Perfect timing

It’s not what you do, but when you do it. Drawing on scientific research, Antonio Morris explains when to do things for better results in health and performance.

The three phases of the human clock

Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, says our bodies follow three distinct phases: a peak, trough and recovery. The time of day explains 20% of the variance on human performance during cognitive tasks.

Peak time: morning

We’re at our most focused from early to mid-morning, says Pink. “We’re better at analytical work… that requires heads-down focus, vigilance, attention, batting away distractions. You also see… an elevated mood in the morning.”

Trough: mid-afternoon

In the afternoon, energy levels decline, alertness decreases and mood drops. Save this “trough time” for routine admin work, says Pink. “Answer routine emails, fill out expense reports, or do the kinds of things that don’t require a heavy cognitive load.”

Recovery: late afternoon/evening

In the third period, we rebound and are better at insight problems and creative work as “we’re in a slightly better mood, but we’re less inhibited or vigilant”, says Pink.


Exercise for fat loss [morning]

Exercising early in the morning is better for fat loss because it kickstarts your metabolism and makes you less hungry through the day. Morning workouts are also better for creating sustainable exercise habits and getting a good night’s sleep, according to a recent Appalachian State University study.

Exercise for memory [four hours after learning something]

Exercise appears to enhance brain plasticity – the part responsible for memory. Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands and Scotland’s University of Edinburgh found that if you want to learn something new, a bout of intense exercise four hours after an event will maximise long-term memory.

Exercise for performance [evening]

To achieve personal bests at training, your strength, endurance and reaction time are higher in the evening. In a study published in PLOS One, a group of cyclists performed 7% faster in 1km time trials at 6pm compared to 8am. The poorer morning result was due to lower levels of glucose in their systems.

Consuming protein [during mealtimes]

If you want to build lean muscle mass, you’re probably taking protein supplements; however, don’t take them as snacks. A Purdue University study showed that only 59% of participants who took protein between meals lost fat, compared to 87% of those who took it with meals, as the latter are more likely to adjust their calorie intake to compensate for the protein.

Business meeting [morning]

The author of The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink, says that meetings to analyse figures should be held in the morning instead of the afternoon because you’re better able to focus and be analytical, while your audience will also be more negative and irritable in the afternoon. An analysis of CEO earnings calls held in the afternoon showed that they were generally more negative than those in the mornings, to the point where it actually affected the share price.

Brainstorming/creative meetings [late afternoon]

Meetings needing creativity or flashes of insight require a different process to those requiring analytical intelligence, explains Pink. Creative meetings will be most productive in the late afternoon or early evening recovery period, when the mind tends to be less inhibited and more open to creative insights.

Make a sale [morning]

Not only are you sharper in the morning, but those listening are more receptive. You’re less likely to impress in the afternoon, when people are tired and irritable. A study of the Israeli Parole Board showed parolees were six times more likely to be sent back to prison if their case was heard in the afternoon, when judges were less forgiving.

Hospital surgery [morning]

Try to get that operation scheduled in the morning because statistics show mistakes in hospitals increase in the afternoon. Duke University researchers who analysed 90,000 surgeries found anaesthetists were three times more likely to make errors for procedures beginning at 3pm than at 8am.

Watch the clock, not the scale [8am-2pm]

When you eat is just as important as what you eat. Researchers have found that intermittent dieting can be turbocharged by shifting the eating window to earlier in the day, between 8am and 2pm. Called early time-restricted feeding (eTRF), it aligns your meals to your circadian and metabolic rhythms. Studies show that even when calories are the same, people lose more weight eating all their food for breakfast than for dinner. Scientist Dr Bill Lagakos says that’s because metabolism is “gimped” at night, when our bodies have a lower metabolic rate and greater propensity to store fat.