Here Is the Time of Day When You Are Most Productive

Research reveals that efficiency is a question of time

Posted Aug 08, 2018

It is one of those days. You wake up with the onerous, demanding, tasks on your to do list hanging over your head like a sword of Damocles. You need to get them done. For optimal performance, however, the question is when. The answer appears to be: sooner rather than later.

Research indicates short-term memory tasks are performed better earlier in the day. Research by Simon Folkard (1975)[i]involved participants performing two tests involving logical reasoning at six different times during the day. Subjects were able to perform the tests faster in the morning.  Specifically, their speed on both tests improved significantly from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm, after which time performance declined rapidly. In addition, accuracy decreased through the day.

Folkard notes these findings appear to be due to differences in task demands rather than differences between individuals.  Apparently, “the larger the short‐term memory component of a task the earlier in the day performance peaks.”

More recent research sheds more light on the relationship between cognitive ability and time of day.  Christina Schmidt et al. in “A time to think,” (2007) reached a number of observations through a literature review.[ii]

They observe from past studies, “some cognitive processes are particularly vulnerable to variations in the circadian arousal level, whereas others are less or even apparently not affected.”

They note that apparently, responses that are highly practiced remain consistent throughout the day, and all other responses depend on the time of day, because they require a measure of control over the process of stimuli-response.

The also recognized the impact of age on performance, noting reports of large differences in the circadian cycles of young versus older adults.

Working at Non-Optimal Times

Even more recently, Marisa Knight, and Mara Mather, in a study aptly entitled "Look Out—It's Your Off-Peak Time of Day!” discussed the link between times of the day and mental task alertness.[iii]  They began by acknowledging that older adults tended to achieve peak performance on memory and cognitive inhibition tasks in the morning, in contrast to younger adults, who tended to achieve peak performance in the afternoon. 

Their results showed, “although time of day had little effect on orienting or executive attention, it affected alerting in opposite ways for younger and older adults, with alerting cues benefiting performance most at participants’ off-peak times of day.”

The “alerting component” of the Attentional Network Test (ANT) involved “cueing participants to be vigilant for an upcoming target.”

Apparently, then, given the right cues, individuals are able to perform even during non-optimal times of the day. A better plan, however, would be to gear specific tasks to the times of day each person is more productive.

Emotions and Cognition

Our thoughts and state of mind change over the course of the day as well. Research reveals we are more likely to be ambitious and self-confident early in the day, as opposed to very late at night/ early morning, when our thoughts might be more existential, or filled with negative emotion.[iv]

Fabon Dzogang et al. (2018) studying Twitter feeds at an hourly rate over a four-year period in the United Kingdom, found that posting around 5 or 6 am “correlates with measures of analytical thinking, with the language of drive (e.g. power, and achievement), and personal concerns.” They further note that language posted at that time of day is “anticorrelated with the language of negative affect and social concerns.”  

They state that language expressed starting around 3 or 4 am “correlates with the language of existential concerns, and anticorrelates with expression of positive emotions.” They conclude that apparently, the language we use changes dramatically depending on what time of day we are expressing ourselves, which reflects changes in concerns, cognition, and emotions. The explanation? They note that these changes in thinking patterns “occur at times associated with major changes in neural activity and hormonal levels.”

Seize the Day

The capacity to perform some tasks better earlier in the day allows people to set their schedules to capitalize on times of peak performance. Important projects can be tackled when short term memory and other cognitive functions are at their peak. And emotionally, if Twitter expression is an indicator, we tend to be more positive and ambitious in the morning as well.

So if it is one of “those days,” plan accordingly.

References

[i]Simon Folkard, “Diurnal Variation In Logical Reasoning,” British Journal of Psychology 66, no. 1, 1975, 1-8.

[ii]Christina Schmidt, Fabienne Collette, Christian Cajochen, and Philippe Peigneux, “A time to think: Circadian rhythms in human cognition," Cognitive Neuropsychology 24, no. 7, 2007, 755-789.

[iii]Marisa Knight, and Mara Mather, "Look Out—It's Your Off-Peak Time of Day! Time of Day Matters More for Alerting than for Orienting or Executive Attention," Experimental Aging Research 39, no. 3, 2013, 305-321.

[iv]Fabon Dzogang, Stafford Lightman, and Nello Cristianini, “Diurnal variations of psychometric indicators in Twitter content,” PLoS ONE 13, no. 6, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal. pone.0197002.