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How To Figure Out Exactly What Time Of Day You’ll Be Most Productive

The secret to why it takes you 20 minutes to respond to one email after lunch may lie in your chronotype–here’s how to hack it.

How To Figure Out Exactly What Time Of Day You’ll Be Most Productive
[Photo: Eva Darron/Unsplash]

Are you running your day in a way that takes advantage of your natural flows of energy? If you’re not, you’re operating at less than full capacity. It’s important to do the right work at the right time, says Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

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“For whatever reason, we don’t take the question of ‘when’ as seriously as ‘what’ or ‘how’ or ‘who,'” he says. “We are intentional about what we do; we make a to-do list. We are intentional about who; that’s what HR departments focus on. And we’re fairly intentional about how we do things. The question of ‘when,’ however, is a second order issue. It’s all about convenience and availability.”

But when does matter: “It’s not more important than ‘what,’ ‘how,’ or ‘who,’ but it’s as important,” says Pink.

Start By Identifying Your Chronotype

Each of us has a personal pattern based on our circadian rhythm that influences our physiology and psychology. Pink says there are three chronotypes:

  • Larks, or morning people
  • Owls, or night people
  • And “third birds,” a group that is somewhere in between

Determine your chronotype by finding the midpoint between the time you usually go to sleep and the time you wake. If it’s between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., you’re among the 14% of people who are considered larks. If it’s between 6 a.m. and noon, you’re in the 21% of people who are owls. If it’s between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., you’re in the 65% of people who are third birds.

Knowing your chronotype helps you identify the stages of your day: peak, trough, and rebound. About three-quarters of us experience the stages in that order, but night owls do it in reverse: rebound, trough, and peak, says Pink.

Tap Into Its Power

Pairing tasks to the right time of day can help you be more effective. In fact, time of day can account for a 20% variance in performance on cognitive tasks. While the length of your cycles usually last 90 to 120 minutes, you can get a more granular sense by becoming more observant about your own rhythm. Pink suggests tracking your energy every 90 minutes. Note what you’re doing. Then on a scale of 1 to 10, rate how mentally alert you feel, and how physically energetic you feel.

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“Pay more attention to how you feel,” he says. “Are you doing good work?”

To make the most of their chronotype, larks should do analytic and decision-making tasks during early morning hours, which are their peak periods. Tasks that require insight and creativity should be done in late afternoon or early evening, which is when larks recover and rebound. Owls should schedule analytic and decision-making tasks during late afternoon or early evening, and creative tasks during the morning. And third birds should tackle analytic and decision-making tasks during early to mid-morning, and move creative tasks to late afternoon or early evening. Administrative work should be done in the trough periods that are found between peak and recovery periods.

If you can’t control when your tasks happen, Pink suggests working the margins, trying to shape the little things. For example, if you’re a lark and you have a free hour in the morning, instead of spending it wastefully on an administrative task such as email, get some traction on your most important work.

What Chronotypes Mean For Companies

Some of the onus of when to do things should be on bosses, says Pink. “Determining when should be a strategic issue, not an administrative issue,” he says. “Think about when you schedule people. A retail chain that’s open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., for example, is better off choosing staff based on their chronotype, recognizing their stages.”

Also be strategic to make sure you allow employees to do the right work at the right time. “If you know your employees’ peak, heads-down period is in the morning, don’t schedule a meeting to discuss your new travel voucher policy at 9:30 a.m. And don’t have a deep dive meeting on a new product at 2 p.m. It matters when you schedule those meetings.”

And consider holding a “chronotype Friday,” one day a week or month where everyone at the office works their preferred schedule, suggests Pink.

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“Knowing your chronotype doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect every day,” he says. “Moving the right tasks to the right time is an important step to maximize the affect you can have on your productivity, creativity, and well-being.”

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