The best time to check emails—and the worst

With one question, you can learn what you need to arrange your day for maximum productivity, according to Daniel Pink's When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

Here's the question: When is the midpoint between the time you go to bed and the time you wake up?

Based on your answer, Pink sorts you into one of three chronotypes: morning larks, night owls, or "third birds," who fall somewhere in between and account for 60% to 80% of people.

Once you know your chronotype, Pink argues, you can structure your day around your biological rhythms to maximize productivity. He cites research finding that up to 20% of performance on cognitive tasks can be explained by time of day.

For most of us—morning larks and third birds—our energy and mood "[follow] a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a recovery," Pink writes. Pink recommends sorting your tasks into the three phases as follows:

  • Peak (morning): Analytical work, tasks that require high levels of concentration. This is also a good time for making a positive impression on an audience, because their moods will be highest at this point in the day.
  • Trough (early afternoon): Pink calls afternoons the "Bermuda Triangle of our days" and suggests we should really spend the time napping. But if you can't do that, he recommends using it for errands or routine administrative work like checking email. Regular breaks (especially those that involve walking around, going outside, or talking to coworkers) can also help mitigate the slump.
  • Recovery (late afternoon, early evening): This is the time for creative thinking, innovation, and insight. Our moods bounce back, but we're slightly less focused and inhibited, all of which contribute to sparking new connections.

Night owls experience the same three phases, but in reverse order.

Most of us don't obey these natural rhythms, Pink notes. "We squander our peak answering email, then try—often unsuccessfully—to do our deep work in the afternoon," he says in an interview with Scientific American.

Not at your peak? Here are 8 productive things you can still do at work

When planning for the day, we should also consider how the three phases affect our colleagues or audience during a presentation, Pink recommends.

He points to a study of 26,000 quarterly earnings calls in which researchers found that "calls in the afternoon were more negative and irritable in the afternoon than in the morning regardless of what the fundamentals were of the numbers being reported." The effect was so significant that stock prices were often affected in the short term.

Because most of your audience probably consists of morning larks or third birds, the best time to make an important presentation is the morning. At that time, morning larks and third birds will be at their peak in terms of both energy and mood, so they'll be more likely to respond positively and thoughtfully. If you must meet in the afternoon, try to ensure your audience has a break immediately beforehand, which can help mitigate the effects of the afternoon slump (Pink, When, published January 2018; Pink, Wall Street Journal, 2/16; Kelly, NPR, 1/17; Collison, Toronto Star, 1/19; Cook, Scientific American, 1/9).

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