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How to work with your body clock for better productivity

Do you prefer to rise with the sun, get to work early and schedule meetings for first thing? Or are you someone who prefers to sleep in and finds it easier to get brain-bending work tasks done later in the day? Don’t worry, there isn’t a correct answer. Why? Because your work productivity is controlled by your body’s unique 24-hour internal clock.

Whether you’re an early or late riser, what matters is keeping to your body’s clock to get the most out of your day, says Associate Professor Mark Stokes from Deakin University’s School of Psychology. ‘The best way to maximise your cognitive ability, and by extension your productivity, is to work with your body clock,’ he says.

These productivity tips will help you tune into your body clock and unlock your personal productivity.

Work out if you’re a night owl or morning lark

We are diurnal creatures, which means the body is programmed to be most alert during the day and asleep at night. Bodily functions such as temperature, digestion, heart rate and blood pressure fluctuate throughout the day according to an internal body clock – or ‘circadian rhythm’ – to keep you synchronised with this day-night cycle.

Most people’s body clocks are timed so they hit the sack at about 11pm and rise at 7am, but there are subtle variations from person to person that affect when you feel most alert and productive. Early chronotypes, or ‘morning larks’, rise early and are most active in the morning, but feel sleepy late in the afternoon or early evening. At the other end of the spectrum, late chronotypes, or ‘night owls’, feel tired in the morning and awake in the evening.

Figuring out your chronotype isn’t difficult. Think about when you like to get up, when you feel tired and when you’re most productive. ‘It’s very obvious if you’re a morning or evening person – you’ll know which type you are,’

Your chronotype is influenced by your environment (such as when the sun rises and how bright it is outside at night) and gender (men are more likely to be night owls than women), and a significant proportion is determined by genetics.

Assoc. Prof. Stokes says age is another important factor because circadian rhythms tend to shift across the lifespan. ‘Younger people tend to be night owls and older people tend to be morning larks,’ he says. ‘It’s often why trying to get teenagers to have their best performance early in the morning is a lost cause because their bodies work better later in the day.’

Discover when is the best time to study or work

So if you’re a morning lark with a study goal, should you get up early to smash out two hours of study before going to work? If you’re a night owl with a flexible employer, should you shift your work hours to later in the day? Quite possibly.

'It’s very obvious if you’re a morning or evening person – you’ll know which type you are.'

Assoc. Prof. Mark Stokes,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

One recent study found peak performance on cognitive tasks differed significantly between morning larks and night owls. Morning larks performed best at 8am, while night owls performed best at 8pm.

To schedule your workday for maximum productivity, Assoc. Prof. Stokes says it’s best to do difficult tasks like long reports when you instinctively feel at your best and leave easier jobs like clearing your inbox to when you feel a less alert.

‘Some people, particularly younger people, will have more cognitive capability in the middle part of the day and afternoon than earlier in the day, while others, especially older people, will have better cognitive capabilities earlier in the day,’ he says.

Optimise your work productivity even if you’re out of sync

Of course, if your work hours are less flexible, you’re a shift-worker in an industry like nursing or you juggle study and work with family pressures, it’s not always easy to stay in sync with your body clock. Even the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns made a mess of many sleep patterns.

Thankfully, Assoc. Prof. Stokes says that while it’s best to work in keeping with your body clock, it is possible to adjust it and maintain productivity. The key is sticking to consistent sleep and wake times. Dim the lights an hour before bedtime to prepare yourself for sleep and as soon as you wake up, open the curtains to allow in as much natural light as possible.

‘The worst thing you can do is have a sleep-in on Saturday and Sunday when you rise consistently at, say, 6.30am every other day,’ Assoc. Prof. Stokes says. ‘As soon as you do that, on Monday it will be hard to wake up because you’ve been training yourself to sleep later.’

If you’re struggling with an afternoon slump, there’s nothing wrong with taking a 15-minute power nap. In fact, Assoc. Prof. Stokes says there’s a lot to be gained from a mid-afternoon siesta. ‘It improves cognitive functioning and gives you a bit of downtime to solve problems,’ he says.

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Associate Professor Mark Stokes
Associate Professor Mark Stokes

School of Psychology, Deakin University

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