Bigger is better? Less is more? Go hard or go home? When it comes to running your startup, it seems that conflicting advice is the only sure thing. Beyond all the cliches, however, there lies a little-known truth behind how much work you should really be putting into your startup.

While it’s not specific to energy expenditure, the [Law of Diminishing Returns][wiki] is an economic principle that explains the phenomenon of why extra effort and time spent don’t always convert to stronger returns.

The 40 hour work week was devised to reflect an important discovery by business pioneer Henry Ford in the 1920s: that employees gained in productivity until reaching an average total of 40 hours on the job. Thereafter, output flatlined abruptly – and even began to decline as tiredness and burnout began to set in.

These days, we’ve even found that the 40 hour average applies to fewer people than originally thought. However, with our constantly connected new lifestyles, we can often exceed this cap without even noticing – spending countless hours on the clock, becoming fatigued and having little extra output to show for it.

In the startup world, being your own shift manager can be both a curse and a blessing. You have the flexibility to determine when and where you work, and pick times that best match your natural ‘peak hours’ for productive work.

However, you might also be under pressure to be on clock 247 lest you appear undedicated to investors and peers – or at the other extreme – you might be struggling with severe procrastination that’s limiting the hours you’re putting in. You might even oscillate between the two, only reaching your ‘green zone’ during the occasional monthly happy accident.

The key to unlocking your potential is avoiding the cliches and finding out how you work best. Don’t work with vague ideas about when or how you’re most productive: gather the data and trust the numbers.

Apps can be an invaluable tool for shining a light on your working habits. For example, how many tasks do you accomplish between 11am and 2pm? Do you have a mid-afternoon slump? Are you a chronic meal skipper? How many hours total have you spent this week on various projects?

There’s no shortage of time tracking apps that will give you nice statistics and graphs to visualise your performance. For Android, there’s [Swipetimes], and for iOS users, there’s solutions like Timely.

For a bigger picture, there’s the all-encompassing, cross-platform solution called RescueTime that monitors your habits inside your browser, as well as across your mobile devices. If you need the extra incentive, the premium version will also block distracting sites during key hours.

After collecting data for a few weeks, some patterns should emerge. Being tracked, in itself, will also help you to stay on track and bring a sense of accountability to your work!

Know thyself, and you’ll be well on your way to increasing your productivity.