Doing the right kind of task at the right time of day is key to peak performance. At any given hour, your circadian rhythm affects your concentration, energy and mood level. Is your focus sharp or scattered? Are you alert or tired? Do you feel up or down? Your internal body clock largely affects how much sleep you need, your ideal wake up time and bedtime, and your mental acuity and emotional state throughout the day.
In his book, The Power of When, Dr. Michael Breus notes that your sleep chronotype affects the secretion of hormones, which are crucial for specific activities. Cortisol makes you more alert while melatonin makes you sleepy.
Dr. Breus distinguishes the sleep chronotypes into four categories: Lion (morning type), Wolf (nighttime type), Bear (middle of the road type) and Dolphin (difficult sleeper with often erratic sleep schedules). Meanwhile, in his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink uses the more familiar-sounding chronotype categories: Early-riser Lark; late-night Owl, and in-between Third Bird.
You achieve peak performance when you know your chronotype and match it with the task at hand and the time of day. In the related article, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 1, you can read more information on the different chronotypes and how to discover yours.
Three Categories of Tasks
Once you have determined your chronotype, your next step is to organize your tasks into categories. As described in Pink’s book, there are three:
Analytic tasks involve heads-down work that demands high focus, mental sharpness and vigilance. Examples include learning and processing new information, doing legal research, analyzing documents and records, writing a legal brief, solving a difficult problem, making an important decision, actively participating in a strategic meeting, and presenting at a trial or hearing.
Insight tasks involve creative work that requires a wider focus, curiosity, imagination, and a good mood. Examples include outlining an article, brainstorming solutions, tackling novel problems with new ideas, asking better questions, and holding meetings to build relationships and rapport.
Administrative tasks involve busy work or routine work that is fairly easy to complete and do not need a lot of brain power or heavy lifting. Examples are processing emails, making and returning telephone calls, responding to inquiries, updating case notes and progress reports, entering expenses, scheduling meetings, tidying up, and organizing files. Generally, these tasks can be automated, delegated or deferred with minor consequences.
Three Stages of the Day
On any given day, there are three stages where our energy peaks, dips and recovers. They are Peak-Trough-Recovery. Larks and Third Birds (most of us) experience our Peak in the morning, our Trough in the early-to mid-afternoon, and our Recovery in the early evening. Night Owls, however, experience a reverse pattern, i.e. Recovery in the morning, Trough in the early-to-mid-afternoon, and Peak in the late afternoon and into the evening.
When to Do What
For peak performance, you need to align your chronotype, task and time of day. The table below summarizes the best times of the time day to perform certain tasks, based on your chronotype:
Use your peak period to focus on deep, important work and analytic, cognitively-demanding tasks. When you’re in your recovery period, switch to insight, creativity-driven tasks. Avoid administrative work, like processing emails, and time-wasters like reading online news, at peak hours or recovery stages of the day.
How to Protect Peak Hours
Each day, you need to leverage your peak hours by reserving them for analytic, focused work or insight, creative-thinking work. There are two main things you can do protect your peak hours.
1. Prioritize your most important task (even when it’s not urgent) through time blocking. This involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch or stack of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.
A priority doesn’t always have to be handled first thing in the morning or at at the start of the work day. Just make sure you set an appropriate time to take care of it. Be sure to match the task with your energy level, personal circumstances, and external environment.
For example, do your deep work when your mental clarity and attention span are at its peak, you have the fewest interruptions, and you have access to a quiet workspace (or can at least choose your background noise). Do your administrative tasks when your energy is low (e.g. afternoon or after lunch), you are more distraction-prone, and your workspace is noisier and more chaotic.
In a time block, focus on a single high-cognitive task, like writing a legal brief. Refrain from multitasking — such as handling questions from your paralegal or responding to emails from clients — during this time block. To encourage focus, you can theme your days or theme the hour.
Theming your day could look like this: Monday – client communications; Tuesday – client work and assignments; Wednesday – internal meetings; Thursday – client work and assignments; Friday – brainstorming or solo thinking session.
Theming your hour could include: 9 to 10 am: client communications; 10 to 12 pm: client work and assignments (e.g. writing a legal brief); 1 to 2 pm: internal meetings; 3 to 4 pm: client work and assignments (e.g. editing a legal brief); 4:30 to 5:30 pm: brainstorming or solo thinking session.
Focusing on just one task is important because the human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing. Performing two or more tasks at one time can only be done by “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks). This leaves a cognitive residue that takes about 15 to 25 minutes to clear up so you can refocus on the initial task.
When it comes to similar, low-level tasks that do not require much mental focus, you can use batch processing. This means performing then sequentially and quickly after each other in one time block. For example, you can return all your telephone calls or respond to email inquiries in one time block.
For routine or habitual, low-level tasks, you can use stacking. This means performing one task while the other operates in the background. Examples include walking with a colleague while you discuss a work issue during your lunch break; listening to an educational podcast while you commute to work; or playing classical music or ambient sounds of a cafe (like on Coffitivity or Hipstersound) while you update your case notes. Stacking is a great way to boost your mood when you’re dealing with mundane work. (SIDE NOTE: Stacking can also work very well with insight work.)
2. Schedule and take real breaks that allow you to fully detach from your work. Breaks may be solo (e.g. meditation, reading a calming book) or social (e.g. chatting with a colleague about the upcoming weekend; having lunch with a good friend). Getting outside is better than staying inside. Movement (e.g. walking, stretching, going to the gym) is also preferred to being stationary, especially if you have been working at your desk for hours.
In chronobiology, our ultradian rhythm is the wake-rest-activity cycle that repeats throughout a 24-hour day. This involves alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (roughly 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (approximately 20 minutes). Take a 20-minute break for every 90 minutes of work to take advantage of the daily ultradian rhythm cycle.
The Pomodoro Technique is one way to concentrate on a task for a set period and take necessary breaks. First, you identify the task to do. Second, you set a timer (typically 25 minutes). Third, you work on the task only until the timer goes off. After the timer rings, you check off your task. And if you give in to interruptions and distractions (e.g. checking emails, getting a snack), you reset the timer.
If you have fewer than four check marks, take a short break (5 minutes), then go to step 2. If you have at least four check marks, take a longer break (20 to 30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, and do the steps all over again.
Another way to take a good break is to have a Nappuccino or Nap a Latte, when you’re in the Trough. The steps are (a) Close your door, turn off your phone, and wear eye mask and ear plugs to help block light and sound; (b) Drink a cup of coffee or tea (100 to 110 mg of caffeine); (c) Nap for 10 to 20 minutes (set timer for 25 minutes).
Caffeine takes about 25 minutes to kick into the receptor sites of your brain, so by the time you wake up from your nap, you will not only feel refreshed but also energized. Be sure to wake up within 25 minutes because you want to avoid getting into deeper stages of sleep – unless you go for a full 90-minute sleep cycle.
Naps, however, are not ideal for everyone or for all chronotypes. If you suffer from insomnia or have trouble sleeping at night, you could make the problem worse with daytime naps.
How to Maximize Peak Hours
Maximizing your peak hours involves practicing habits that will help raise and sustain your energy levels. They include:
1. Limit your to-do list. Set boundaries and clarify expectations to reduce the interruptions and distractions. For example, inform your clients at the outset as to when they may expect to hear back from you in response to an inquiry. Is it within an hour, within 24 hours, or by end of business day? Do not give them your cell phone number if you do not want to be contacted whenever and however they please. If your boss or manager assigns you more work while you’re focusing on a major project, remind them of timelines and deadlines and discuss what actually takes priority.
2. Keep a consistent sleep schedule that aligns with your circadian rhythm. Dr. Breus notes that having the same wake up time and bedtime every day, including on weekends, is the single most important thing you can do for your circadian rhythm.
Here is his Bedtime Sleep Calculator to maximize sleep quality:
a. The average sleep cycle is 90 minutes long.
For Lions and Bears, a typical night of sleep includes 5 full sleep cycles, i.e. 90 x 5 = 450 minutes, or 7.5 hours. Dolphins and Wolves tend to get 4 full sleep cycles, i.e. 90 x 4 = 360 minutes, or 6 hours. Add an extra 20 minutes for Lions and Bears, and 40 minutes for Dolphins and Wolves to fall asleep.
b. Starting at your wake time, work back 7.5 hours to find your bedtime.
Ideal bedtime for Lions and Bears is calculated as follows:
90 minute sleep cycle x 5 cycles + 20 minutes to fall asleep = 470 minutes or 7.8 hours
Lions: up at 6:00 am – 470 minutes = 10:10 pm
Bears: up at 7:00 am – 470 minutes = 11:10 pm
Ideal bedtime for Wolves and Dolphins is calculated as follows:
90 minute sleep cycle x 4 cycles + 40 minutes to fall asleep = 400 minutes or 6.7 hours
Wolves: up at 7:00am – 400 minutes = 12:00 am
Dolphins: up at 6:30am – 400 minutes = 11:50 pm
3. Practice an energizing morning routine
Design a morning routine that works with your personal preferences and internal rhythm. Key ingredients you may incorporate into your morning rituals are:
Hydrate with water. When you wake up, drink 8 to 12 ounces of room temperature or lukewarm water.
Soak in bright light early in the morning, within first half hour of waking up. This lowers your melatonin level and provides vitamin D, which helps you sleep at night. Go outside and walk around the block or sit by a window to get direct sunlight in your face. Aim for at least 5 to 15 minutes and preferably 20 to 30 minute of sun exposure.
If you wake before sunrise or live in a place where there is little sunlight in certain seasons of the year, try using a bright light therapy lamp.
Have a high-protein rich and good-fats breakfast, such as a fruit smoothie, Greek yogurt, protein shake, or eggs/omelet with avocado. Avoid carbohydrate-rich foods, which help produce serotonin and make you drowsy.
Get moving. Stretch, walk, run, dance, jump on the trampoline, or do a quick workout to wake up your body and boost your mental energy.
Take a cool shower. This stimulates blood flow, releases endorphins and triggers wakefulness. You could start with warm water and gradually turn down the water temperature. Still too much? Wash your face with cold water for similar effects.
4. Stick to a relaxing bedtime routine
Create a bedtime routine that allows you to wind down, relax and prime your mind and body for sleep. Key tips for nighttime rituals include:
Do not drink alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. One alcohol beverage takes 1 hour to process, so give your body time to process it well before your bedtime. While alcohol might help you fall asleep more quickly, it prevents you from moving into deep sleep and reduces Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which are stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle.
Fast for at least 3 hours before bed, and preferably 4. Food tells your circadian rhythm to wake up and be alert. Have space between dinner and your bedtime for optimal functioning.
Practice relaxation methods, including meditation, gentle/restorative yoga, tai chi, stretching, or foam rolling (self massage).
Do light reading (few pages) or journaling (up to 2 to 5 minutes), but not on your computer or other electronic devices. Avoid blue light from screens at least 1 hour before bedtime because it hinders production of melatonin, the hormone needed for good sleep.
Get warm. Drink warm bedtime tea or water with lemon + honey. Take a lukewarm shower or bath, preferably 60 to 90 minutes before bedtime .
These self-care habits will help boost your energy levels, heighten alertness, and improve your mood. Peak performance results when you match your chronotype with the task and time of day and synch with your natural rhythm.
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For more information on the different chronotypes and how to determine yours, read the related article, Finding Your Rhythm: When to Do What – Step 1 (Know Your Chronotype)
This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as specific advice for any individual case or situation.
Dyan Williams is a solo lawyer who practices U.S. Immigration Law and Legal Ethics. She is also a productivity coach for lawyers, consultants and other professionals who seek to reduce overwhelm and make time for what truly matters. She is the author of The Incrementalist: A Simple Productivity System to Create Big Results in Small Steps, an e-book at http://leanpub.com/incrementalist.