The Most Creative Time of Day

Most of us are more productive at some times of day, but the times vary.

Posted Jun 06, 2019

Have you ever been terrified by a blank page or screen? If so, you might know that time of day can be a key factor in creativity and productivity. While the circadian rhythm is important, individual habits may matter more.

Most of us do nothing more creative at night than sleeping and dreaming. If we had the proclivities of a Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we might sit up all night and emerge with “Frost at Midnight.” (Admittedly, opium may have interfered with Coleridge's circadian rhythm).

Circadian Rhythm and Capacity to Focus

For many people, it is a struggle to focus early in the morning. But more jobs get accomplished between the hours of 9:00 and 11:00 than at other times of the day, based on the activity of workers doing online piece work.

This is consistent with what is known about circadian rhythms of sleep and alertness and their underlying changes in hormone levels. These are regulated by the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus that serves as our bodily clock.

We are not all the same, of course, and night owls may do their best work well after 11:00 a.m.

Morning People and Evening People

Whether a person is of the morning or of the evening is related to no fewer than 15 spots in the genome according to a genome-wide association study. This evidence supports the idea that getting up late is not merely a matter of laziness. Instead, there are genuine differences in where the circadian rhythm is set.

While genes play a role in a person's “morningness,” the circadian rhythm may also shift to match customary patterns of activity, such as getting up early for work. Even so, individual differences in voluntary rising times are real and fairly stable.

These individual differences manifest interesting patterns. To begin with, as people age, they tend to rise earlier in the morning. Their circadian rhythm gets shifted forward. That might help explain why the nightlife of a city is dominated by younger generations. (Of course, younger people are also more likely to be in search of a romantic partner given that many older people remain in stable marriages).

Women are also somewhat more likely to be early risers than men are.

It is hard to know why this gender difference exists but there are several plausible possibilities from an adaptive perspective. One is that women are often the ones who get up early to care for young children. Another is that women work longer days than men do, not just in modern societies but among hunter-gatherers (1). If so, it may be a good idea to get an early start.

Knowing about circadian rhythms can be applied to maximizing creative output although it is important to recognize that such suggestions are necessarily tentative. Many highly creative, and highly productive, people are erratic. They and do not fit into any obvious pattern.

Some like Leonardo, Niccola Tesla, and Thomas Edison, took numerous brief naps throughout the day spending only a few hours asleep each day. No doubt, their huge amount of time awake contributed to their legendary productivity.

Albert Einstein believed in getting a good night's sleep but took very brief naps to counter brain fatigue. He held a metal spoon over a plate and dozed off for a couple of minutes before getting awakened by the clang of the spoon during light sleep that he considered the best for stimulating original thinking.

Maximizing Creative Output

There are two plausible reasons that some highly creative individuals can sustain long bursts of productive activity. One is the use of stimulant drugs such as cocaine, or amphetamines. Another is that many have manic tendencies that keep them awake. (The opium used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge generally has sedative effects and reduces productivity).

For most of us, the best way to maximize creative output is to make good use of our circadian rhythm. For most, this means getting busy early in the morning. For night owls, it requires a later start. Either way, it is easy for most people to recognize that some times of day work better than others.

Once a person settles on a good start time that maximizes their output, how long should they stay at work? Should a person slog it out for an entire coffee-fueled day to exploit all of their most productive time in a 9:00 to 5:00 day?

This turns out to be a bad idea. The problem is that creative fatigue sets in and the quality of work declines. Most people can sustain peak productivity for only about 90 minutes, at best.

For people in self-directed occupations, the eight-hour workday is something of a fiction. In reality, short bursts of productive time are interspersed with diversions, coffee breaks, long lunches, and social interactions that have little to do with productive work. That is just as true of employees on the clock as it is of artists laboring away in remote cabins.

References

Johnson, A. W., and Earle, T. (2000). The evolution of human societies, 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.