A long-time client and I recently broke up. Our schedules no longer meshed. The primary contact didn’t need my help late or on weekends anymore. He increasingly wanted my assistance [gasp] during the day, the middle of the day. I helped his firm occasionally during daylight, but I wouldn’t offer him more of those hours regularly.
Aside from a commitment I needed to explore with my young son then, midday is a lousy time to strategize, learn large lessons, think big thoughts, and in general get things done. Whenever I can, I avoid mental lifting between noon and two, and I encourage my clients to do the same.
After years (longer than an infradian clock yet shorter than a lifetime) wondering the scientific reason coworkers and clients struggled to understand new information after lunch, and why I did some of my best work after hours, I found the reason.
Chronobiology, the science of biological clocks within living organisms, proves different times of day are best for different sorts of activities. If you can organize your time, you’d be well served by using your natural rhythms to work smarter.
To assess these rhythms, chronobiologists measure everything from the speed and accuracy with which people multiply numbers, to how quickly they become exhausted from bicycle pedaling, to how adeptly they recognize patterns, grip objects, lift loads and learn at different times.
From their work, I devised a simple model to describe how your body learns best during the day. Dubbed once the Conner Brains-Body-Butt model, I’ve used this with teachers and trainers to reorient their approach to curriculum and daily planning. Lately, business people, conference planners, and group facilitators have sought this perspective to gain a competitive edge.
Consider using this model to help allocate your hours to get the most from your time.
When your jobs demands you internalize new information, measure it quickly, and make important decisions, morning should be your first choice. If your job depends on generating ideas and then communicating them, morning also reigns. Even if you’re not a morning person you’re most likely to grasp new concepts and understand complicated details between 9:00 AM and noon when short-term memory and mental activities peak.
These are the hours when reporters can best synthesize complex stories, executives make their finest presentations, and test-takers are most likely to succeed. These are also the hours when an entrepreneur is most likely to sell a concept; more business contracts are sealed over lunch than at any other time.
This is not only because you’re mentally firing most effectively — those you’re talking with are at their sharpest too. This makes the morning the best time for meetings, pitches, or classes where you have weighty topics to convey.
Morning time as brain time is almost universally true, independent of age, time zone, season, or your level of wakefulness. Even when I talk with people who characterize themselves as night owls, and who sleep through the morning, they often can describe vivid dreams they had just prior to waking (the result of heightened mental activity).
Use this time to take in all you can through your eyes and your ears. Schedule your most thought-intensive activities and make important decisions. Structure this time to minimize distractions from random events like incoming phone calls or drop in office hours. This is optimal time for intellectual focus.
Once noontime passes, though, so does your mental brilliance. Your cognitive abilities can vary by as much as twenty percent over the course of the day. Lunchtime begins your slide toward the less grounded part of your day. Thankfully, for those who think, talk, and listen for a living, the remainder of the day holds other sorts of potential.
As your mental capabilities fade, your physical abilities improve. In the middle of the day, after your body processes a meal (or when it anticipates eating), you’re physically strongest and most flexible. Your hands are also steadiest and you work at your swiftest clip. You body even requires less oxygen to do the same activity you huffed and puffed over earlier.
Go into a meeting and you’ll likely crave a siesta or just not grasp what’s being said. I’ve seen meetings where even the presenter had a hard time staying awake, pacing nonstop in an intuitive quest to engage the body.
Studies of swimmers, runners, and rowing crews show afternoon and evening improvements in ability by as much as thirty percent. In the gym you can lift heavier weights; if relocating you can move bigger furniture, and this is the time to try opening that stuck window.
Use the time from 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM to work with your hands, move things around, and use your strength and adaptability. Spend this time being active, taking information in through movement and touch.
The afternoon lull arrives around 2:30 PM when you’re neither quick to think or smooth to move.
Your ability to concentrate and make decisions is at its daily low, accidents rise to their daytime height, and based on your inner clocks, time actually slows.
This is the ideal time to sit, contemplate, and think laterally rather than deep. Although you may feel too tired to learn any more, biologically, you’re primed for rumination and reflection.
Use this time to talk with other people, hear different perspectives and integrate into your thoughts how their responses impact your work. Although this is not the time to convince others, it’s well suited to convince yourself. If you do, you’ll also remember your plan more accurately because while short-term memory is a whiz in the morning, long-term recall improves later in the day.
Late afternoon arrives with a surprise. Around 4:00 PM you get restless and consequently your speed builds up. Athletically you’re near your peak; so is your quickness for addition, multiplication, and even counting on your fingers. Because long-term memory improves with the day, too, ask yourself, “How will I use what I learned today?” and “What implications does this mean to my department?” You’re more likely to remember your conclusions tomorrow.
Fortunately, once you pass butt time, some of your mental skills begin to click back in. The three stages repeat their sequence during the evening, nighttime, and early morning hours. This explains why you might feel alert and focused long after everyone else has gone to bed and you sleep restlessly around 3:30 AM.
I know an entrepreneur who when she wants to be creative stays up late, and when she wants to motor through her do-list, gets up early.
During the second brain time, thanks to hormone cycles, your senses are at their peak. Taste, smell, hearing and sight are at their most acute. As your temperature peak around 6:30 PM, your vigilance soars. Navy recruits monitored to determine when they could best detect and respond to a faint signal amid noise, are found to turn in their best performances around this time.
During the second body time, you’ll experience the best time to play a musical instrument. With senses tuned, orchestras and folk-guitarists alike record their best performances at night.
During the second butt time, when most people are laying down rather than sitting, your temperature drops and your ability to think clearly and react quickly plunges along with your fire.
The time you require to notice warning signals increases, and your reaction time can fall as much as fifty percent below peak performance. If you’re up and around, these are the hours when you’re prone to have a driving accident. Your skills at driving will be poorest just before dawn even with the radio on, an early night’s sleep behind you, chomping gum, and drinking coffee.
You don’t live in isolation, though. Your rhythms are internal and influenced by your environment. Your body needs regular signals from the outside world to keep you functioning on schedule. Chronobiologists call signals including social activities, food, and light zeitgebers (time givers). They keep your clocks from getting out of sync with the culture around you. With a change in the season, daylight saving’s time, and even the type of food you eat, you’re making adjustments each day.
Zeitgerbers are most effective when you’re young. Early in your career you might even manipulate them and think it insignificant when you override biological cycles to advance. As you get older your rhythms become less flexible so your goals and habits may need to become more flexible.
When you have control over your daily schedule, make a list of what you need to do, including time to mull over events, and then look at how these activities might fit together with your body’s natural schedule.
Schedule brain intensive tasks early in the day, activities where you can engage your full self mid-day, and then late afternoon, sit and reflect on how much easier it is to work this way.