Recently on The Upgrade we learned about the science of timing your life perfectly—from what times of day are best for certain activities and what periods in life are best for a fresh start. But at the heart of timing your life well is knowing your chronotype. That is, knowing whether you’re a morning lark, a night owl, or as author Daniel Pink calls them—a “third bird” (i.e. someone in the middle of morning lark and night owl).
According to Pink, about 15 percent of us are morning larks (that is, if your sleep midpoint is between 1:30 a.m. and 3:00 a.m.), and another 65 percent of us are third birds (the sleep midpoint is between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.). And if you fall in the 80 percent of people who tend to rise between the early to mid-morning, you’re likely to follow a cognitive pattern which Pink refers to as a peak, trough, and recovery period.
As Pink notes:
The most important thing to understand here is…our brainpower, our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day…We typically move through the day in three stage: peak, trough, recovery. Peak early in the day, trough in the middle of the day, early to mid-afternoon, recovery, late afternoon [to] early evening. What we know is this: during the peak, which for 80 percent of us is early in the day (not for owls—we’ll get to that in a moment). For 80 percent of us during that peak period, that’s when we are most vigilant. Vigilance means we’re able to bat away distractions. So what the research shows very clearly is that during that peak period, we should be doing our analytic work. Analytic work is simply work that requires heads-down focus and attention.
The trough period, according to Pink, is that time in the day where we are at our worst. Our judgment is potentially clouded, we’re tired, and are overall functioning at a lower capacity. For this period of the day, early to mid-afternoon, Pink recommends that we take more breaks (or naps!), and work on things that require less thought, such as administrative tasks.
During our “recovery” period, Pink says we’re at our most creative.
Now, recovery, third stage for 80 percent of us, late afternoon, early evening. Here’s what it feels like. Our mood is up, but our vigilance is down. High mood, low vigilance. That makes it actually a good time for certain kinds of thinking that require some mental looseness, iterating new ideas, brainstorming what psychologists call insight work. So the recipe is very simple…We should be doing our analytic work during the peak, which for most of us is early in the day. We should be doing our administrative work during the trough early to mid-afternoon and we should be doing our insight work, work that requires creativity, mental looseness, late afternoon and early evening. That’s 80 percent of us.
And for the 20 percent of the population that identifies as night owls? Their order is a little different. They tend to follow a pattern of recovery, trough, and peak. As Pink notes:
The main thing to keep in mind with owls, if you’re an evening chronotype is this: You hit your peak, your peak of vigilance much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much later in the day. Early evening, mid-evening, late evening. That’s when you are the highest performing at those analytic tasks. So where you can owls, try to do your analytic work.
Knowing these patterns of cognitive performance is powerful and can help us to organize our schedules and prepare ourselves for when we have a big event or meeting during a trough (i.e. underperforming) period. Pink also notes that these phases of the day can impact our performance in other areas, such as exercise.
To learn more about chronotypes and how to use timing to your advantage, we recommend listening to The Upgrade’s episode on the topic, as well as checking out Daniel Pink’s latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.