July 20, 2008
Posted by Gordon Smith

How often do you think about productivity? Lots.

How do you measure your own productivity? Hmm ... impressionistically?

The measurement problem stems from the fact that my work as a law professor is not merely about pushing product out the door. Teaching production could be measured in contract hours and scholarly production could be measured by the number of papers produced or downloaded or by citations. But I resist evaluating my own productivity in these simplistic ways, partly because these measures do not include a meaningful evaluation of quality and partly because I have come to understand more fully the value of things that are not easily measured. Being a good colleague. Belonging to multiple communities. Serving as a mentor. Listening. Learning.

Despite these measurement problems, I know that I feel productive at my job when certain things happen during a day.

  • I meet a deadline or finish a project that has no fixed deadline.
  • I respond to all of my email.
  • I read important news stories, particularly in The Wall Street Journal.
  • I write at least one blog post that teaches me something.
  • I work on at least one of my scholarly projects.
  • I organize something, like my desk or a conference.
  • I teach someone or help someone with a project that is not mine.

Going by this list, many of my days are unproductive. After all, that's a pretty ambitious list. But I have sensed a boost in my productivity recently, and I give part of the credit to Google. Just over a year ago, I blogged about "Going Google," and I wrote an update last fall. That update is still more or less where I am today -- with less reliance on iGoogle and more on a non-Google program called Remember the Milk. Google's various software programs have become the primary means by which I gather, process, and store information, and I perform those tasks more efficiently than I ever had without Google.

Now is the time for the next step in my pursuit of productivity: becoming a morning person. This is one of Zen Habits' excellent list of Top 10 Productivity Hacks. (If you want more lists on productivity, Zen Habits has collected them here.) More on becoming a morning person below the fold.

From time out of mind, I have been a night owl. I have read that night owlishness is partly genetic, so perhaps I have an excuse, but most people get up earlier as they get older, and I am just looking to start now, rather than waiting until I am 60. Here is an idea on how to become a morning person from Steve Pavlina:

It seems there are two main schools of thought about sleep patterns. One is that you should go to bed and get up at the same times every day. It’s like having an alarm clock on both ends — you try to sleep the same hours each night. This seems practical for living in modern society. We need predictability in our schedules. And we need to ensure adequate rest.

The second school says you should listen to your body’s needs and go to bed when you’re tired and get up when you naturally wake up. This approach is rooted in biology. Our bodies should know how much rest we need, so we should listen to them.

Through trial and error, I found out for myself that both of these schools are suboptimal sleep patterns. Both of them are wrong if you care about productivity. Here’s why:

If you sleep set hours, you’ll sometimes go to bed when you aren’t sleepy enough. If it’s taking you more than five minutes to fall asleep each night, you aren’t sleepy enough. You’re wasting time lying in bed awake and not being asleep. Another problem is that you’re assuming you need the same number of hours of sleep every night, which is a false assumption. Your sleep needs vary from day to day.

If you sleep based on what your body tells you, you’ll probably be sleeping more than you need — in many cases a lot more, like 10-15 hours more per week (the equivalent of a full waking day). A lot of people who sleep this way get 8+ hours of sleep per night, which is usually too much. Also, your mornings may be less predictable if you’re getting up at different times. And because our natural rhythms are sometimes out of tune with the 24-hour clock, you may find that your sleep times begin to drift.

The optimal solution for me has been to combine both approaches. It’s very simple, and many early risers do this without even thinking about it, but it was a mental breakthrough for me nonetheless. The solution was to go to bed when I’m sleepy (and only when I’m sleepy) and get up with an alarm clock at a fixed time (7 days per week). So I always get up at the same time (in my case 5am), but I go to bed at different times every night.

I go to bed when I’m too sleepy to stay up. My sleepiness test is that if I couldn’t read a book for more than a page or two without drifting off, I’m ready for bed. Most of the time when I go to bed, I’m asleep within three minutes. I lie down, get comfortable, and immediately I’m drifting off. Sometimes I go to bed at 9:30pm; other times I stay up until midnight. Most of the time I go to bed between 10-11pm. If I’m not sleepy, I stay up until I can’t keep my eyes open any longer. Reading is an excellent activity to do during this time, since it becomes obvious when I’m too sleepy to read.

When my alarm goes off every morning, I turn it off, stretch for a couple seconds, and sit up. I don’t think about it. I’ve learned that the longer it takes me to get up, the more likely I am to try to sleep in. So I don’t allow myself to have conversations in my head about the benefits of sleeping in once the alarm goes off. Even if I want to sleep in, I always get up right away.

After a few days of using this approach, I found that my sleep patterns settled into a natural rhythm. If I got too little sleep one night, I’d automatically be sleepier earlier and get more sleep the next night. And if I had lots of energy and wasn’t tired, I’d sleep less. My body learned when to knock me out because it knew I would always get up at the same time and that my wake-up time wasn’t negotiable.

A side effect was that on average, I slept about 90 minutes less per night, but I actually felt more well-rested. I was sleeping almost the entire time I was in bed.

Hmm. I was intent on trying the first approach, but this hybrid approach is appealing. In reading various advice sites on this issue, the main goal seems to be getting up at the same time every day. Getting to bed at the same time seems to follow naturally from reaching the first goal. It makes sense, but for some reason I have always approached this the other way around.

So we begin on Monday ...

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