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How to Create the Conditions for Your Best Work

I’m a morning person.

The best time of the day for me is from about 3 am until noon. That’s when my brain is humming... and I get most of my work done.

At first, I fought the urge to get up at 3 am to start working.

Then I read an article about some very famous and successful people who are like me*...

Tim Cook, Apple CEO, starts his day at 3:45 am
Oprah and Michelle Obama start at the crack of dawn

And it doesn’t stop with getting up at 3 am...

I need to be wearing clothes that make me feel good and work in a specific spot in my house to really get the juices flowing.

What’s your recipe for doing your best work?

Your what, how, when, and where?

You have one... whether you know it or not.

The key to doing your best work and doing it efficiently is discovering your individual recipe of what, how, when, and where.

Do you work better under a tight deadline? In the morning or at night? In your home, office, or the coffee shop down the street?

One of the reasons I work for myself is so I can be in charge of the way I spend my time. As more and more people are working from home, people in more traditional employment scenarios are also being given more flexibility over when, where, and how they do their best work. Whether you work for yourself or someone else, being intentional about your work conditions will change the way you think about work.

I structure my day so that my hardest (or most annoying) tasks are in the morning because I know once it gets late in the day I will avoid them if at all possible. When I need to create systems, do research, or plan meetings, I need to be in my office with multiple monitors. When I need to just hunker down and plow through small tasks, I need to be out of my house in a coffee shop.

Taking the step to intentionally create the conditions that allow you to do your best work will not only increase your productivity, it will make you happier because you are cultivating a state of flow.

“Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.”
― Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience**

In order to cultivate the right work conditions, consider the what, when, where, and how.

What type of work are you doing?

Checking things off? Thinking hard? Creating something new? Interacting with others?

Really look at the type of work you are doing. I generally categorize mine in the following ways:

  • Responding: Responding to emails and messages, answering questions, and completing quick one-off tasks. 
  • Reviewing: Reviewing your work or someone else's. 
  • Managing: Directing the work of others 
  • Facilitating: Facilitating processes, conversations, presentations. 
  • Creating: Creating content, products, services. 
  • Planning: Planning for the work that needs to be done - either internal plans for yourself or external plans for the client.  
  • Information gathering: Gathering needed information for completing work. 

Each of these things needs different conditions. For me, responding needs to be limited so it doesn’t distract me from larger projects. I also need to create larger chunks of dedicated time for reviewing, creating, or planning so I can really focus.

Use these types or create your own as the first step to thinking about what conditions will allow you to do your best work.

When do you do that work best?

Freshest in the morning? Concentrate better after lunch? Have your best ideas at 2am?

Like I said above, I’m definitely a morning person. I like to get up before everyone else to really focus on the things I need to get done. I try to prioritize the types of work that need the most focus (creating, planning, reviewing) before noon. I can then dedicate my afternoon to tasks that don’t need as much focus (like checking email) or have focus built-in (like calls).

I also use this method to build in time for myself in the afternoon. I’m not getting up at 3am so I can work a 15-hour day, I’m using that time more effectively before my family is awake so I can have dedicated non-work time to myself later in the day.

Where will you be most productive?

Need quiet? Alone with others? In your office? Outside of the house?

One of the biggest challenges for me during the pandemic is not being able to work outside of the house. I’ve been working from home for years, even before I worked for myself. This serves me well. And I also need time to be alone with others, outside of the house to be most productive for some types of work.

Being able to work in a coffee shop or co-working space gives me the right combination of background noise and time boundaries to be able to tackle tasks that I’ve been avoiding or spend dedicated time creating something new. There’s something about being surrounded by strangers that forces me to get things done.

This may or may not be true for you. It is just one example of being intentional about the where.

Think about the different types of work you do and where you do them best. This might mean creating a separate space in your house, getting out of the office, or going outside. 

How do you do that work best?

No interruptions? Background noise? Multiple screens? Pen and paper?

When I’m writing I need to be focused just on my work, so I unplug from my external monitors, sit somewhere away from my desk, and turn off my email, Slack, etc. 

When I’m creating something visual like social media collateral, or a project plan, I need to have background noise that has words, like a podcast.

When I’m creating something content-based like a course or workshop, I need to have background noise without words, like classical music.

When I’m trying to focus on a large group call (when I’m not in charge of facilitating), I need to be doing something that keeps me busy but doesn’t distract me, like folding laundry. This helps me to be present instead of getting distracted by my email or other things on my computer.

For each type of work you do, how do you do that work best? What are you using to do that work? What usually distracts or interrupts you? What helps you cultivate that state of flow?

As more and more of us are either working for ourselves or just gaining more flexibility over our work conditions, we are being given the opportunity to control how we do our best work. This is a gift, don’t waste it. Intentionally creating the conditions that allow you to do your best work will help you to prioritize your work to get more done and be happier while you do it.

* 10 highly successful people who wake up before 6 a.m.

** Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


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