When are you sharper: 10:00 AM or 3:00 PM?

The answer to this question (which is probably 10:00 AM) has surprising implications for your professional life.

As I’ve learned more and more about productivity over the past few years, the idea that certain times of day are best matched with certain kinds of work has come up again and again. Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals is replete with examples of writers, scientists, and great creative minds who hewed to a strikingly similar daily schedule: creative work from mid-morning until early afternoon, then administrative work (then, for many of them, getting really drunk. But I digress).

In his excellent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dan Pink goes a step further, compiling the research literature and demonstrating that Angelou, Darwin, Stravinsky and many others were on to something. Here’s the gist of Pink’s message:

Do your analytical work in the morning, your administrative work in the afternoon, and your insight work in the evening.

There’s a surprising volume of research demonstrating that most of us reach the height of our analytical powers in the late morning.1 Furthermore, we hit cognitive rock bottom in the mid-afternoon. By evening, we’ve recovered some. What does this mean for how we structure our workdays?

  1. Protect your morning hours. I try mightily to avoid morning meetings entirely, and I’ve been surprised at how well this works. Keep this time for your most important work—the mentally challenging tasks that deliver maximum benefit for both you and your employer.
  2. Schedule your most important tasks. Our most important work tends to also be our most cognitively demanding work. In addition to begging off morning meetings, block out time for this work, right in your calendar. Those morning hours are a daily gift—use them well.
  3. Email can wait. Writing and answering email is a major productivity drain and a classic administrative task. Email is made for the afternoon. If you absolutely must check your email during your peak hours—like, you will get in trouble if you don’t—so be it. But be disciplined. Don’t let low-value activities like processing email siphon away your most valuable minutes of the day.

If you find that you’re a bit sharper mentally at 10:00 AM than 3:00 PM, well, it’s not just your imagination. Use your body’s natural rhythms to your advantage! You’ll find it makes your working life a little easier while increasing your productivity.

  1. One caveat: About 20% of the population are night owls, and these folks are at their cognitive best in the late afternoon and evening. If you’re one, you probably already know it.