How paying attention to your body clock can change your productivity


Should you always be checking your emails in the morning?
man swipes screen showing notes on the glass
Just like the default settings of a computer program, our brain also has ingrained settings that it operates with. | Image source: Getty Images

Many of our productivity problems come about because we are operating on autopilot. We don’t think about what, when or even why we are doing things; we just do them in the order in which the tasks came to us, or how they’re written on our to-do list.

Just like the default settings of a computer program, our brain also has ingrained settings that it operates with: if I’m hungry, I eat; if I’m afraid, I run. These settings are designed to keep us alive.

Yet some of our less instinctive settings have been developed over years of learning, repetition and reward: in the morning, I check my email; in the afternoon, I hold our department meeting.

It can be difficult to change settings that feel like they are hardwired. It takes understanding, discipline and practice.

Even though you may be programmed to do things at a certain time because of habit, you are doing yourself a disservice.

When you learn how your body clock works, then you start to understand that there are optimal times for better brain performance at work. This means you can schedule the types of tasks you do to make the best use of your most productive time.

Why it’s about when

There are good scientific reasons as to why we need to pay attention to when we do specific things at work.

A lot of this can be explained by jet lag. When we travel across different time zones, we mess with our body’s natural rhythms, known as circadian rhythms.

This is what creates feelings of fatigue and disorientation, and often results in insomnia at 3 am. Shift workers, who don’t work a typical nine-to-five day, may also experience this quite frequently.

That’s why we need to do our most important work when our body — and brain — is most awake, alert and ready for action.

If you are not sure, there is a simple online test that can help determine your chronotype. 

For most of us, our most productive time will be first thing in the morning. Then by the afternoon our body and brain will be ready to switch to some routine tasks.

For the majority of us our peak alertness is at 10 am and our best coordination is at around 2.30 pm.

So it makes sense that tasks that require attention and focus are best done in the morning, and repetitive tasks that require coordination are best done in the afternoon.

I can’t decide!

Ever noticed that as the day wears on, your patience (and fuse) in meetings or discussions becomes shorter and more erratic?

At 3 pm when you’ve been asked to decide between option A or option B — something that could cost the company millions if you’re wrong — you’ve probably sighed and said something like, ‘Let’s just go with option A and move on.’

When you leave important decisions until the afternoon, then your cognitive alertness is impaired and it’s more likely you’ll be reactive because you’re feeling tired from having worked all day.

Making important calls, having important discussions and doing important work should be done in the morning before you suffer from decision fatigue.

Protect your most valuable time

Use the following as a guide for what you should be doing at various times of the day.  Adjust the actual timings according to your personal chronotype and the time you start work (not wake up).

  • First 2 hours – protect for your most important and brain intensive work. Content for presentations, writing proposals, deep problem solving and making important decisions.  This is crucial space to think.
  • Second 2 hours – conflict resolution or problem-solving meetings with others where they need your smarts. 
  • Third 2 hours – process work.  Email, report production, presentation formatting. Don’t try and do anything that needs your brain, you will likely need to do it again. Space to breathe
  • Fourth 2 hours – winding down, wrapping up and prepping for the next day.  Composing emails that you will send the following morning (after you have slept on it), planning what you will do in the first 2 hours of the next day. Anything your future self will thank you for.

Most of us are happier, more alert, optimistic, considered and energetic during the first few hours of our day, and certainly before midday. We need to design our day to take advantage of that!

Donna McGeorge is an author and global authority on productivity.  Donna McGeorge: Speaker, Author, Facilitator, Coach