By Holly Pevzner, published on January 6, 2015 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
We start every day hoping it'll be great, maybe even perfect. But then, after snoozing, commuting, sitting in meetings, and grabbing junk food, we realize that, once again, we haven't exercised, engaged with family and friends, or knocked much of anything off our to-do list. Staying up late, hoping to be productive, we manage only to watch TV and check Facebook before collapsing—and then starting all over again.
We can do better.
Believe it or not, most of us have the opportunity to get more done. We actually spend more time on leisure than ever before, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, dedicating about five hours and 16 minutes a day to pursuits we perceive as pleasurable, like socializing and watching TV (although research finds no correlation between the latter and feelings of satisfaction).
But we increasingly experience our free time in small, scattered chunks, says Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus of leisure science at Pennsylvania State University—nibbled half-hours on Netflix vs. restorative weekends away.
The foundation of any perfect or even half-decent day is adequate rest. As you can imagine, most of us start out behind. Our bodies run on an internal 24-hour chronobiological clock; when the retina captures light, a message sent to the brain suggests to this clock what time of day the body should think it is. It's a system that has served us well for most of human history. "But over the last couple of generations, these natural rhythms have been gravely disrupted," says Michael Grandner, the assistant director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Our near-constant exposure to artificial light has made nighttime effectively optional, leaving our bodies and brains struggling to do tasks that feel off schedule.
Can we fix our day? Absolutely. When Ken Wright, the director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, took eight people camping for a week in the Rockies with no electronic devices or man-made lights, the group was exposed to about four times more natural light than usual. "We were able to shift everyone's internal clock two hours to become in sync with nature within a week," Wright reports, and his campers began waking up less groggy.
So there's hope. Researchers in sleep health, nutrition, cognition, fitness, and productivity are working to identify where our modern schedules have gone wrong and how to better set ourselves up for success. We now know that with a handful of hacks, both large and small, and some changes to preconceived notions—wake-up sex and bedtime baths?—we can reconstruct our 16 waking hours to maximize productivity, leisure, and connection, while restoring alignment with our core chronobiological instincts.
You don't need to follow this suggested schedule to the minute, but its consistency and healthier routines can bring you a lot closer to a more perfect day:
No universal wake-up time will fit everyone, Wright says, but it's ideal to rise when your body is best prepared—at the conclusion of REM sleep. We experience our longest nightly period of REM right before we naturally wake up. When is that? It's so rare to wake without an alarm that many of us don't know, but the amount you sleep on vacation should give you a good idea. Then track backward: If you need 7.5 hours of sleep to feel your best; need to be at work by 8 a.m.; need an hour to get ready; and have a one-hour commute, then a bedtime of 10:30 p.m., with a wake-up time of 6 a.m. might be best. If you can rise without an alarm, all the better, because when you hit the snooze button, you coax your brain to rewind to the beginning of the sleep cycle, making it that much harder to wake feeling refreshed, according to research by Edward Stepanski of Chicago's Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center.
Surprise: Our level of testosterone—the hormone that spurs desire, our energy to perform, and even our generation of fantasies—is highest in the morning, for both men and women, says clinical sexologist Kathleen Van Kirk of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. We also get an immediate boost in circulation in the morning, further fostering energy and arousal. Sexual activity is a pleasurable way to launch the day, not least because it causes a release of mood-elevating, stress-reducing hormones. Research on oxytocin has demonstrated that the hormone surge we get from intimacy can significantly reduce our level of the stress hormone cortisol and markedly boost positive communication between partners.
Eat within one to two hours of waking, says psychologist and dietitian Ellen Albertson. It may be 10 to 12 hours since your last meal, and your brain needs fuel. "Your brain is only about 2 percent of your body weight, but it consumes up to one-fifth of your body's energy intake," she says. "When you raise blood-sugar levels with breakfast, you increase your energy and improve mood." Bonus: Your metabolism is at its peak in the morning, so your body efficiently uses most of what you consume, depositing less in fat stores, says Matthew Edlund, M.D., the director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida.
The best time to go outdoors and get moving is within two hours of waking up, says Jacqueline Olds, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The UV component of sunlight is low,” she says, “but the bright light sets you on a good course of wakefulness.”
The morning is a great time for a workout at your gym as well. Brigham Young University researcher James LeCheminant found that 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous morning exercise reduces the urge to eat throughout the day, but if that’s not possible, he suggests that you fit it in whenever your daytime schedule allows, because it still provides cognitive benefits and fosters restful sleep. “Pick the time when there are the fewest barriers,” he says, noting that this is often in the morning because the day’s events haven’t interfered yet.
Messages sent between 6 and 10 a.m. are much more likely to be read promptly than those sent between 10 a.m. and noon, when people are more focused on work, says Dan Zarrella, the author of The Science of Marketing.
The average person spends 28 percent of the work week managing email, one reason 26 percent of us label ourselves chronic procrastinators. Limiting temptation by quitting your email app when you’re not using it can be instrumental in reclaiming your day. Start establishing two times during the workday to review messages—one here, one later in the afternoon.
You may be used to pouring your first cup much earlier, but it will do more for you if you wait until later in the morning. “Our circadian clock controls the release of cortisol, a hormone that makes us feel alert and awake,” Albertson says. “Production is usually highest between 8 and 9 a.m., when most of us drink coffee,” negating the usefulness of the caffeine. This may be why regular coffee drinkers have an average of 3.1 cups a day—the first doesn’t help much. “Drinking caffeine too early can lead to too much cortisol, which can disturb our natural circadian rhythms,” Albertson adds. “It’s much better to drink caffeine between 9:30 and 11:30 when you actually need it.”
“Alertness follows the same trajectory as core body temperature,” Edlund says. Both steadily rise in the morning, then start to decline or flatten by early afternoon. This means mid-to-late morning is the best time for mentally taxing activities that take maximum alertness, says Albion College psychologist Mareike Wieth, because we’re less distractible and exceptionally good at screening out irrelevant information. (This is especially true for people who are by nature early birds; similar research finds that so-called night owls experience their cognitive high point in the late afternoon or early evening.)
Workers who take the most breaks get the most accomplished. In 2014, the Draugiem Group, a social-networking company, tracked the habits of its most productive employees. It discovered that the crème de la crème took 17 minutes of break time for every 52 minutes of work. Yet even though 86 percent of us know that breaks can aid productivity, more than a quarter of us don’t take any true breaks other than lunch. The reason? One in five of us say it’s guilt.
When University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers tested people’s ability to focus on a repetitive task for about 60 minutes, they offered some participants brief breaks, but not others. “The individuals who got breaks maintained their focus significantly better than those who didn’t get breaks,” says study coauthor Alejandro Lleras. Brief breaks, he explains, enable your brain to shift attention to a different goal, so when you go back to your original task, the main goal is reactivated and revitalized. A good break, he says, involves something intrinsically different from what you were doing before—but not playing an addictive smartphone game, because “you need to be able to stop easily.”
Putting lunch off much later can cause your blood glucose to decrease, negatively affecting your brain’s ability to focus, and making you start to feel sluggish, Albertson says. And while many of us reach for a light lunchtime salad, saving our appetite for a larger dinner, it’s actually wiser to have the bigger meal at noon. “You want to eat more during the day when you need the energy and less at night when you want to go to sleep. Having a large meal in the evening, as we traditionally do, signals your body that you’ll be awake for a while,” she says.
It’s also vital to remember the “break” part of “lunch break.” University of Toronto researchers found that not taking a proper lunch, away from your desk, can increase fatigue and torpedo productivity.
If you work at home, or for an especially progressive company, this is the ideal time for a short nap. Sleep clears the brain’s short-term-memory storage, making room for new data. University of California, Berkeley researchers asked people to complete a task designed to tax the hippocampus, the brain region associated with fact-based memories. Afterward, half the group napped. Several hours later, when both groups completed another learning exercise, the nappers performed substantially better. Limit your own nap to 20 to 40 minutes. “Any longer and you risk getting into deeper stages of sleep, which will leave you groggy and disoriented,” Grandner says.
If you’re in an office that’s not nap-friendly, and you have paperwork, photocopying, or collating to do—anything that doesn’t require a lot of mental energy—this is the time. “After eating, blood is directed to the digestive system instead of to the brain. This postprandial crash causes focus and concentration to slide,” says University of Iowa psychologist J. Toby Mordkoff, whose research confirms that executive control is at its lowest in the middle of the day, leaving early birds and night owls equally susceptible to distraction.
By this time, your cortisol levels are starting to dip again.
If you’re feeling it, grab another cup of coffee—your final one for the day. “Caffeine has a half-life—the amount of time it takes for the body to eliminate one-half of the total amount—of between three and seven hours,” Albertson says. “Time your last cup so caffeine is out of your system before you’re ready for bed.”
If you’re not home to pick up your children from school, this is the time to call or Skype with them. “Most parents use bedtime to have talks with their children, but it’s not the best idea,” since kids are tired then, says Cedarhurst, New York, child psychologist Laurie Zelinger. “To really connect, talk after school while their energy is still high.” It also gives kids a chance to mull over your questions so they can share more during a later dinner-table or bedtime chat.
Analysis by the online scheduling service YouCanBook.me found that this is the time that the most people will say yes to a meeting request. It’s late enough in the day so that all attendees can (at least theoretically) be prepared, and it’s close enough to the end of the day that people know they cannot push the time much later.
The sweetest spot for a weekly staff meeting: Tuesday at 3 p.m. “It falls right between the catch-up of Monday and the slow descent into the weekend,” says Keith Harris, chief architect and engineer of YouCanBook.me.
“During the day, eat every three to four hours,” Albertson says. “If you go longer, your blood glucose decreases, impacting alertness and metabolism.” And don’t feel guilty about your diet; the right snack—combining protein and complex carbs—can actually keep you from overeating at dinner. Think plain yogurt mixed with oatmeal; hummus and veggies; or peanut butter–stuffed celery stalks. A study published in the journal Neuron found that amino acids in protein activate the cells responsible for keeping us awake, while sugar inhibits those same cells.
Innovation and creativity actually peak when we’re not at our best, according to a study by Wieth and colleagues. For many of us, that’s between 4 and 5:30 p.m., although night owls may experience the same effect between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. “We found that during the non-optimal time of day, our cognitive processes are not functioning as well,” she says. “This means we’re less able to tune out irrelevant info. But having that seemingly irrelevant info in our heads leads to new ways of thinking and innovation.”
“Early evening is when a majority of people—whether larks or owls—feel quite alert and sociable, making it a good time for group work if you’re still at the office, or for getting together with friends or a partner if you’re not,” Edlund says. The timing may be a holdover from our hunting-and-gathering days. “Dusk is when people had to be especially aware to stave off dangers they couldn’t see,” says Harvard’s Jacqueline Olds. “It was the time of day we’d group together for safety.”
Consuming food elevates body temperature, which signals your body to stay awake, Albertson says. Eating dinner less than three hours before bedtime can interfere with sleep—and greatly increase your chances of nighttime reflux, according to research reported in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. A full postmeal stomach produces gastric distention, causing the lower esophageal sphincters to relax. Coupled with lying down horizontally to sleep, these conditions can result in reflux.
If you’re a Facebook user, post a status update at 8 p.m. when your chance of garnering Likes peaks. A study coauthored by psychologist Stephanie Tobin of the University of Queensland found, not surprisingly, that all those thumbs-up icons positively influence our sense of belonging, meaningfulness, and self-esteem, which can deliver a major late-day mood spike. While you’re online, share the love. “You’ll satisfy friends’ needs and set up a positive cycle of reciprocity,” Tobin says.
But logging off is at least as important. According to the 2013 Sleep in America poll, most of us are still engaged with a TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone within an hour of bedtime. No matter what you’re doing on a screen, shut it down two hours before you go to sleep. Exposure to these electronics suppresses production of melatonin, a hormone that helps prepare the body for rest. When you delay that signal, you make it harder to fall asleep.
It’s not a luxury: Our temperature naturally dips at night to help us get ready for slumber. Taking a hot bath ups body temperature, but the rapid drop afterward prepares you for sleep, Edlund says. To maximize the effect, make the bath as hot as you can comfortably stand. When you slide in, he advises, relax and do some slow belly-breathing, and stay put for about 15 minutes or until your forehead starts to perspire.
Reading is relaxing and helps prepare the brain for rest. It's also best in general to read in a quiet, comfortable setting, and that’s most likely achieved at the end of the day, says psychologist Michael Masson of the University of Victoria. When we read amid distractions, he says, the information being processed in our working memory is disrupted, so we retain less.
It’s bad news for Jimmy Fallon, but since most of us need seven to eight hours of sleep to stay healthy and perform at our best, we should turn in before any late-night show kicks off. But there’s a reason Fallon is so popular: Only 47 percent of us meet our sleep minimum during the workweek, according to the Sleep in America poll. At the end of the day—now—there’s only one way to get that sleep: Go to bed. It may take a few weeks to turn a new and improved sleep schedule into a habit, but the payoff—a more perfect day—is worth it.
There’s no question that some of us like to wake with the sun and others prefer to stay up all night. “Extreme larks and owls each make up about 10 percent of the population,” reports Matthew Edlund, the director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida. It’s not simply personal preference: Research indicates that the tendencies are at least partly genetic, and MRI studies have found the brains of self-identified “morning people” to be most engaged at 9 a.m, with that excitability slowly decreasing throughout the day. For night owls, brain function peaks at 9 p.m.
It’s generally acknowledged that our 9-to-5 workday, and even earlier school day, favors early birds. It’s probably one reason that studies find night owls to be generally less happy and healthy than average—although they can shift their sleep-wake cycle earlier by limiting nighttime exposure to artificial light and maximizing exposure to daytime natural light.
If you’re an extreme early bird, you may want to shift our tips for constructing your perfect day 30 minutes or so earlier to take advantage of your cognitive peak, which could come as early as 8:30 a.m. And if you tend to tire earlier than you’d like, recharge with a healthy dose of natural light in the early afternoon to help delay production of melatonin, a hormone that prepares the body for rest, says Jacqueline Olds of Harvard Medical School.
Extreme night owls may want to reverse the general advice for timing creative thinking and problem-solving challenges, says Mareike Wieth of Albion College in Michigan. Night owls may do their best brainstorming around 8:30 a.m., when their chronobiological clocks render them less cognitively sharp and, significantly, least able to censor their own ideas. Night owl brains’ focus may peak around 4:00 p.m., making that the best time to solve analytical problems at the office.