Picture this: It’s 1:30 PM, and you’re just getting started on an important project that’s due to your boss first thing the next morning. But rather than brilliant ideas flowing from your head to your keyboard, you’re struggling to stay alert.
If you’re like most people, early afternoon isn’t your most effective time to work—and there’s a scientific reason for it. This lull in productivity is actually dictated by your body’s natural circadian clock, which syncs your biology and behavior to light signals in your environment. This internal body clock tells your system to release certain hormones, regulate your body temperature, and control other functions that determine your alertness on a 24-hour cycle.
Sure, you might be able to power through an afternoon funk and pull off a winning proposal. But, going forward, wouldn’t it be great to be able to capitalize on your body’s natural rhythms—and boost your productivity and performance? “You can certainly make better decisions if you are making them at the right time of day,” says Rebecca Spencer, Associate Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
We’ve set up a work schedule that explains the right time to do everything, based on your (and your co-workers’) circadian clock, research on productivity cycles, and other timing insights. Before long, pushing through afternoon grogginess while on deadline will be a thing of the past.
Maximize Your Morning
Whether you’re an early riser or always depend on coffee to ease you out of sleep mode, your energy level begins to ramp up within 30 minutes to an hour of waking, says Spencer. Here’s how to tap into this and get your day off to a productive start.
6:30 AM: Send Email
If you’re hoping for a reply to your email (and who isn’t?), send it during nonworking hours. Emails sent between 6 AM and 7 AM., or around 8 PM., are about 45% more likely to elicit a response, according to research from Yesware, a company that creates tools for sales teams.
Success comes down to a simple volume issue: The huge number of emails most professionals get during the day compete with yours to be read and answered. If your email drops into your boss’s inbox before the crazy day begins or after it ends, there’s a better chance she’ll open it and respond ASAP.
8 AM: Make a Judgment Call
Conflicted about whether it’s time to let the new hire go? Worried about reporting a colleague’s bad decision to higher-ups? Make ethical judgments like these in the morning. That’s when the “morning morality effect” is in action, according to research from Harvard University and the University of Utah.
Researchers found cheating among undergraduates was more prevalent in the afternoon, leading them to conclude people are more likely to engage in unethical acts later in the day. This might be because our capacity for self-control, like physical energy, can deplete throughout the day as you make everyday decisions.
9 AM: Tackle Your Toughest Tasks
Now’s the time to put together that new business proposal, report financial earnings, or handle another responsibility that requires your full attention. “When you first get to the office in the morning is when you’re going to be freshest, and that’s the ideal time to do those tasks that are most attention-demanding,” Spencer says. Resist the urge to waste your alertness on mindless tasks like sorting through your AM emails. If it’s too hard to ignore, tools like Inbox Pause keep new emails from coming in—temporarily, of course.
10 AM: Ace a Presentation
Halfway to lunchtime turns out to be the ideal time to captivate your audience. “You’re fairly alert then, as is your audience, and your voice is at its best because your vocal cords are still rested,” says Mark Di Vincenzo
If you’re dropping big company news or another bombshell, do so within the first 10 minutes, he suggests. “By the end of the first 10 minutes of most presentations, about 80% of the audience has usually checked out mentally,” Di Vincenzo says. “Nobody knows exactly why this happens, but scientists theorize that the brain makes a subconscious choice to tune out and focus our attention on matters that seem more pressing.” Hold the room’s attention by placing an eye-catching visual in your PowerPoint or by spicing up the presentation with an interesting anecdote every 10 minutes, he suggests.
11 AM: Think Strategically
Set next year’s budget. Reevaluate your company’s five-year plan. Whatever strategic thinking is on your plate for the day, try to save it for around 11 AM “This is when your body temperature rises,” Di Vincenzo says. “When that happens you’re more alert, and your brain can process information better.”
Your coworkers’ brains are also more alert, so this is a good time to schedule a team brainstorm. Research from Robert Matchock, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, found most of us tend to be easily distracted between noon and 4 PM.
Blast Through the Afternoon
There’s a reason energy drink companies think you’ll reach for their products at this time of day. Your circadian clock sets you up for a natural afternoon slump, but you can still get a lot accomplished by sticking with these tips.
1:30 PM: Zip Through Mindless Tasks
Need to get that easy-breezy memo out the door? Right after lunch is the time to do it. That’s when our energy levels sink, typically between 1 PM and 3 PM “We sometimes have a need for a midday nap, or we feel groggy after lunch,” Spencer says. “It’s not necessarily because of a heavy meal—we have a natural dip in our alertness in the afternoon.” Instead of struggling to focus on a key project when you’re in an energy slump, Spencer suggests filling that time with simple projects that require less of your attention, like catching up on email and voice mail.
2:10 PM: Schedule a Meeting
If you have to hold a meeting in the afternoon during peak drowsy hours, doing it at an odd time, like 2:10 PM, is the way to go. Why? “You’ll get employees’ attention,” says Di Vencenzo. “Many people will make more of an effort to arrive on time out of curiosity, if for no other reason.”
Once everyone’s settled, turn up the lights. Exposure to light lowers levels of the hormone melatonin, which naturally rises at this time and can lead to fatigue. “We often find ourselves in a dimly lit conference room, which is the worst thing you can do because when you’re in dim lighting, your melatonin is going to start leaking out,” Spencer says. “Melatonin is your vampire hormone that comes out in the dark and makes you feel sleepy.”
To combat the sleep-inducing combo of an afternoon dip in a windowless conference room, hold a walking meeting outside. “Fresh air and light help you counter that dip,” says Spencer.
4 PM: Avoid Interviews
Your judgment isn’t at its sharpest this late in the workday because you’ve likely been depleting your energy on more attention-demanding tasks until now. (And let’s face it, you might be more focused on going home soon, Di Vincenzo points out). That’s why it’s best to avoid the late PM hours for interviews, no matter if you’re the interviewer or interviewee. Take it from the research: When five similarly qualified candidates interviewed on the same day, the last ones to be interviewed received the worst feedback, finds a paper from Wharton School and Harvard Business School.
Make the Most of Your Personal Time
The things you do in your downtime after work hours can set you up to perform at your best the next morning.
6 PM: Hit the Gym
Release work stress and rebound from sitting all day by scheduling your workout at this time, when your body temperature reaches its peak. Studies suggest certain muscles are strongest now, especially between 4 PM and 6 PM This might be why more world-record-breaking athletic performances occur in early evening, researchers believe.
It’s also early enough that your workout won’t interfere with bedtime. “To fall asleep and get into deep sleep, you have to reach your daytime low body temperature,” Spencer says. Exercising too late at night can elevate your temperature and get in the way of catching those zzz’s.
7 PM: Embrace Your Creative Side
Ready to see what the hype about adult coloring books is about, or want to start writing the next great American novel? Consider 7 PM the golden hour for creativity. A 2011 study published in Thinking & Reasoning found we do our best open-ended, creative thinking when we’re tired. As a bonus, these after-work projects can make you a better employee. A report from Quantum Workplace and Limeade found employees with a healthy work-life balance are 20% more engaged in their job.
10 PM: Disconnect and Start Your Bedtime Routine
With email alerts on your phone, it’s nearly impossible to completely unplug, but it’s worth it if you want to feel fresh tomorrow. “At night, catching up on emails can lead to overstimulation,” Spencer says. “There should be a cut-off time—say an hour before bed—to cut off access to light sources and also the overstimulation that end-of-the-day emails can bring.”
Additionally, avoid using all screen devices (cell phones, TVs, and computers), or at the very least set the artificial light to low. “If you really want to shift your clock, you have to restrict access to light,” Spencer says. If you must watch a Netflix show on your computer as you’re winding down, try downloading f.lux, a software that reduces your computer screen’s output of sleep-disrupting blue light as you get closer to bedtime.
Once you’ve established your nighttime routine, stick with it. “The more routine we can be, the easier it’ll be for us to bring that sleep onset,” Spencer says. That means it’s important to keep your bedtime as consistent as you can, even on the weekends when most of us tend to throw it off.
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