How Being More Average Can Increase Productivity

Dissecting the average daily grind can lead to more efficient workflows.


In our personal quest to achieve more with less, we often learn from two primary sources:

1. Academic studies that reveal opportunities for higher output, like the ones that tell us we should work while standing up and that lots of company time is wasted.

2. People deemed ultra-successful, such as billionaire tech gurus or rockstar CEOs of world-saving nonprofits, whose stories suggest we could achieve so much more if we learned their secrets. 

But we often overlook learning from average people, those perhaps most similar to us. This is despite their having established the essential rhythms that keep their companies moving forward.

So lets take a step back and see from an aggregated perspective what we can learn from how everyday people work.

Note: If youre interested in individual interviews with professionals about tools and processes they use for work, check out Ways We Work.

Last year, my colleague Cyrus Molavi looked at the relative productivity during the days of the week. He found the most productive day and the least productive day. Those insights came from analyzing productivity data from thousands of people on teams that were working together. As people did work in Flow, a task management product used by teams at Tesla, Etsy and TED (and thousands of others), Cyrus anonymously measured all the little pieces of work that added up to that nebulous activity we call collaboration.

By comparing the relative volume of activity across days of the week, he was able to shed some light on the week-length cycle of productivity for everyday people.

The data set served as a nice middle ground between rigorous academic research and case studies of elites.

But then he went down a level to unearth the hourly patterns of the average team member, using that same data set.

Minute after Minute, Hour after Hour

Heres how average office workers spent their days, including when they got things done.

The six actions reported here are opening the Flow app (which can be thought of as someone turning their mind to the work of the day), posting comments, creating tasks, delegating tasks, scheduling tasks and completing tasks.

At the highest level, users start at 9am and gradually fade over the course of the day, with a dip around lunch and a longer but less intense afternoon.

Early Morning – 9am – Easy Stuff and Catching Up

The first couple hours of the day are the most productive in terms of sheer activity. People check in, catch up, and knock off some simple tasks. At this point, its all about maintenance and making sure there arent any fires to put out. 9am is the hour with more tasks completed than any other time in the day. Its also the time when people typically log in for the first time. As soon as they sit down, they jump right in.

Mid Morning – Plan and Collaborate

With the easy stuff out of the way, they shift their gaze to the rest of the day, week, and month. Its time to decide whats important, figure out details, and provide help to teammates. Between 10am and noon Cyrus saw conversations and planning reach their peak. Plans were made and tasks were created, discussed, and delegated.

Noon – Shove Food Down the Tube

As expected, there’s a slight dip over lunch hour. However, this dip was less than expected and could partially have to do with lunch hours ranging from 12 to 2 (and therefore being watered down) but it could also be that the average person doesnt always take a lunch break. They could be getting caught up on morning work or preparing for a late afternoon meeting.

Early Afternoon – Tackle the Big Stuff

While we still see a bunch of activity after lunch, the quantity is lower. Cyrus thinks of this as the time when the average worker has totally caught up, taken care of the little stuff, set plans for the future, and decided on the next most important task. They pick one task, even if its a bit big, a little unclear, or not quite straightforward, and they get to work on it. This is a good time to do it, because there are fewer things on the mind, and the office tends to quiet down.

Then again, this could just be when more corporate loafing takes place. Its been reported that around 100 minutes a day are spent on personal internet use at work, so maybe this is when most of that happens.

Late Afternoon – The Last Update

In the final hour of the workday (usually around 4pm), we see one last surge of activity. Some good progress has been made and now there is a bit of time to check back in and update the team. Afternoon tasks can be ticked off and workers can reflect back on what the team accomplished. As soon as 5 oclock comes, however, activity drops off. The average worker goes home, and very few switch back on until the next morning.

Be More Average

Seeing how a large swath of people spend their work day gives us ideas for new work habits. Whats special about these habits is that theyre tested, natural, and shared. We know they work for a lot of people and that theyre easily adopted, otherwise they wouldnt be so common. Theyre also likely to sync us up with our teams so that we do the same things at the same timeand not get in each other’sway.

So if you dont do these already, here are 5 tips for harnessing what we know of the average work day to increase you and your team’s productivity:

(1) Get the little stuff off your mind first.

(2) Set plans for where you’re going and share them with your team. Planning tasks and projects makes next steps more obvious and gives teammates more direction for their quick morning tasks and afternoon deep dives.

(3) Cut down on the mid-morning planning phase by collaborating out in the open. Turn private email threads into shared discussions so that things don’t need to be repeated in back channels.

(4) Use the afternoon to dive in and chip away at the big stuff (or just daydream) because this is the time when you’re least likely to be interrupted by group discussions.

(5) Don’t think about work at the end of the day. Log out and try not to come back, physically or mentally, until morning. This will help you hit that sweet spot of working well while living well.

By learning from people in similar circumstances to us we can pick up applicable and realistic tips that will help us create sustainable and ultimately more productive workflows.

See Also: 

A productive team is great, a happy team is even better

Which Day of the Week is Least Productive?

How to Be More Productive at Work

–Photo: screenshot of Flickr CC 2.0/wiertz

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