more time on my personal projects and to exercise more. But so far I'm finding that I'm more likely to lie around and relax in the mornings, or run errands that take up big chunks of time. For now my focus is on getting more done every day so we can see more progress with Larder and Exist, so I'm just letting my mornings play out naturally. Eventually, when I'm really set in the schedule of 1pm work hours, I'll try some different approaches for fitting in things like exercise before lunch.

It seems strange to be getting up early, but working later, and actually getting more done. I feel incredibly productive at the moment. It's possible this won't last long, but I hope it does. I feel good about what I'm getting done, and by managing my time better, I'm able to contribute more to Hello Code.

I suppose the main lesson for me has been to always question assumptions and try new things. It's hard to look at something from a new angle, but in retrospect I can see how obvious it always was that I worked best in the afternoon, and didn't have to work in the morning or at night.