Would you define the typical work hours as 9am to 5pm? If yes, then that’s most of us. But are those the best hours for everyone? Does it help us function at our productive best? No, is the answer. Research confirms what we knew informally: some of us are larks (early morning people), while some of us are owls (evening people).

What makes us owls or larks? It’s our body’s internal clock or the circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep and energy levels. Chronobiology suggests that as individuals we have different sleep patterns, which affects our energy and alertness levels through a day. Therefore, we ‘work best at different times of the day.’

How do our energy levels play out, guided by this body clock? According to management professor Christopher Barnes, research highlights a common pattern:

  • Once the workday begins, we take a few hours to reach our peak productive phase. That’s typically just before lunch time.
  • After this, energy levels wane and reach the lowest around 3pm. Explains why that afternoon nap seems irresistible.
  • From here on, there’s an uptick in alertness. With the second peak period coming in around 6pm.
  • This is followed by a dip in energy, with the low point being around 3am. And then, there’s a rise again which culminates in the high point around noon.

Individual differences do exist in this cycle. Larks have circadian rhythms that peak and dip earlier than others; just the opposite for the owls.

Maximizing productivity, then, is about listening to your body clock and aligning tasks with your energy flow. If you are a lark, save the morning half for the most demanding cognitive to-dos. And use the energy dip around 3pm for more routine tasks like filling time sheets!

For many of us, these slots could be the ‘best time’ for certain activities:

  • Mid-morning – tasks that require high brain power or cognition
  • Noon-4pm – surfing the net, logging in to social media, taking a nap too, as this is when we feel distracted and sleepy
  • 3-6pm – exercise, as muscle flexibility and eye-hand coordination increases here
  • 8-10pm – creativity and problem solving

Wondering why creativity has been slotted for late evening, when energy levels are waning? Because fatigue and a foggy brain may aid creative powers, shows a study by Prof. Mareike Wieth. She found that subjects solved insight-based problems better, when they were less awake!

Should we then disrupt routine work hours and pile up problem solving for the pre-bedtime period? Not at all. Instead, let’s use Chronobiology-based research to find a new approach to managing productivity levels.

Lark, owl, or someone altogether different, we encourage you to tune in to your body clock. And use the signals to power your way through the day.

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