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When Are You Most Productive? Ask Your Circadian Rhythm

You’ll be most productive during your energy peaks each day, and you’re far better off taking a break or working on something creative during your energy dips.
Published
2022-08-26
Updated
18 MINS
Woman working and looking productive

Productivity can feel elusive. Sometimes you’re in the zone, speeding through tasks at a record pace. Other times, you’re dragging your feet trying to get anything, anything at all, ticked off from your to-do list.

But what if we told you there are scientifically backed times of day when you’re more productive, and other times when you’re much better off simply taking a break and coming back refreshed? 

Below, we’ll dive into when most people are their most productive and how you can find out your unique productive peaks with the RISE app. This allows you to work smarter, not harder, and make the most of this precious productivity when you have it. 

When Are You Most Productive?

Your productivity will, of course, depend on what you’re working on and your environment. After all, it’s much harder to write a difficult report as your kid screams in the background than it is to respond to easy emails in peace and quiet. 

But there are a few biological facts that make a difference to when you feel most productive. 

Circadian Rhythm 

RISE app screenshot showing your energy peak and dip times
The RISE app can show you your energy peaks and dips each day.

Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle and dictates when you feel awake, sleepy, hungry, and when your body produces certain hormones. It even affects your mental performance throughout the day. 

And due to this predictable cycle, your energy levels fluctuate in the roughly same way each day. It looks something like this: 

  • You wake up and take some time to shake off sleep inertia (or grogginess). 
  • Your energy levels rise into the first energy peak of the day. 
  • You experience the infamous afternoon dip. 
  • Then your energy levels rise again for the second energy peak in the late afternoon or evening. 
  • Then your body and brain slowly wind down until bedtime. 

The timing of these energy peaks and dips depends on how long and at what times you slept the night before, your chronotype — whether you’re an early bird, night owl, or in between — and your exposure to zeitgebers. Zeitgeber is German and science-speak for time-giver and is anything that times your circadian rhythm to the outside world. This includes light, exercise, and food. 

Not only do you have more energy during these energy peaks, you may do your most productive work. Research shows during your optimal circadian times you: 

  • Perform better on tasks that require attention.
  • Your mental performance is more accurate and faster when doing novel tasks.
  • You better regulate your emotions and negative emotional reactions are lower. 
  • You may even learn more — school children learn more in the morning compared to later in the day.

The caveat? You might be more productive at tasks that require creativity and insight during your non-optimal times, like your afternoon dip in energy. 

So, when you’re most productive all depends on what kind of task you want to complete. If it’s concentrating on a tricky report, working on a coding problem, or delivering an important presentation, your peak performance will probably be during your morning energy peak. If, on the other hand, you want to brainstorm new ideas, you might have better luck in the mid-afternoon.

The RISE app can show you what your circadian rhythm looks like each day, including when the peaks and dips in your energy will be. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their upcoming energy peaks and dips on the Energy screen. 

Ultradian Rhythms

As well as your daily circadian rhythm, you go through another energy cycle called an ultradian rhythm. Ultradian rhythms are natural rises and falls in your energy levels over a period of about 90 minutes. 

The key here is to integrate breaks into your day. This gives your body and brain the chance to recover before the next spurt of productivity. 

Get up from your desk and go grab a glass of water or snack, head outside for some natural sunlight and exercise, or catch up with a colleague. 

Sleep Debt 

Sleep debt is the running total of how much sleep you owe your body. It’s measured against your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night. 

And that amount of needed sleep is different for all of us. The average sleep need is 8 hours 10 minutes, plus or minus 44 minutes or so, and 13.5% of people may even need 9 hours or more sleep a night.

If you don’t meet your sleep need, you’ll start racking up sleep debt. And when you have high sleep debt, everything you need to be productive is impacted, including: 

Your energy levels also take a hit. Those two energy peaks of the day will be lower, you’ll feel the energy dips even more strongly. 

So, sleep debt determines your productivity potential each day. You’ll be more productive on days when it’s lower compared to days when you’re battling more sleep deprivation. 

RISE can tell you your individual sleep need and work out how much sleep debt you’re carrying. The good news is you can pay back sleep debt. You can learn how to catch up on sleep here. 

Chronotypes 

Your chronotype is your natural tendency to sleep earlier or later, often called early bird and night owl. 

Early birds may find they get more done in the morning before their brain turns to sludge in the afternoon. Night owls, on the other hand, may be more productive late in the day. Many of us sit somewhere in between. 

Night owls have drawn the short straw when it comes to productivity. Although it’s perfectly fine to go to sleep, wake up, and be productive later in the day, the world isn’t set up for night people.

Night owls often have to force themselves to be morning people as they may need to get their kids to school and start work by 9 a.m. They’re often clocking off by 5, just when their evening peak, potentially their most productive time of day, is coming up. 

Plus, their productivity levels in general may be lower as it’s much harder to meet your  sleep need as a night owl if you force yourself up early each day, so you’ll probably have a lot of sleep debt. 

If you find your most productive time doesn’t fit with your lifestyle — perhaps you work a 9 to 5, but your brain doesn’t get going until midday — you can reset your circadian rhythm and move it to a time that better suits you. 

Social Jetlag 

Social jetlag is when your internal clock is at odds with your social clock. Perhaps you get up at 7 a.m. each work day only to sleep in until noon on the weekends. And then come Monday morning, you’re up early again. 

Your circadian rhythm is thrown out of whack and your energy levels take a dive. This challenges your productivity in general and changes when those most productive times of the day will be. 

In fact, you might find the whole of Monday morning is written off and you’re not as productive while your body gets used to your weekday rhythm again. 

If you work from home a few days of the week and indulge in a lay-in during your usual commute time, this can disrupt your sleep schedule and change the times of your energy peaks. You may find your most productive times change throughout the work week.

If you’ve got social jetlag, you’re not alone. About 87% of adults have it and go to bed at least two hours later than usual on weekends.

You can learn more about social jetlag and how to combat it here. 

Other Factors  

Multiple factors can come together to determine when you’re most productive each day. 

For example, a 2020 study found college students performed better in 1:30 p.m. exams compared to 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. exams. The researchers had a few theories as to why 1:30 p.m. saw an improvement in performance. 

The researchers said it could be due to: 

  • Chronotypes: Your chronotype changes with age and tends to be at its latest at around the age of 20, before it begins shifting earlier and earlier. So the students may be at their most productive around 1:30 p.m. as they have later chronotypes at this age and their circadian peak in energy comes around this time.
  • Sleep inertia: If students woke up shortly before the 9 a.m. exam, they’d be feeling groggy and not perform as well.   
  • Natural light: The productivity differences between exams were larger for January exams than exams in May and June. As the study was on students in the UK, this could be due to the decreased amount of daylight at 9 a.m. in January. With less daylight, students are less alert and their circadian rhythms may be pushed back, making 1:30 p.m. the more productive time. 
  • Type of task: The difference in productivity times was also larger for students taking STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — exams, compared to non-STEM exams. This may be due to the fact that tasks that involve fluid intelligence (working memory, logic thinking, problem-solving, and abstract reasoning) are affected by timing and chronotype, whereas tasks that involve crystallized intelligence (knowledge and vocabulary) are not. 

So, when you’re most productive also depends on your age, and whether you’re more of a morning or night person at this age, and how much daylight you get at certain times of the year, as well as the time of day and type of task you’re doing. 

How Do You Find Out When You’re Most Productive?

Track Your Productivity 

You can find out when you’re most productive by keeping a manual log and rating your productivity throughout the day. Every hour, stop and note how productive you’ve been and what your energy levels are out of 10. 

Do this for a week or two and you should start noticing a pattern. Perhaps work feels like a breeze from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., but the only thing you can concentrate on after lunch is scrolling through social media.

Use a Tool Like RISE 

The easiest way to find out when you’re most productive is by using a tool like the RISE app. There’s no need for time tracking or trying to guess when you’ll do your best work.

RISE predicts your circadian rhythm each day based on your phone use behavior and inferred light exposure. You can then see a visual representation of your energy levels and how they’ll fluctuate throughout the day, including the timings of your energy peaks and dips and how long they’ll last.

You can also use the app to work out how much sleep debt you have and keep track of it as you work to pay it back. This helps to increase your productivity levels in general. 

You can learn more about tracking your energy with the RISE app here. 

How to Make the Most of When You’re Most Productive?

Once you know when your productivity prime times are each day, it’s time to harness this information. Here’s what to do.

Schedule Your Day According to Your Most Productive Times 

If you have control over your work schedule, plan to do more difficult tasks — like writing, programming, or sales calls — during your peaks in energy. This is the time you’re at your best, so don’t waste it on easy tasks or mindless meetings. 

Night owls trying to become morning people should also do difficult tasks during their morning peak in energy, even if it feels unnatural, to help the change to the earlier schedule stick. 

Schedule easier tasks — like admin or emails — for your afternoon dip in energy. If you work from home, and have the flexibility, you can also use your afternoon dip to do household chores, take a break, work out, or squeeze in a power nap

When your second energy peak rolls around, this is the ideal time to finish off any final work tasks or spend time with family, friends, or practice a hobby while you’re feeling more alert.

Connect RISE to your Apple or Google calendar so you never miss a productivity peak and know when to schedule deep work and important meetings. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to connect their calendars. 

Take Breaks During Your Low Productivity Times  

RISE app screenshot showing best time get an energy boost
Use the RISE app to find the best times to boost your energy.

Sometimes, taking a break or a nap is the most productive thing you can do, especially during your afternoon dip in energy. You’ll get to your second energy peak feeling refreshed and ready to be productive again. 

Don’t force yourself through difficult tasks during your low productivity times. Instead, get household chores out of the way, do something relaxing like reading or listening to music, or take a nap. 

If you have high sleep debt, a short nap will help pay some of this back. Even for those who generally get enough sleep each night, naps have been shown to boost mood, alertness, and mental performance. 

You can also use RISE to plan an energy boost when you’re feeling low in productivity. The app can find the best time in your calendar to do activities like take a nap, go for a walk, or get some natural light. 

Wake Up and Wind Down Properly 

Contrary to popular belief, you shouldn’t be jumping out of bed feeling productive first thing. You’ll most likely be shaking off grogginess from sleep inertia and won’t be at your best for 60 to 90 minutes. 

Use this time to set yourself up for your morning energy peak, potentially your most productive time of day, Write out a to-do list, work through emails and admin, or do a relaxing morning routine. 

Getting sunlight and some exercise will also reduce how long you feel this morning grogginess. 

When it gets to your evening wind-down in energy, resist the urge to try and be productive. Squeezing in extra work here will only lead to trouble sleeping later, which leads to more sleep debt and lower productivity the next day.

Instead, do relaxing activities like reading, watching TV, or listening to music. Avoid common sleep disruptors like large meals, caffeine, exercise, and alcohol

As well as showing you when your morning grogginess and evening wind-down times are, RISE can tell you the best time of day to stop doing sleep-disrupting behaviors depending on your circadian rhythm.  

You can learn the best ways to spend this wind-down time here. 

Keep Sleep Debt Low and Work with Your Circadian Rhythm 

Once you’ve found when you’re most productive, you want to keep that productivity level high. We’ve covered how to be more productive here in more detail, but here’s what to do to get you started. 

Keep Sleep Debt Low 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app can tell you how much sleep debt you have.

Keeping sleep debt low will boost your productivity potential by boosting your energy levels, focus, and mental performance. 

We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours. If you find you’ve got more than this, you can pay it down by: 

  • Taking naps: Do this during your afternoon dip to avoid impacting your sleep later that night.
  • Going to bed a little earlier
  • Sleeping in a little later: Keep this to an hour or two maximum to avoid throwing your body clock out of whack.  
  • Focusing on sleep hygiene: These are the set of behaviors that help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night. Improving your sleep hygiene will help you get more sleep overall if you don’t have time in your schedule to squeeze any extra sleep. 

You can learn more about sleep hygiene here and RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day to help you stay on top of them all. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

Work with Your Circadian Rhythm 

Working with your circadian rhythm goes beyond scheduling your work tasks with your energy peaks and dips. You can also match up your sleep, wake, and meal times with when your body naturally wants to do these things. 

Living in sync with your circadian rhythm is not only good for your overall wellness, it’ll boost your energy levels and self-regulatory resources, making it easier to concentrate, motivate yourself, persist, and resist the urge to procrastinate. 

You can live in sync with your circadian rhythm by: 

  • Keeping a consistent sleep schedule: Even on weekends. 
  • Eating at the right times: Try to eat meals at roughly the same times each day and keep these meal times to during the day. Avoid large meals two to three hours before bed
  • Going to bed at the right time for you: RISE can show you your Melatonin Window, the roughly one-hour window of time when your body’s rate of melatonin production is at its highest. As melatonin helps your body sleep, you’ll have better odds of falling and staying asleep if you head to bed during this window. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up a reminder to check their Melatonin Window each night.

Find Out Your Peak Productivity Times with RISE 

When you know the times you’re most productive each day, you can schedule your most important tasks to fit. You won’t waste these times on easy admin and won’t force deep work when your body simply isn’t programmed for it. 

Use RISE to see a visual representation of your circadian rhythm each day. You can see when your energy peaks and dips are coming up and how long they’re going to last. 

Plus, you can also use the app to increase how productive you are by paying down sleep debt and maintaining good sleep hygiene to help you get the sleep you need each night. 

All of your energy questions answered:

Summary FAQs

How do I know when I’m most productive?

You can track how productive you are over a two-week span and spot patterns or you can use a tool like the RISE app to see your peaks and dips in energy and the timing of these each day.

When is your brain most productive?

Your mental performance is faster and more accurate during optimal times of your circadian rhythm, which usually happens in the mid-morning and late afternoon or early evening. During your afternoon dip in energy, you may be more productive on creative tasks, however.

What time of day are students most productive?

Research shows school students learn more in the morning compared to the afternoon, but college students perform better in early afternoon exams compared to exams in the early morning or late afternoon. Students’ productivity depends on many factors, including the timings of their circadian rhythms.

When are you most productive after waking up?

It will probably take about 60 to 90 minutes to shake off sleep inertia, or grogginess, after waking up in the morning. You can speed this up by getting natural light, exercising, and drinking a cup of coffee. If you nap for 30 minutes or longer, you may also feel sleep inertia after waking up. How long this lasts will depend on how long you napped for.

What is the most productive time to wake up?

The most productive time to wake up is a time that allows you to meet your sleep need each night, fits with your chronotype and social clock, and is a time you can wake up consistently each morning. Earlier is not necessarily better for productivity.

What are the least productive hours of the day?

The least productive hours of the day are when you first wake up and you’re suffering with morning grogginess, during your afternoon dip in energy, and during a wind-down period before bed. Your afternoon dip in energy may be the best time to do creative tasks, however.

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