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Forget Mornings: Here’s How to Design the Best Afternoon Routine, According to Research

By Jory MacKay · October 5, 2017
best-afternoon-routines primary img

Do you get up at 4am to work before the rest of the world wakes up? Does your morning routine include meditation, cold shower, coffee? Or coffee, cold shower, meditation?

With the amounts of tips and tricks out there telling us how to have the most productive morning possible, you’d think the majority of the working population spends the pre-lunch hours lifelessly shuffling around like a bunch of office-bound zombies.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

No matter what your morning routine is, our body is predisposed to get stuff done in the AM. Humans have a ‘master clock’ called our Circadian Rhythm, which controls when we have the most energy and alertness. And while each person’s ‘clock’ is set slightly differently, the most common scenario backed by research shows that we have high mental alertness at 10am (a few hours after we wake up) with energy levels dropping off in the early afternoon until a predictable crash at around 3pm.

FuzzyScience on Circadian Rhythm

So, if we’re predisposed to sluggishness in the post-lunch hours, what can we do?

Just like a morning routine can kickstart your day, devising an afternoon routine based around our lower energy levels can help us get the most out of the day, even when our body would rather curl up on the couch and watch Netflix.

Plan for a Productive Afternoon—Before You Have Lunch

The hours before your energy naturally starts to decline are some of your peak working hours and shouldn’t be wasted. However, you should use some of this high energy to set yourself up for a productive afternoon. Here are a few suggestions.

Use Hemingway’s famous hack

It’s easy to keep riding the pre-afternoon high of our natural boost in energy, but fully completing a task or project at this point can actually be detrimental to your ability to get back in the swing of things after lunch.

So instead of neatly wrapping up that task before you break for lunch, follow this simple piece of advice from Ernest Hemingway: Stop while you’re ahead.

"If you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next," explains author Roald Dahl (who, oddly enough, is the original source for Hemingway’s trick). "You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely."

This trick can be applied to any job. Whether you’re banging out customer support tickets, putting together a new strategy doc, or editing your slide deck for a presentation, the key is to stop not when you’re finished, but when you know exactly what to do next.

Why? Well, Hemingway’s hack works for two reasons:

  1. You’re lowering the psychological barrier to returning to work: When you come back after lunch and head into your afternoon, there’s no question of where you want to start. You don’t need to expend any unnecessary cognitive energy or risk hitting a block.

  2. Our minds naturally hate not finishing a task we’ve started: The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon discovered back in 1927 that explains how "the brain has a powerful need to finish what it starts. When it can't complete something, it gets stuck on it," and will even give us a boost of energy to help us finish what we’re started.

Set a minor milestone you’ll be able to finish in the afternoon

Your afternoon depends on getting back into the flow of work quickly. But starting up the engine is hard enough, let alone trying to get any sort of momentum going. We get a rush of energy when we finish a task. However, we don’t need to hit major goals to see that benefit.

"When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously," explains researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer who studied the correlation between daily progress and happiness and meaning at work.

The effect is like a viral loop: Making measurable progress, even minor, makes us happier. When we’re happier, we’re more productive. More productivity means more progress. And on and on.

The key is to identify these minor milestones and work towards hitting them early in the afternoon.

Author Scott Berkun suggests starting with a big list of things you want to accomplish and then breaking each of those goals down into smaller and smaller milestones:

Writing things down is powerful. No matter how big the list is, everyone feels better once the list exists. Hey! You made something! Change of mood or mind starts with small things.

So, if you want to write a blog post in the afternoon, start with an outline and make that your goal. That first, meaningful step will help kickstart the rest of your afternoon.

Set your afternoon triggers

The last piece of the puzzle is to set up what I like to call "guardrails of motivation"—reminders to nudge you back on the right path when you inevitably drift later in the day.

You can set these up in any way that fits in your workflow, but here’s how I do it:

  1. Work in 50 minute sprints: Research has found that working in short sprints and taking regular breaks is the best way to maintain your energy. While some people opt for the popular Pomodoro technique of 25 minute sprints with 5 minute breaks in between, recent research has suggested that 50 minute sprints followed by a 10-15 minute break might work even better. Whichever you choose, make sure you stick with it. I personally use an app called Be Focused to track my time and alert me when it’s time to take a break. But there are a lot of great apps available to help you do this.

  2. Send yourself a reminder for when you know you’re going to dip: I know I’m most susceptible to low energy between 3pm and 4pm. Which is why pre-lunch I’ll often set a reminder for somewhere between those hours to simply ask "Are you working on the right thing?" Sometimes all we need is a little push to get us back on track.

Working with Your Energy Levels During the Dreaded Mid-Afternoon Dip

At some point between 2pm and 5pm, you’re going to feel your eyelids sagging and your momentum hitting the ditch. At this point, if you’re like me, you might have Facebook open in another tab and start mindlessly scrolling (or pull up YouTube, if it’s an especially low energy day).

This is where the real work comes in and where your routine becomes so important in protecting your energy and your time.

Turn off the outside world to protect what energy you have left

You might be able to fend off notifications, email, and texts in the morning when you’re sharp, but as soon as your energy dips it’s easy to get dislodged by any ping that comes your way.

Gloria Mark, professor in the department of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, says that it can take over 23 minutes to get your attention back after a disruption. When you’re already in an energy-depleted state, it’s safe to say this number can only go up.

Your afternoon routine should include some heads down time to conserve what energy you have. Unsplash CEO, Mikael Cho, suggests closing your extra tabs and turning off notifications to guard your energy:

Though many things seem urgent, they hardly ever are. Most things can wait a couple hours. Notifications are poison for your attention. Turning off notifications allows you to focus. We can’t multitask. You might feel like you can but what’s really happening is your brain is switching between tasks. Shutting down and restarting every time. Switching is inefficient.

Bang out those mindless tasks

When our brain enters low energy mode, it’s a good time to bang out ‘easy’ tasks, like clerical work, catching up on emails, resizing photos, or whatever work doesn’t require too much cognitive stress.

This is a last ditch effort to squeeze as much productivity as you can out of your afternoon. And to make this even easier, don’t rely on your tired brain to know what you need to do. Instead, I like to create a ‘bucket’ list of tasks that are boring but needed that I can take on in the late afternoon so I have some sort of guide, even if I’m not there 100%.

Throw in a little late-afternoon chaos

I know we’re talking about routines here, but too much ‘routine’ in your routine can actually kill your energy levels.

As you near the final stretch of your workday, bringing in a little chaos can actually help get you over the finish line. University of Nebraska-Lincoln business professor Theresa Welbourne suggests shaking things up by changing your usual time, place, or format of afternoon meetings.

"The appearance of less bureaucracy makes people more energized at work," she says.

However you do it, setting up some event that knocks you out of your afternoon routine is a great way to boost your energy in the late hours of the workday.

Make time for a quick workout

A bit of exercise has been shown to improve mental health and mood as well as boost energy levels, which is why taking a little time out to move around in the afternoon is so important.

Try scheduling a simple workout during one of your afternoon breaks by doing a few rounds of the 7-minute workout or a short routine of pushups, planks, and jumping jacks.

If you’re in the office, why not make it a team effort? A friend of mine has been running "3 o’clock pushups" at his workplace for the past 3 years.

Right Before you Sign Off For the Day

With your levels at an all-time low, it’s time to wind down your workday. But there’s still an opportunity here to set yourself up for success for tomorrow morning (and afternoon).

Write a letter to tomorrow you

Your energy stores are almost depleted, but you want to push across that finish line! Follow the Ivy Lee method:

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.

  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.

  3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.

  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

Not only does this list lower the friction of starting the next day, but research has found that ‘downloading’ your thoughts like this can actually improve your sleep, meaning you’ll be re-energized for another productive morning and afternoon the next day.

We put so much focus on our mornings that often the afternoons get left to their own devices. We assume the momentum from the day will get us through. And it might—but certainly not in the best way.

To hit peak productivity, be realistic about what you can finish in a day, work with your energy levels and not against them, and stick to your gameplan—all day long.

Morning routine image by Chris Adamus. Circadian Rhythm image by FuzzyScience

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