You Should Time Your Work Based on Your Energy Cycle

By Meredith Summers | Published January 10, 2020

When people are described as night owls or early birds, it's not because we're obsessed with ornithology as a culture. These two terms refer to our energy cycles or the times in which we're most (and least) productive. While you may think people who rise early will always catch the worm, the reality isn't quite as simple as an aphorism. We'll look at how these cycles work and how you can use the patterns to adjust your workday.


We're All Different

Thank goodness we don't all have the same energy cycles — otherwise, there'd be no ER doctor available when you break a bone at 3 a.m.Some people are naturally energetic at practically all hours of the day, others may only have a few hours when they're both energetic and clear-headed. Your cycles are dependent on everything from your natural rhythms to the ways in which you take care of yourself. As you've heard a million times by now, sleep, diet, and exercise will all have a genuine impact on the way you function.

Circadian Rhythms

When you think about circadian rhythms, you may think of those chirpers who emerge every 17 years. But it actually refers to the natural hours your body keeps. Without the distractions of alarm clocks, phone screens, and late-night coffee runs, your brain wants to fall asleep and wake up at certain times. If you want to structure your workday better, you have to cut out the noise and rediscover those natural rhythms for yourself. Developing a routine, eating a little better, and cutting out blue light can all make a difference to see where your hours lie.

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Identifying the Behaviors

Before you modify you workday based on your energy cycle, you need to identify the behaviors that are throwing it off first. You're unlikely to be surprised by these usual suspects, but they do bear repeating:

  • Staying up too late
  • Consuming alcohol right before bed
  • Avoiding exercise
  • Working through breaks
  • Using electronic devices at night

You may only have so much wiggle room if you want to change your bedtime from 2 a.m. to 9 p.m. You're unlikely to make such a drastic switch without seeing some degree of pushback from your brain. But if you can tweak your routine, you may just find yourself going to bed a little earlier and getting better sleep as a result.

Peak Energy

Employees tend to be the most productive a few hours into their workday. Assuming they start in the morning, this will probably be around 10 or 11 a.m. or so. After lunchtime, the energy will decline and hit a low around mid-afternoon. And it's not necessarily because you ate a huge tryptophan-stuffed turkey sandwich for lunch either.

This process is natural, and the reason why naps are encouraged around this time of day. You're unlikely to be productive anyway, so you might as well rest before you have to jump back into work. From there, people will generally hit another peak at around 6 p.m. We can't stress enough that everyone is different, but you may already recognize this pattern if you track your own day.

Rescheduling for Productivity

Whether you can catch a nap at the office or not, you can restructure your day so you're tackling the most difficult tasks right before lunch or around dinnertime. Anything that doesn't require your full attention can be relegated to early mornings or late afternoons. Employees can certainly work through mid-afternoon and late at night, but they're unlikely to operate at peak performance. Early birds and night owls shift the patterns a few hours forward or back, but the general rhythm remains the same.

Science and Cycles

Your cycle is influenced by how your brain interprets light. The photosensitive cells in your eyes communicate with your hypothalamus and let it know when to produce the melatonin that will help you fall asleep. Artificial light can push back your regular cycle and cause you to sleep in later. If your circadian rhythms are off, your stress, body temperature, and heart rate will follow. So you can put in as many hours at your job as you like, but without the corresponding energy to back it up, you won't actually be all that productive.

Accounting for Flexibility

Managing teams is tough if you're working with people on a variety of circadian rhythms, but it can also be a blessing in disguise. You can capitalize on people's energy levels by having them hand off the most important work at certain points of the day to someone with more natural energy. It takes more coordination, but the rewards can be astounding. In addition, it's worth noting that people's rhythms can change over time, regardless of whether they want to or not. People may find themselves naturally becoming early-morning people, even if they lived for nightlife in their 30s and 40s.

The Benefits of Fatigue

If you're starting to worry that you have less natural energy than you'd like, it's worth noting that fatigue has its benefits. Because people tend to be a little foggy during this time, it's not unusual to brainstorm some pretty crazy solutions to different problems at the office. While some of these ideas may be legitimately useless, others may serve as just the creative twist you need to unjam yourself out of a sticky situation. That late afternoon meeting where people show up bleary-eyed can turn out to be the best rap session you've ever had.

Even if you don't have the benefit of flextime, you likely do have some degree of control over your daily task list. If you can rearrange your schedule so you're using your on- and off-time effectively, you may just find yourself being that much more effective. It may even mean working fewer hours, giving you more time to spend taking care of yourself and the people you love.

productivity   sleep   energy   personal growth  

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Meredith Summers

Professional freelance writer for companies who want to get more done. She enjoys reading, going to the beach, and brief descriptions of herself.