Get the Better newsletter.
By Jenna Birch

For a few years now, I’ve been asked by seasoned writers, “How do you write as much as you do?” or, “How do you come up with so many story ideas?” Of course, there are tons of ways I keep myself organized, but the simplest thing I’ve done to boost my productivity stems back to a suggestion I first read and reported about in 2014, and have adopted permanently ever since. I discovered the tip in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) with psychologist Dan Ariely, a longtime professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

In response to a question about his favorite ways to apply elements of his work to daily life, Ariely said, “One of the saddest mistakes in time management is the propensity of people to spend the two most productive hours of their day on things that don’t require high cognitive capacity (like social media). If we could salvage those precious hours, most of us would be much more successful in accomplishing what we truly want.” When another questioner asked when those hours were, Ariely claimed, “Generally people are most productive in the morning. The two hours after becoming fully awake are likely to be the best.”

I turned the advice over in my mind. At the time, I was working more hours than ever as a freelance writer, but they were seemingly all over the place. I didn’t work with much intention, but basically tackled whatever seemed to be on the top of the pile when I woke up — maybe an email from my editor, a story I needed to read over before filing, or a pitch I’d want to jot down. What if I tried a something new, arranging my schedule more systematically?

3 steps to optimizing your schedule

Since that AMA, I have adopted a few time-management tricks based on Ariely’s piece of advice, and used them to rearrange my day with more intention.

  • Select one challenging task from you to-do list the night before. I started deciding on the piece of writing I’m going to work on before I go to bed at night, so morning guesswork doesn’t set me back.
  • Jump right into your most mentally challenging task (after a cup of coffee). Because the act of writing takes the most cognitive energy to accomplish, I spend my most productive hours — first thing in the morning — writing. I always set my coffee pot at night, and sit down at my computer immediately when I wake up.
  • Stack the rest of your to-do list. I also stack my tasks from most to least difficult, so, as my executive energy wanes into the afternoon, my work is getting progressively easier to complete anyway.

Whenever I stay on this schedule and work in this fashion, I get much more done than when I need to work in another way — like when I need to push writing back in order to accommodate an early-morning phone interview or a personal errand. The effectiveness of this trick makes “total sense,” according to Dona Matthews, PhD, a developmental psychologist and author of several books, including Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids. “You are more productive when you spend your best hours on your most demanding tasks, like writing,” she says. “We have a limited window of highly productive cognitive energy, and if we use that window for low-demand tasks like social media or laundry, we don't have it left for the high-demand tasks we’d like to accomplish.”

We have a limited window of highly productive cognitive energy, and if we use that window for low-demand tasks like social media or laundry, we don't have it left for the high-demand tasks.

Lark or night owl? Finding your most productive hours

Those earliest morning hours worked best for me in terms of productivity, but Matthews says that might not be everyone’s most productive time. “Researchers have identified highly variable circadian rhythms, roughly grouping people into ‘larks’ or morning people and ‘night owls,’ those who do their best work at night, with lots of sub-varieties,” she says. While I am seemingly a lark, the best hours for productivity and alertness are probably “not universal,” according to Matthews. “Most people know when their most productive hours are, but trial and error can help you learn if you don’t know yet,” she explains.

Even if you think you know your top hours for productivity, you might still want to track when you’re accomplishing various tasks most efficiently. Matthews says she’s learned different times of the day are best for different parts of her work. “Morning is my best time for writing nonfiction, or editing, but I find late afternoon a good time for working on fiction — or at least the creative or inventive aspects of that,” she says. Likewise, I naturally seem to gravitate towards different tasks at different times of day. While I spend my morning writing, drafting and structuring stories, I typically transition to more creative work like brainstorming and drafting new pitches in the afternoon. After 3 p.m., I might give an interview with a podcaster for my new book or respond to blog comments, but I don’t have any more mental energy to spare for the day. Normally, if I’m productive in the morning, I don’t need it.

After adopting these productivity hacks years ago, I’ve accomplished more than I ever used to in the same amount of time, and rarely work into the evening hours. So, as a bonus, this trick also means I’ve gained more free time than ever, which I can spend driving to see my family, going for scenic walks in the afternoon, and actually making my happy hour plans with my friends. If you identify when your most productive two hours are and build your schedule around them, you, too, may notice that you develop a rhythm for the day that lends itself to your best work — and you may even gain back a few precious hours of free time while you're at it.

TAKE YOUR CAREER TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.