Early risers have long had the corner on personal development advice, with proverbs like “the early bird catches the worm” and the saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin (no slouch in the personal development arena): “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” More recent writers emphasize the morning, too, like Brian Tracy, whose Eat That Frog advocates starting with your toughest project first thing in the day or Julie Morgenstern, who tells us Never Check E-Mail In the Morning because you should do higher priority work first. All of this is good advice — but only if it suits your personal biorhythms and schedule.
Some people are sharpest in the morning and dim in the afternoon; others muddle through the first hours of the day and only hit their stride later on. There is no inherent value to one time of day over another. In recent decades, online communication has expanded the potential times of day when we can work, shop, play, and do business. In order to take best advantage of that flexibility, you have to figure out what your best time of day is for your different tasks and priorities.
Identify your constraints
What parts of your schedule are limited or fixed by other people, institutions, or obligations? If you need to get your children ready for school and get them there on time each day, that will constrain your flexibility. You may work in an office environment with set hours, need to catch a commuter train, or teach classes at specific times.
Identify where you have choice
When and how during the day do you get to choose how you spend your time? For instance, if you are in the office from 8-6, do you have choices about which project or kind of work you do when? Even within the larger time constraints of professional and personal obligations, most people have more choices available to them than they are aware of. Writing in the morning might work well for your friend or colleague, but maybe you’d rather take care of administrative tasks then and write in the afternoon. Whenever you have a choice in what you do when, you have the opportunity to explore how well what you’re doing is working and how well a change might suit you.
Discover how you feel at different times of the day
Many people have a general sense of themselves as preferring mornings or evenings, perhaps identifying with labels like “night owl” or knowing that they often feel sleepy in the afternoon. But discovering your personal time patterns means thinking not just about how awake you feel, but also how you function on a number of different levels:
- when are you most alert and engaged?
- when are you physically most energetic?
- when are you most creative?
- when are you best at analytical tasks?
- when are you most in tune with your emotions?
- when are you best at absorbing or taking in ideas or information?
- when are you best at creating or developing ideas or information?
If you’re interested in exploring these questions, just observe yourself over the next week or two and make some notes. Set a reminder alarm on your phone or computer to ring every couple of hours. When it chimes, ask yourself: “How do I feel right now? What energies are strongest? What energies are weakest?” If you wait until the end of the day to make some notes, chances are that you won’t really remember how you felt at 1:30, or how it was different from how you felt at 9:00 am. You can also use email services like Nudgemail or Ask Me Every to send you email questions at preset times, or Oh Don’t Forget to send yourself text messages. Just bring some gentle curiosity to the process.
Doing this exercise has helped me understand my own natural rhythms and preferences so that I can match them to the activities I want to do. Certain kinds of writing I like to do early in the day, when I’m more creative, but I absorb information from reading best in the afternoon. When you can’t match your activities to your natural tendencies, being aware of that can help you adjust your sleep, diet, or activity levels accordingly. For instance, if I need to interact with a lot of people early in the day, I need to prepare myself for that with some vigorous exercise.
Your best time
Your patterns may not be immediately apparent, but returning to these exploration questions over time will help you understand how you can match your activities to your energy levels. The best time of day to do anything is whenever is best for you.