Increase Your Team's Productivity By Identifying Their Prime Time

Most of the recent articles and books on productivity and time management heavily emphasize the fact that you can't manage time - you can only manage your energy.  Hopefully you already have a good sense of what time of day you're typically at your best and have structured your time accordingly where possible.  For me, I know that trying to do deep work in the afternoons takes twice as much time and energy as the same task would take if I did it in the morning, so I schedule hard stuff like research and creative design work for the morning and easy stuff, like meetings, for the afternoon.  (I get energized by talking with others, so this helps make my afternoons less "slumpy" energy-wise.) 

Have you ever thought about it at the team level, though?  I stumbled across this by accident as part of an upward feedback process with a team of a brand-new manager.   I was using the question "when are you typically at your best" as an icebreaker to ease them in to more difficult questions about what they wanted from their manager, but they were so captivated by the chart that resulted from the responses and wanted me to share it with their manager as part of the feedback.  Since it's not really a touchy subject, it's possible for you to do the same exercise without an external facilitator.  It can help you in planning the team's work more effectively, and it might be the first time your employees have really thought about what their "prime time" really is and how they can leverage it.

The goal of this activity is to end up with a chart that looks something like this:

Sample team prime time chart

Sample team prime time chart

Create a team prime time chart.

  1. Decide how to gather the information.  You can do it on a flipchart or whiteboard during a team meeting - that can be a great visual - or you can just ask each person individually.  While it's possible to do it over e-mail, it will be best to do it in person if possible so that you can ease potential worries that there is a "correct" answer or that you will use this in a negative way.
  2. Create a chart on paper or a flipchart or whiteboard.  Map out the main hours of the work day, with at least an hour extra at the beginning and end.
  3. Ask each employee, "In what three-hour window of the day do you tend to do your best work?" If they're having trouble answering, you can frame it differently: "When do things seem to be relatively easy to do, versus times when it takes a lot of effort for the same task?"  Map the answers on your chart, using a separate column for each person.

Decide what to change based on the results.

Once you have a full map, analyze it.

When is there overlap between multiple team members?  These times should be avoided for status updates or other meetings that don't involve deep work or creative problem solving.

When are the times that no one is at their best, if any?  Those times should be avoided for any important conversations where you need their best thinking.  Those times are terrific for taking care of what I like to call "administrivia" - all those little things that have to get done but don't require much brain power.

How does each employee's prime time relate to when you typically meet with them?  Assuming you have regular one-to-ones (which you should - if you don't, start there), try to schedule them close to but not during that window of time when the employee can do his or her very best work.  Yes, meetings with you are important, but it's better to leave that window for really challenging work.

How does your own prime time relate to your current schedule?  Are there ways to shift things so that you can use that time for your most important, most challenging work?  (Hint: even though things like writing and conducting performance reviews are often put in the "administrivia" category, they are actually some of your most important work.)  

Consider whether it is feasible to let each member of the team be completely unavailable (off e-mail, potentially even off site or at least in another workspace where no one will pop in) for one of their prime time windows each week.  If they know they have dedicated non-interrupted time, they can plan their work and potentially make significant progress in those few hours.  Can you do the same for yourself as well?

Discuss with your team.

Share the results with the team, along with your thinking about potential changes the team could make based on the analysis.  Get their input and identify the changes that will make the biggest difference.  

As much as possible, plan meetings and project events around the chart.  For example, if there is a thorny process issue that will take a lot of detailed discussion to resolve, make sure those discussions take place during the participants' prime time if at all possible.  Try not to schedule important discussions with your employees or your boss when you are at your lowest energy level.  

Unless your team is required to be available at all times for customer requests, encourage everyone to turn off their e-mail notifications and limit the amount of time they keep their inboxes open.  If nothing else, they should close them during their prime time window so that they can focus on deep work.  

Being open about prime times is not an invitation for people to completely slack off during non-prime time, of course.  The work still needs to get done.  However, it makes sense to set everyone up to be able to do their best work.   This can also help make employees a little more accountable for how they manage their own energy, too.   I found that doing deep work actually makes me more likely to check e-mail or social media, because deep work by definition involves things that are difficult and cause me to feel stuck.  I had to resort to using Leechblock, a Firefox add-in that blocks specified websites at specified hours, to ensure that I really got the most out of my mornings. 

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