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The most important productivity tip

(MoneyWatch) I'm a time management nut, and so I am surprised that the most important aspect of personal productivity is rarely discussed. It is to do creative work when you're naturally creative, and do productive tasks when you're naturally in "get it done" mode.

Every person I've ever met, taught, or learned from, is more creative at some point in the day than others, so much so that they are a creative genius at some times. The same person is a productivity machine at other times in the day (or, a "productivity genius"). The key is to know what your natural daily rhythm is.

First, some definitions. Creative tasks are those that require "invention" -- which the Greeks understood as a combination of originality and discovering what's going on. Writing poetry is creative. So is writing a proposal. And getting ready for a meeting, when you're getting your facts in order and thinking about how to present them and respond to questions. Answering a tough email is creative, as is offering critiques on a marketing strategy, or preparing a bid.

A productive task is something you try to dispense quickly, where the key is efficiency. Answering routine emails, returning calls, getting through the stuff on your desk are productivity tasks.

So, how do you sync up when you do each? Here's how:

1. Keep a "genius log" for three days to map your daily cycle. During the 72 hours, when you're at work, set an alarm every 1-2 hours. When it goes off, record these quick data points:

- The exact time of day.

- The task you're working on.

- Where it is on the creativity-productive continuum, with "100% C" meaning total creativity, "100% P" meaning that you're doing your best to be a productivity machine.

- How effortless it is, on a one to 10 scale, with 10 being "completely effortless" and one being "personal hell."

After making these notations, reset the alarm for a time between 60 and 120 minutes. Repeat until the end of the workday, and for the next two days.

To learn more on how to do the genius log, get some tips to not hang yourself up, and see a sample of my own log, go to my personal blog.

2. After the three days, go over the data and search for when your creative genius and your productive genius come out to play.

3. Without being a weirdo, match your creative tasks and your productive tasks to your daily genius cycle. For me, I'm more creative between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., better at productive from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. My best time for combinations -- meetings that involve creativity, for example -- is lunch. By 5 p.m., I can barely string a sentence together, so my creative genius has gone home for the day. But I can slam through emails until 9 p.m.

One of the big insights you'll get from this activity is when to shut down and go home. There's little point staying late, if both your creative and productive geniuses have left you. On those awful days when you need to flex your schedule because of jetlag, or an early meeting with someone overseas, see whether you're more creative or productive. I've learned that I can be productive from 3 a.m.-5 a.m., but around 5 a.m., my creative genius takes over.

Here's a challenge: Instead of reading this blog post and saying "makes sense, I should do that," actually give it a try. You might be surprised. If you can become 5 percent better at matching your time to your natural genius cycle, you'll net an extra day a month. Become 10 percent better and you get two. Many people find they can easily get a 30-50 percent gain. You do the math.

If you do try it, I hope you'll record what you find in a comment below.

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