Listen to this story
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt best around 4 p.m. Throughout the day, I’m alternately groggy, anxious, and distracted — but come late afternoon, my mood lifts, and I find the focus and calm that’s been eluding me.
It’s been this way throughout changes in my age, lifestyle, and schedule: as a teen getting a second wind in time for after-school soccer practice; as a college student hitting the library for a study sprint before dinner; as a full-time employee bemoaning the productivity kick that came too late in the workday; and today, as a freelancer, hitting my stride after a day of fits and starts.
You hear about morning people and night owls, but “afternoon people” seem to fly under the radar — in part because our chosen time of day isn’t exactly known for its benefits. The post-lunch energy dip is an infamous (and well-documented) workday menace. Some research suggests that we’re less motivated to seek out rewards in the afternoon. Experts do believe creativity tends to spike in the afternoon — but only because people are too depleted to maintain focus and are therefore more willing to let their minds wander. With everything else working against it, it’s no wonder that the afternoon is generally considered the best time to take a nap.
And with most people claiming the morning or evening as their peak, it can be hard to know where we late-in-the-day bloomers fit in or how to structure our time accordingly. We might be a minority, but fortunately the workday is built to our advantage. If you feel your senses begin to sharpen around 3 p.m., just around the time when all your peers start dragging, then by all means, harness that energy. Just be deliberate about how you do it.
First, though, it’s helpful to understand the basics of your circadian rhythm—the 24-hour internal body clock, ordered by the brain’s hypothalamus gland, that dictates your energy, mood, eating patterns, and sleep/wake cycle. As humans, we all more or less follow the same circadian cycle over the course of each day. In the morning, levels of cortisol, the hormone that boosts energy and increases stress, are generally higher, helping prepare the body to wake up. At night, the onset of darkness triggers the release of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleepiness, signaling to the body that it’s time for bed.
But within this pattern are individual variations, known as chronotypes, that help explain why one person might easily leap out of bed at 6 a.m. while another prefers to burn the midnight oil. “There’s a genetic component to chronotypes. If your parents were morning people, you’re more likely to be a morning person,” explains Colleen McClung, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Neuroscience.
Chronotype is also influenced by age, lifestyle, and environmental factors, especially light and darkness, she says. “Light at night will act to shift your circadian clock back because it suppresses melatonin,” McClung explains. “This is obviously a big problem nowadays, when people are often up late on their electronic devices.” Mealtimes also play a role: “If you’re eating late at night all the time,” she says, “that can shift your rhythms to being more of a night person.”
While it is possible to adjust your internal clock over the long term, doing so requires dedicated daily treatments, such as bright light and melatonin therapy, and adhering to a strict sleep-wake cycle, McClung says. And without a physician-guided plan, going against your natural chronotype can have harmful effects. For example, in McClung’s research, which focuses on the role of circadian rhythms in psychiatric disorders, she’s found that in people with bipolar disorder, one of the most common triggers for a manic episode is a change in sleep schedule. Even if you aren’t prone to depression or anxiety, circadian disruptions can induce chemical changes in the brain.
But why would you want to fight against your internal clock anyway, when yours has you perfectly set up to get things done? “Take advantage of your best time, and set yourself up to be at your best for brief periods here and there,” says Josh Davis, PhD, author of the productivity book Two Awesome Hours.
Zeroing in on a window of time — two hours, or any realistic number you can set aside — to attempt peak productivity will yield better results than working yourself around the clock until you burn out, says Davis: “The performance you get when you’re ‘on’ is going to be so much better.”
Plenty of productivity experts advise tackling your most dreaded or difficult tasks in the morning to get them out of the way — and if your energy starts strong and then dips, that makes sense. But if you’re an afternoon person, you might be doing yourself and your work a disservice by tackling the tough things before you’ve hit your daily stride. Instead, build up to your peak time: Take the morning for the mindless rote work, like answering emails or attending humdrum meetings, and save the more challenging tasks for later, when you’re more alert and fully settled into the groove of the workday.
“There’s tremendous value in clearing all the distractors off your desk,” Davis says. “Stuff piles up as the day goes on. Why not spend the morning clearing away as much as you can?”
To get the most out of your peak productivity window, prepare for it the same way you’d prepare for a meeting by getting into the right headspace and making sure you have everything you need before it rolls around. Gather all your supplies ahead of time — a fully charged laptop, a fresh mug of coffee, and the like — and if possible, seek out a quiet place where you can focus with minimal distractions.
Another way to optimize your afternoon: Do a workout. Everyone knows regular exercise is key for overall physical health and longevity, but brief, vigorous exertion can also serve as a mental refresher and relieve symptoms of anxiety for hours. Research suggests that the afternoon may be an ideal time for exercise, because a higher body temperature makes for more limber muscles and a lower likelihood of injury — and since you’re already at your energy peak, you’ll be more likely to follow through. If you’re trapped in the office, use your lunch break to squeeze in 10 minutes of brisk walking or five minutes of jumping jacks before a crucial work sprint. “Use exercise as a strategic tool to be able to focus for a work session on that same day,” Davis says. “You can get immediate benefits.”
No matter how well you plan and strategize, though, you’ll still have days when you don’t get anything done during your peak time. Morning people can sleep late, and night owls might may want to spend an evening doing nothing. In the same vein, you can cut yourself some slack for not always making the most of the afternoon.
In fact, that can be a good thing. Sometimes the best use of your afternoon is to put that energy toward a mental recharge. “The best cognitive benefit is to completely turn off the information faucet so you can unconsciously process whatever you’re working through,” Davis says. “After a few minutes, you get bored, and that refreshes you.”