Your Body Clock: Is There a ‘Right Time of Day’ to Do Things?

We are what we do. Whether it’s work or play, our activities serve to define us. But there is a growing body of scientific research that seems to indicate that how successful we are at the things we do depends to some extent on the time of day we pick to do them. In other words, when it comes to being most productive at the things we do, there is a possibility that we are when we do them.

This science – called chronobiology or the study of our circadian rhythms – is about paying attention to the different cycles our bodies and minds go through during the day, and the corresponding times it may be best to schedule certain activities. For example, for most people, research has determined that their highest period of mental alertness occurs around 10:00 a.m., that they are the most physically coordinated around 2:30 p.m., that their fastest reaction time will be around 3:30 p.m., and that their highest levels of cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength will occur around 5:00 p.m.

But compare those times to your own daily activities. Do you tend to schedule your “thinking work” for the mornings, when your mind is sharpest? Do you schedule your workouts for the late afternoon, when your body will be at its strongest? The reality is that we often arrange our schedules according to the time of day we can “fit activities in,” not the times we might be best able to perform them.

Taking advantage of circadian rhythms

Both our bodies and our minds tend to mimic the cycles around us in the natural world. They are most active during the periods of daylight, and less active during periods of darkness. But there are other cycles during the day as well, “cycles within cycles” in which our bodies and minds become more or less able to function at their peak efficiency. Steve Kay, professor of biology at the University of Southern California, suggests that we can become more effective by paying attention to these cycles to “give us an edge in daily life.” The following tips are culled from the work of scientists such as Dr. Kay and other chronobiologists:

• Non-critical mental tasks such as reading and sending email are often best performed in the early morning, when we have been refreshed by sleep and are thus less likely to respond or reply angrily. Most people tend to “wake up happy,” and thus the hours between 6:00 and 9:00 a.m. are productive times to deal with communicating with friends and colleagues.

• The best time for cognitive work – analytical thinking and logical problem solving – is for most adults in the late morning. By 10:00 a.m. your body temperature should have risen sufficiently to “jumpstart” your memory, mental alertness, and concentration, and these qualities stay at heightened levels until noon.

• Attention and concentration tend to slump between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m. for most people, especially if you eat a large lunch. So this may be a productive period in which to schedule a “power nap” to rejuvenate yourself.

• Interestingly enough, the fatigue of the late afternoon and early evening may enhance creativity, and make that a good time to attack problems that require “thinking out of the box.”

• Social networking, according to research done on the number of Facebook posts that get the most “Likes,” is possibly best done in the late afternoon or early evening. But beware of posting too late, because the same research points out that just before bedtime emotions tend to heat up and produce the most negative posts.

• When it comes to the best times to sneak some exercise into your busy day, if you practice sports that require a lot of hand-eye coordination, that peaks in the mid-afternoon, so that’s a great time to schedule your racquetball game. If you lift weights, that might be better scheduled later in the afternoon, when your lung power and muscle strength are at their peak. On the other hand, if your primary reason for exercising is to lose weight, it might be more productive to exercise in the morning, because that increases the number of calories your body burns during the rest of the day.

• If you’re in school or studying, the “best times” vary, according to researchers. The mornings are for most people the best time to learn new material, because the mind is sharpest. But if your goal is to increase your long-term memory of the things you learn, a number of studies have indicated that doing this just before sleeping is more productive.

These are just suggestions, of course, based on the findings of chronobiologists and other scientists. In reality the pressures of our lives and other people’s schedules often have a huge impact on our own, and determine when we have to do things, as opposed to when we want to do them. But if your schedule allows you the flexibility to try some of these suggestions, give them a try and see how they work out for you.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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