New research finds that performance varies drastically based on the time of day
You’ve probably heard the expression that timing is everything. Sometimes broader context and other events—often those that are outside your control—can exert a significant influence on a desired outcome. Like when it storms with gale-force winds on the morning of your marathon, or when you finish your massive business proposal only to find out a colleague in another department just presented her exactly-the-same version. While there’s no doubt that unfortunate circumstances of coincidence can affect your life, emerging science is beginning to show that the inverse is equally true. If you consciously pay attention to timing, you can dramatically improve your performance, and you can dramatically improve yourself.
“I used to believe that timing was everything,” says Daniel Pink, author of the New York Times bestseller When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. “Now,” he says, “I believe that everything is timing.”
While we give tons of thought to questions about how to do certain activities or why we should do them, we hardly give any thought to when. Pink believes this oversight is costing us greatly; if we paid more attention to timing, we’d be a lot better off. According to the latest research, he has a point.
Evidence shows that performance on tasks that rely on physical and psychological capacity varies drastically based on the time of day. For example, a 2011 review article published in the journal Sports Medicine found that “the majority of components of sports performance—for example: flexibility, muscle strength, and short-term high power output—vary with time of day in a [predictable] manner.” Meanwhile, a 2013 paper published in the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice concluded that time-of-day effects can explain up to 20 percent of the variance in performance on cognitive tasks.
As for when you should do what you do? The answer, according to Pink, depends on the type of activity you’re doing and, in some cases, the type of person you are.
Get the Most Out of Your Body
If your goal is to train hard while minimizing injury risk and performing at your best, you should schedule your workouts in the late afternoon. “Body temperature is low when we first wake up, rises steadily throughout the day, and peaks in the late afternoon and early evening,” says Pink. “This means that during later-in-the-day workouts, our muscles are warmer and injuries are less common.” Pink cites a 2011 review in the journal Sports Science and Medicine finding strong evidence that not only does injury risk decrease in late-afternoon workouts, but performance improves as well, since an increase in core body temperature also increases energy metabolism, or how fast you convert nutrients stored in your body into fuel for activity. This helps explain why muscle strength and maximal power output tend to peak in early evening, close to when body temperature reaches its daily maximum.
But you shouldn’t always work out in the afternoon. If you’re trying to lose weight, for instance, Pink highlights evidence showing that exercising first thing in the morning, prior to eating, in what are sometimes called “fasted” or “glycogen-depleted” workouts, can burn up to 20 percent more fat than workouts completed after you’ve had a meal. Yet it’s also important to be aware that the quality of your workout will suffer if you try this technique. You’ll also experience a heightened risk of illness and injury. (This isn’t rocket science: It’s hard to train well without fuel.) It’s for these reasons that Matt Dixon, a physiologist and founder of Purple Patch Fitness, says athletes should lower the intensity of their fasted workouts.
There are still good reasons to work out in the morning: It can be easier to fit into your schedule and can boost your mood for the rest of the day. For many people (myself included), an ideal workout schedule has the majority of trainings in the morning, with a few afternoons reserved for high-intensity sessions.
Get the Most Out of Your Mind
According to Pink, everyone experiences the day in three stages: a peak, when we are at our best; a trough, when we face a lull in our cognitive abilities and mood; and a recovery or rebound, when we feel pretty good again. Seventy-five percent of us (morning people) experience the day in that order, but about 25 percent of us (night owls) experience the day in something akin to the reverse: a recovery, a trough, and then a peak.
It’s not hard to determine which group, or chronotype, you fall into. Just ask yourself: Are you sharpest in the morning or late at night? The implications of how you answer are important. Pink draws upon research published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning showing that, during their peak hours, people perform best on tasks that require deep focus and logical thinking, whereas people tend to be more creative during their recovery period. Unfortunately, during the trough—which both chronotypes experience in the early to midafternoon—the mind isn’t good for much of anything. “Afternoons are the Bermuda triangle of our days,” writes Pink. “Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.”
Pink recommends trying to sync the activities in your day to your chronotype. For example, if you’re more of a morning person, you’d be wise to schedule tasks like writing important memos, creating presentations, or editing in the early hours, when you’ll be most alert and focused. When the early to midafternoon rolls around and your acuity and mood start to sink, take care of trivial, low-demand tasks like meetings or emails. Then use late afternoons and early evenings for creative work, such as ideation and brainstorming.
At the end of the day, Pink’s most important message is a simple one: Be more aware of timing, and deliberately take advantage of it.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Do It Better column and is the author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.