• Jon Saft

Timing is everything: 5 ways to optimize your schedule

Updated: Jan 11, 2021

If you only take one thing away from this blog post, it's this: if you have an upcoming surgery, don't schedule it for the afternoon.

Whether you are a doctor, teacher, CEO, or blogger, the trends stay consistent: most people go through very similar mood swings and attention spans over the course of a day. The days typically starts slow and builds toward a peak in the morning, followed by a crash right around lunch time. After the lunch time dip, people tend to rebound a bit, then steadily decline until bed time.

In Dan Pink's When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, he refers to this as "PTR - Peak, Trough, Rebound."

Examples of this pattern are seen across industries and positions. Pink tells us that anesthesia errors are 4 times more likely at 3pm than 9am. He cites studies showing that students who take math in the morning have higher test scores and GPAs than those who take it in the afternoon. In one specific study of 26,000 earnings calls across 2,100 companies over 6.5 years, Harvard Business Review found that CEOs on those calls were "more negative, irritable, and combative...leading to temporary stock mispricings for firms hosting earnings calls later in the day."

For many of us, this trend will not be overly surprising. We start the day strong, hit a bit of a wall in the middle of the day, then recover a bit and ride it out until closing time. But now that we have the research to back it up, we can come up with some strategic tactics to take advantage:

1. Schedule "deep work" time for the early mornings

If we know that our cognitive abilities are highest in the morning, let's not waste this time with busy work or meetings. As we build up to our peak, let's take full advantage with heads down time.

2. Use the afternoon Rebound time for meetings and brainstorms

While our mental abilities might not be highest in the late afternoons, our defense systems will also be weaker. As a result, we will be less likely to reject new ideas and more likely to think outside of the box.

3. Use the trough to re-energize

Troughs are a great time for a break. We can make the most of a break in lots of healthy, energizing ways, or use that time for mindless busy work or errands. If all else fails, don't be afraid to treat yourself to a restorative 20 minute nap.

4. Don't ask for a promotion until your boss has had a break

If you need to ask for something - could be a favor, a raise, or a favorable verdict - wait until the decision maker has had a break. By default, our brains are programmed to say, "no." It's much easier to reject a new idea than to consider all the implications that come with saying yes. A study looking at thousands of court rulings found that judges were significantly more likely to grant parole to defendants immediately following a break, when they had more energy to overcome the default "no" response. You might not be asking for parole, but do yourself a favor and wait until your manager has the energy to say, "yes" next time you're asking for a promotion.

5. When you're done, you're done

When you have accomplished everything you set out to accomplish in the day, shut down and recharge the batteries. Whether that means literally shutting down your work devices or switching up your environments or just changing playlists, make sure you give yourself some proper recovery time so you are ready for tomorrow's Peak.


Of course, these are all guidelines that need to be adjusted for the individual. Some of us are morning people and some of us might peak in the evenings. Maybe you have a newborn baby who is turning your schedule upside down. The key is to track your patterns and optimize your calendar accordingly, because when that Peak hits, we want to be ready to make the most of it.

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