Not all times of day are equal: how to structure your team’s day for optimal focus and flow.

If you’re a sales leader, then you spend a lot of time thinking about your team’s productivity. You know there’s a direct line between daily activities like prospecting calls and emails and revenue.

You also know that in the current global pandemic, which has forced many teams to WFH, there’s an added challenge to keeping your team motivated and focused (a concern also shared by your team).

In an earlier post, we showed how meeting your sleep need is a fundamental requisite for sales success. Here we dive into the second key lever to productivity: your circadian rhythm.

The Two Levers of Productivity: Sleep Debt & Circadian Rhythm

Maybe you’ve started researching methods and techniques to boost wellbeing and performance.

We can save you some time: there’s a deep body of research showing that managing sleep debt and understanding your circadian rhythm can unlock new levels of focus.

Sleep debt refers to the cumulative hours of sleep lost over a period of roughly two weeks, relative to your sleep need.

The bigger this number, the more likely a person is to struggle with key behaviors for sales, like decision making, verbal acuity, and empathy.

But what about circadian rhythm? One way to think of it is as your internal timer that tells you when to be awake and when to be asleep.

This means it affects the duration of your sleep and what your brain does at night.

The circadian rhythm also modulates our waking behavior, affecting peaks and dips in energy throughout the day.

It has a direct bearing on our focus, and a number of fundamental cognitive functions, including attention, our ability to learn new skills, and working memory — the building blocks of productivity.

It’s no wonder then that circadian misalignment (such as when you’re jetlagged, or just not keeping regular sleep hours) is associated with poorer academic performance and other deleterious mental and physiological outcomes.

The Circadian Rhythm as Energy Schedule

It helps to think of your circadian rhythm as your own daily “energy schedule”; a rolling wave of energy peaks and dips across the day.

During the two natural windows of high alertness and wakefulness, which, for many, fall in the late morning and late afternoon, every cell in your body is naturally programmed to be alert and ready to perform.

During your dip, which generally occurs in the early afternoon, your body is naturally programmed to be relaxed and in recovery.

If you’re carrying sleep debt, you may feel your dips amplified significantly. Low to no sleep debt will optimize the peaks.

The exact times of your peaks and dips depend on recent light exposure and your chronotype. Your chronotype – specific to your genetics, age, and gender – is the “bias” of your internal timer or clock.

Society’s daily clock is 24 hours, but if you are an evening (late) chronotype or “night owl”, the clock in your head is longer — if you’re a morning (early) type or “morning lark”, your clock is shorter than 24 hours.

As such, your energy schedule is unique to you and you will experience it differently each day, with shifts based on your exposure to light.

The Circadian Rhythm Determines Performance

You as a manager might expect your employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, but an understanding of the circadian rhythm shows that’s an unrealistic expectation.

Likewise, employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire.

One way to see this play out in the real world is in the study of the timing of athletic achievements. Indeed, most world records are broken during this second peak, the time of day when body temperature is the highest.

In the NFL, West Coast teams have a circadian advantage over East Coast teams during Monday Night Football, because they’re playing closer to this second peak.

West Coast teams beat East Coast teams 66% of the time, while West Coast teams beat the spread 70% of the time.

Leveraging Your Circadian Rhythm for Peak Productivity

So, how can you put this information into practice?

If you’re trying to optimize the work of a team whose activities need to be synchronized, you’ll need to make some generalizations.

Plan your most important tasks for when people are at or near their peaks in focus (within an hour or so of noon and 6 pm).

Schedule tasks requiring less focus within 90 mins of waking, early afternoon, and later at night.

However, the real opportunity arises at the individual level, which is why educating your team about the circadian rhythm is so important.

When employees are able to schedule their work in a way that best fits their energy schedule, that’s when true productivity gains will occur.

The current moment is a great time to try this, since so many have shifted to WFH and shelter-in-place, removing the time burden of commuting and other obligations that may have otherwise interfered with our natural rhythms.

How We Suggest Sales Teams Structure Their Work Day

As a jumping off point, here’s a schedule of daily sales activities, optimized for productivity:

  • Morning ramp-up:

    As your energy rises, plan the day ahead and check your email. If you drink coffee, have a cup now to shake off normal morning “grogginess”, but avoid it as the day wears on. Get sunlight with a walk or exercise (which will also help that night of sleep).

  • Morning peak:

    Reserve this time for work that demands your highest level of focus, such as critical decision-making, presentations, and sales calls, as well as activities that require the most emotional fortitude, like prospecting and dealing with rejection. You’ll have the high energy and cognitive capacity to take them in stride.

  • Afternoon dip:

    Schedule administrative tasks like emails or CRM updates, or passive webinar watching for this energy lull, which is a normal part of your circadian rhythm (not a hangover from lunch). On the weekends, this is a good time for a workout or household chores, and the best time for a nap.

  • Evening ramp-up and peak:

    Knock out another project that requires a high level of focus or collaborative effort. Taking advantage of this peak leaves you ready to start winding down.

  • Evening wind-down:

    It’s easy to ignore the call to relax in this always-on era of work. But taking the time to unplug before bed will help you get a better night’s sleep and accomplish more the next day. Take this time to ramp down. That means doing relaxing activities, such as taking a hot shower, performing science-backed relaxation techniques like Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), or reading. Limit blue light (which tricks your brain into thinking it’s day) by putting your devices into “Night Shift” mode and wearing blue-light-blocking orange glasses if you insist on Netflix. Wrap up your screen time and avoid activities that might trigger your mind with stress or excitement.

There’s an entire industry of books, hacks, and gadgets purporting to boost productivity.

In truth, none of this advice will help until you’ve minimized your sleep debt and aligned your activities with your circadian rhythm.

About the author

Jeff Kahn

Jeff Kahn is Co-Founder and CEO at Rise Science. Rise works with sales organizations to…

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