Increase Your Writing Productivity (part 4): the power of rhythm

RhythmHello, Dear Readers! I’m back from my desert adventure and am now a Real Adult (as marked by turning 30). Huzzah! More importantly, I’m returned to the blog so we can continue the Increase Your Writing Productivity blog series.

If you’re just joining the series, then make sure you read the earlier posts so that today’s makes sense:

This week, I’m talking about rhythm (I have the hardest time spelling that word. EVERY TIME, I type it wrong). This is the third step on the Productivity Pyramid, and just as part 3’s routine closely tied to part 2’s ritual, part 4’s rhythm closely ties to part 3’s routine. (That was a mouthful, and all I really wanted to say was that each step on the pyramid is inextricably linked to the step before it and the step after it.)

Merriam-Webster defines rhythm as “movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements.” We’re narrowing that term down because we’re specifically interested in the rhythms of our energy and productivity–or, as Charlie Gilkey on Productive Flourishing calls it, our productive capacity:

Productive capacity is different than what you’re actually producing. The way I think about it is that it’s the amount of productivity that you’re capable of in a given amount of time.

– Charlie Gilkey

Productive capacity fluctuates throughout the day/hour/year, so at any given time, your productive capacity is different than it was the day/hour/year before. Seems obvious, right? What ISN’T obvious is that the fluctuations tend to be cyclical and regular–meaning, if you had zero energy yesterday afternoon, the chances are pretty good that you have zero energy every afternoon.

On a daily scale, those fluctuations are our circadian rhythm–and everyone’s is different.

Certain times of day are especially conducive to focused creativity, thanks to circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness. Notice when you seem to have the most energy during the day, and dedicate those valuable periods to your most important creative work.

– from “Laying the Groundwork for an Effective Routine” by Mark McGuinness in Manage Your Day-to-Day

On top of daily rhythms, productivity also fluctuates on a smaller, hourly scale–sort of like the beats to your overall day. But first, let’s look at our daily rhythms and then we’ll narrow our focus.

Figure Out Your Daily Rhythms

As mentioned, everyone’s circadian rhythm is different. For years, I thought I was an afternoon person. Turns out, I’m not. I’m a morning person–I have the most energy and mental clarity before the sun even rises. Now that I know this, I always schedule my most important and most challenging work for the early AM.

I do get a second wind of mental energy in the later afternoon (so I wasn’t totally off when I thought I was an afternoon person), but it’s not nearly as productive my morning sessions. As such, I make sure to plan my afternoon sessions for things like blogs or critiquing (stuff that requires effort but isn’t as draining as drafting or revising).


In other words, I work my daily routine around when my potential for creative flow and my productive capacity are at their max.

To figure out my daily energy rhythms, I followed Charlie Gilkey’s advice and heat-mapped my days. You can use the Productive Flourishing blank heat map OR you can just make your own . You can see what I did (scribbling in my day planner) to the right. I made two circles–one for the morning and one for the afternoon–and then divided it into 3 days. That way I could take a look at 3 days at once and get a good feel for when my most productive times were.

So basically, the full circle you see at the right was my heat map for the AM hours (from 4AM to noon) of Jan. 6, 7, and 8.

As you can see, green (which represented times when I was in the creative flow zone–or SUPER productive zone) is dominant from 5:30 to 7 AM, and then I’m mostly green from 8 to 10. Then, after my walk with the dogs, I’m pretty productive (either in the green zone or okay-yellow zone) until lunch.

I kept a careful record of my daily creative flow/productive capacity rhythms for 2 weeks. Even after the first few days, I could clearly see that mornings were best, right after lunch was the worst, and late afternoon was okay. Still, I made sure to continue my recording for accuracy’s sake and since there will always be those “off” days.

In case you’re wanting to use the same color-coding as I used, here’s how I broke things down:

    • blue = sleeping
    • purple = cooking, showering, dealing with the pets/husband
    • green = creative flow zone
    • yellow = I’m productive but distracted
    • orange =  ugggggggh, I’m barely accomplishing anything
    • red = watching TV, reading, chatting with husband/friends

Find Your Hourly Beats

In addition to our body’s natural, 24-hour circadian rhythms, we also have smaller scale rhythms (called ultradian rhythms) that also affect focus, energy, or creative flow. I think of them as my creative beats.

…our bodies follow what are known as ultradian rhythms—ninety-minute periods at the end of which we reach the limits of our capacity to work at the highest level. It’s possible to push ourselves past ninety minutes by relying on coffee, or sugar, or by summoning our own stress hormones, but when we do so we’re overriding our physiological need for intermittent rest and renewal.

– from “Building Renewal into Your Workday” by Tony Schwartz in Manage Your Day-to-Day

Everyone’s ultradian rhythm is different. Mine tends to 90 minutes on the nose. In fact, if you look at my colorful heat map above, you can see I almost always work hard for 90 minutes and then BAM! Break-time. Sometimes I might be able to focus for 2 hours, but my average creative flow cycle is definitely 90 minutes. Now that I know this, I make sure to schedule in short breaks (which I’ll talk more about next week) every 1.5 hours.

Not only does tapping into your personal ultradian rhythm allow for more productive creative sessions, it also makes ignoring distractions easier. It’s just like writing sprints (such as the twitter sprint #BAMFWordBattle)–you know you’ll only be required to stay focused for 30 minutes, so you force yourself to hunker down and ignore the shiny internet.

It’s far less burdensome to mobilize attention on a task if you’ve got clear starting and stopping points. The ability to focus single-mindedly lies at the heart of mastering any challenge. Time-limited sessions also make it easier to tolerate abstaining from distractions such as e-mail and social media.

– from “Developing Mastery through Deliberate Practice” by Tony Schwartz in Maximize Your Potential

When you know what your ultradian sweet spot is, you can schedule short bathroom/snack/walk breaks to coincide with the end of each work session. Then, once your brain is renewed from the short break, you dive back into your work for another perfect length of time.

The Power of Rhythm

As you can no doubt see, understanding your personal rhythms–both daily and hourly–can really transform how much you produce on any given day. This doesn’t just apply to your creativity but any aspect of your working life. If you know you’re most alert at the beginning of the day, then the last thing you want to do when you get in the office is answer emails–use your lower energy times for mindless tasks like email and instead focus on the important projects first .

Plus, if you find that you get distracted easily after 30 minute work sessions, schedule in a five minute water/bathroom break every thirty minutes. You’ll be impressed by how much short breaks at the right intervals can recharge your productive capacity.

You tell me: When is your most productive/mentally energetic time of day? And what are your ultradian beats–or how long can you work before you need at teeny break?