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Picture this: It’s 1:30 p.m., and you’re just getting started on an important project that’s due to your boss first thing the next morning. But rather than brilliant ideas flowing from your head to your keyboard, you’re struggling to stay alert.
If you’re like most people, early afternoon isn’t your most effective time to work—and there’s a scientific reason for it. This lull in productivity is actually dictated by your body’s natural circadian clock, which syncs your biology and behavior to light signals in your environment. This internal body clock tells your system to release certain hormones, regulate your body temperature, and control other functions that determine your alertness on a 24-hour cycle.
Sure, you might be able to power through an afternoon funk and pull off a winning proposal. But, going forward, wouldn’t it be great to be able to capitalize on your body’s natural rhythms—and boost your productivity and performance? “You can certainly make better decisions if you are making them at the right time of day,” says Rebecca Spencer, associate professor of neuroscience in the department of psychological and brain sciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
We’ve set up a work schedule that explains the right time to do everything, based on your (and your coworkers’) circadian clock, research on productivity cycles, and other timing insights. Before long, pushing through afternoon grogginess while on deadline will be a thing of the past.
Maximize Your Morning
Whether you’re an early riser or always depend on coffee to ease you out of sleep mode, your energy level begins to ramp up within 30 minutes to an hour of waking, says Spencer. Here’s how to tap into this and get your day off to a productive start.
6:30: Send email. If you’re hoping for a reply to your email (and who isn’t?), send it during nonworking hours. Emails sent between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m., or around 8 p.m., are about 45% more likely to elicit a response, according to research from Yesware, a company that creates tools for sales teams.
Success comes down to a simple volume issue: The huge number of emails most professionals get during the day compete with yours to be read and answered. If your email drops into your boss’s inbox before the crazy day begins or after it ends, there’s a better chance she’ll open it and respond ASAP.
Read more: How to Succeed at Work the Lazy Way
Not an early bird, or afraid you’ll forget to hit send in the evening? Download a tool like Boomerang for Gmail that allows you to draft an email and schedule it to send at a specific time.
8: Make a judgment call. Conflicted about whether it’s time to let the new hire go? Worried about reporting a colleague’s bad decision to higher-ups? Make ethical judgments like these in the morning. That’s when the “morning morality effect” is in action, according to research from Harvard University and the University of Utah. Researchers found cheating among undergraduates was more prevalent in the afternoon, leading them to conclude people are more likely to engage in unethical acts later in the day. This might be because our capacity for self-control, like physical energy, can deplete throughout the day as you make everyday decisions.
9: Tackle your toughest tasks. Now’s the time to put together that new business proposal, report financial earnings, or handle another responsibility that requires your full attention. “When you first get to the office in the morning is when you’re going to be freshest, and that’s the ideal time to do those tasks that are most attention-demanding,” Spencer says. Resist the urge to waste your alertness on mindless tasks like sorting through your a.m. emails. If it’s too hard to ignore, tools like Inbox Pause keep new emails from coming in—temporarily, of course.
10: Ace a presentation. Halfway to lunchtime turns out to be the ideal time to captivate your audience. “You’re fairly alert then, as is your audience, and your voice is at its best because your vocal cords are still rested,” says Mark Di Vincenzo, author of “Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That and Go There.”
If you’re dropping big company news or another bombshell, do so within the first 10 minutes, he suggests. “By the end of the first 10 minutes of most presentations, about 80% of the audience has usually checked out mentally,” Di Vincenzo says. “Nobody knows exactly why this happens, but scientists theorize that the brain makes a subconscious choice to tune out and focus our attention on matters that seem more pressing.” Hold the room’s attention by placing an eye-catching visual in your PowerPoint or by spicing up the presentation with an interesting anecdote every 10 minutes, he suggests.
11: Think strategically. Set next year’s budget. Reevaluate your company’s five-year plan. Whatever strategic thinking is on your plate for the day, try to save it for around 11 a.m. “This is when your body temperature rises,” Di Vincenzo says. “When that happens you’re more alert, and your brain can process information better.”
Your coworkers’ brains are also more alert, so this is a good time to schedule a team brainstorm. Research from Robert Matchock, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, found most of us tend to be easily distracted between noon and 4 p.m.