January 8, 2019

To-do lists are important little tools—they can help structure and organize your days (and therefore, you know, your life) and break down monster-sized tasks into smaller, more manageable beasts.

But there’s one thing I’ve often overlooked when writing my own to-do lists, and you might feel the same way, too. While I’ve nailed down the “what” I should be doing every day, and am decent at navigating the “how” to do it (hint: you’ve gotta chop up those multi-step projects into daily, bite-sized snackaroos), recently I was totally at a loss when it comes to “when.”

That’s right: “When” you knock off your to-dos matters, just as much as what you’re doing.

Because if you’re trying to find time to write or meditate or listen to your Shine Talks every day, but struggle to actually get them done, it might be because your timing is a little off.

Maybe you’re trying to relax when your brain is actually wanting to jump on a critical-thinking problem. Or, maybe you find yourself sitting in a meeting that takes up your entire brain when really you should be taking a walk around your building.

The solution: Learning your power hours.

Knowing your own “power hours” can help you write better to-do lists. Take, for example, Google’s resident productivity expert, Laura Mae Martin: She figured out her power hours are from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. (hello, early bird!) so that’s when she tackles a high-priority task. She won’t even check her email until that task is done.

Knowing your own 'power hours' can help you write better to-do lists.

Daniel Pink, the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, has done a lot of research on this topic—he’s found that most people operate with three distinct time frames of energy throughout the day: peak, trough, and recovery periods.

Peak times are when your focus is on fire. For most people, peaks are in the morning, and are best for work that requires “heads-down focus, vigilance, attention, batting away distractions.”

Trough times are that 3 p.m. slump when your energy starts to flag. They're best for administrative stuff. And recovery times are when your brain is starting to wake up again after a trough—it's a great time for creativity, since, as Pink told All Things Considered, you’re less inhibited and usually in a better mood.

Here’s how to incorporate all of this when you’re writing out your next to-do list.

1. Determine Your Peak, Trough, and Recovery Times

Think about a day that felt really “productive” for you—and break down what you did during each time of day. Chances are during that day you were doing what was important when you could do it to the best of your ability.

And try to be honest with yourself—as much as I wish I could imitate Martin’s early-bird hours and shut out the world at 7 a.m., I know my brain takes a little while to wake up, and jumping into a hard task first thing would be a shock to the system. Maybe talk to me after a cup of coffee.

2. Write Your To-Do List With a Twist

I’ve found it’s always super helpful to anticipate how long something will take, or ideally, how long you would want it to take, and write that next to the item itself. But now it’s time to get even more specific, and determine which time frame would be best suited for the task.

Consider what kind of task this is, and which bucket it should fall into: peak, trough, recovery. You can even write these next to the task itself.

3. Pair Your Tasks With Their Perfect Timing

High-minded or analytic tasks which require deep thinking should go into your “peak” time, while simple tasks that you can perform on autopilot should go in your “trough” time. And finally, non-time-sensitive creative tasks can go into your “recovery” time.

Instead of your agenda being a long list of similar-sounding tasks, breaking it up in this way reveals when you should be executing on them.

Here’s what it looks like in practice: Rather than answering emails first thing in the morning, I might want to start with the more challenging task of revising a story or editing some work; during my trough time, I could file invoices or update Excel spreadsheets (fun!), and save my brainstorming or idea generation for my “recovery” time.

Not only will this practice help streamline your day, but it also gives you a reason for why—and what—you’re doing.

It’s much easier to slog through errands if you can appreciate that you’re not wasting your most valuable brain time. Everything will have its proper time and place, from your long-term goals to your actually-kinda-fun errands. Now, you can relax because you know this actually is the perfect time for you to be wandering the aisles of Target.

Read next: Why We Always End Up Overwhelmed By Our To-Do Lists

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