That midafternoon ennui that takes over most days isn't a sign that you are lazy or unmotivated; it just proves that you are normal. According to recent research, most people in creative or professional jobs can only churn out about six (worthy) hours worth of quality work a day; the rest is what it feels like — dithering.
Now at what point you end up spacing out — no matter how much you try to focus — depends on your chronotype; so whatever your optimal awake times are depends largely on biology. But according to neuroscientist Kenneth Wright, who told the New Yorker, "Cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time." That advice stands no matter your wake-up or sleep time, so you can best determine it for yourself, taking into account your natural cycles. For most of us in the middle of the bell curve of sleep cycles, the best productive and creative times to work are late morning and late afternoon. But no matter the time, it's only about six hours a day that we're really good for that truly useful, productive work.
Those six hours, however, can be spread out over time, which is why it makes sense for more and more people to create their own hours: in essence, to work when we are most productive, and to do other things (errands, food prep, exercise) when we are not. That's what I do.
As an independent knowlege worker, I long ago found this to be true (it is one of the reasons I went freelance; during my 20s I had too many jobs where I was expected to sit at a desk, determined by someone else's timeline). I've noticed, as I've spent a couple solid years working at my own schedule, that I'm best from 9:30-11:30am, then from 2:30-5:30, then again from 9-11 (my chronotype is somewhat of a night owl). This self-knowledge has benefited me greatly; I pretty much don't work when I'm not productive anymore. I exercise midday, have a long dinner and relaxing time with my partner around 6, and read in the mornings.
If working for just six hours a day seems like a pipe dream, it wasn't always so: A hundred years ago noted economist John Maynard Keynes suggested that by 2030 we would all be working 15-hour workweeks. Obviously that hasn't happened, as we have all gotten mired in the restrictive idea of the eight-hour workday, and in fact, it may be hurting both our productivity and our personal lives.
But what if more of us were able to create our own schedules, making plans for the day that worked for our chronotypes, or lifestyles (incorporating best workout times, or best times to be with kids)? The answer is that we would all end up working fewer hours, which is healthier for us, and more productive for the companies we work for. Not to mention that we'd be happier overall, working when we are best able to work, and not spending hours 'pretending' to work (come on, who's not guilty of wasting time at work, just because you 'have to' show up at your job, or you're 'not supposed' to leave yet?)
Related on MNN: