The other day I read a post where someone was trying to explain the absolute best times of day to work and the best times not to in order to be as productive as possible. It was a good schedule. I felt that it put appropriate weight on personal time, research and productive time. It established very clear timetables, was pretty easy to follow and generally made a lot of sense. Except that it’s total nonsense.

There’s nothing wrong with establishing a routine as this individual did. There’s nothing wrong with working to establish optimal working times and I think it’s important to work in a certain amount of “play time” into your day. I’m not against what the individual was doing or what they were proposing, per se. My issue is with the thinking that everyone’s productivity schedule could be the same.

I’m NOT a morning person. At all. In the least. My wife does her best work from 9-12 in the morning and 3-6 in the afternoon. These are literally the opposite of my productive times. I may as well not do anything before noon. Literally, nothing. Now, this isn’t to say that I never work before noon. I have two small children and spend a significant portion of my week as the primary caregiver. Sometimes, I don’t have a choice as to when I’m going to work. But when I do have a choice, it’s not “getting it done at 8am”. Personally, my absolute most effective work periods are 12-3pm and 8-10pm. According to this online productivity schedule, I’m wrong. And, surprise, I’m not.

It’s all about knowing yourself. I know when I suck at working and I tend to avoid working during that time. I know when I work best and I buckle down at that time and get it done. I have a feeling that you probably know yourself better than most. Maybe even better than anyone. So this post isn’t about telling you when you work best. It’s about telling you to figure out when you work best for yourself. Ok. But how?

You need to start by experimenting. Any scientist will tell you that the important part of an experiment is maintaining the controls. This means that if you’re trying to figure out if you write better in the morning or at night, you need to try the same basic writing activity, with the same level of energy, the same level of distraction. You need to make sure that what you’re actually measuring is how well you work at a certain time, not how well you work after eating a cheeseburger or how well you work listening to the Macarena.

Try to be as specific as possible. Break it down into 10 or 15 minute increments. If you do your best work between 12:40pm and 1:20pm, then work for that 40 minute period. Don’t work from 12-2 just to capture that 40 minute stretch. Be specific. Anyone who measures anything will tell you that specificity is integral to the process.

Be honest with yourself. If the data gives you an answer that you don’t like, don’t fudge the numbers. Maybe the data says you need to start getting up an hour and half before you want to. Do it. Maybe the data says that your Saturday evening should be spent working instead of watching Hockey Night in Canada. Do it. Whatever the data tells you to do, do it. What’s the point of measuring things if you’re not going to use the data?

Once you’ve worked it all out, write it down somewhere. My desktop background used to be a copy of my schedule. Now I know when I need to work and when I don’t so I don’t need it anymore but for months, every time I looked at my computer, I knew if I was allowed to surf or if I had to get down to business.

When it comes down to it, just try to know yourself. Try to be honest with yourself. Don’t cut corners. Don’t cheat on yourself. Get to work. Understand that the biggest obstacle to your success is you. It always has been and it always will be. This doesn’t mean that all you have to do is believe and everything will work itself out. No. You’ve got to work your ass off and even then it may not work out. It means that if you don’t work your ass off and if you don’t work smarter by identifying the best ways for you to be productive, you greatly diminish your chances of success.