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To get the most out of your workday, consider your ‘inner clock’

Written by: Karin Bodewits
Published on: Oct 18, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by grmarc/iStock

Ruth, a final-year Ph.D. student, is hunched over her laptop at her oversized kitchen table, typing vigorously, when her flatmate Louisa walks in.

"If you continue like this, you'll be finished with your thesis by midnight!" Louisa exclaims.

"What a pity I am not writing my thesis," Ruth responds sheepishly.

"Working on one of those papers you've been trying to finish?" Louisa asks hopefully.

"No, I haven't done anything like that today," Ruth admits. "I'm writing a protocol for Derk."

Ruth knows she should write her papers and her thesis. But she simply can't get more than a sentence or two on paper. She is mystified by Louisa, who started a career as a science journalist after finishing her Ph.D. and clearly has the writing bug. Louisa never seems to have a problem getting words on paper.

A few weeks earlier, Ruth asked Louisa how she maintains her concentration for writing. Louisa pointed at her phone and said, "Airplane mode. That is the secret." So Ruth now turns her phone off during her writing time each afternoon, but it doesn't help. Most days she finds herself roaming around the kitchen while sipping tea. After an hour or two of trying to get the words down, she gives up and does some other work.

"I don't have my phone on, and my email is off—I still can't concentrate," Ruth says apologetically.

This time, Louisa offers a new explanation. "It's because you're tired by the time you need to concentrate," she says. "You're a lark, but you schedule your day like an owl."

Ruth raises her eyebrows. "Are you talking about astrology? I don't make decisions based on the relative positions of celestial objects."

"Of course not!" Louisa exclaims. "I'm talking about biological rhythms. Take me, for example. During my Ph.D., I realized I do my best work in the afternoons and evenings. Sometimes I used to fight it. When I had important things to do, I thought I should take care of them first thing in the morning. But that didn't work for me. I needed to give myself some time to clear my head and take care of more routine tasks on my to-do list before I could dive into my more challenging work. I'm an owl."

"Alright," Ruth muses. "Well, I'm usually in bed by 11 p.m. and working at 8 a.m. I am not an ornithologist, but I wouldn't call that the biorhythm of an owl."

"You're right; you're a lark. Larks have their best hours in the morning. You waste these golden hours on tasks that don't require intense focus, like responding to emails, and then try to write in the afternoon. This timing works for an owl, but not for a lark."

Ruth contemplates this for a minute and a slow smile works its way across her face. "Do I need to eat worms for breakfast, too? Or can I stick to oat?"

"Do you see me regurgitating owl pellets after I eat?" Louisa reciprocates.

"It explains some stuff I find lying around every now and then," Ruth jokes.

"Then add some worms to your breakfast bowl!"

The moral of the story

Oftentimes we know what we need to do, but we may not put much thought into the best times to do it. That's a mistake. Studies show that we each have an "inner clock" that influences what times of day are best for us to perform different types of tasks; Daniel Pink's book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing offers a useful introduction to the research.

So, consider scheduling your day based on your inner clock. Ask yourself: What time of day are you the most motivated? When are your peak concentration hours? Treat these hours as precious. Block them in your calendar and use them to do what is most crucial to nurture your professional life: Learn a new skill, read and write papers, focus on a grant proposal, or whatever other priorities you may have at the moment. Turn off your email and phone notifications. Try to limit meetings during this time. Keep your office door closed if necessary. And take a break before starting so you are not interrupted by a growling stomach.

Also consider a separate but related question: When are you most creative? For some, creativity arises when they can concentrate; others are more creative at other times of the day. Use your creative time to search for inspiration about a new research idea or the solution for that problem you have been struggling with. It can also be the time to write an engaging introduction or design a poster.

Lastly, there are hours when you are more "hands-on" productive but do not have the best concentration. That is the time to spend at the bench, replying to routine emails, doing machine maintenance, calling a supplier, or grading exams.

All of this work is important and needs to be done. But try to be strategic about when you tackle different types of tasks. Take your inner clock into account. You may be surprised by how efficient and effective you can be.

Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.

Karin Bodewits is an author, a speaker, and the co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers.