Focus, focus, focus… Wait, what was I supposed to be doing again? You don’t have to be an especially forgetful person to experience this thought process at least a couple of times each day. Focusing—especially in this modern world of Instagram, iPhones, and the ability to have 10-plus tabs open in a browser at the same time (a blessing and a curse)—can feel particularly difficult, even when your job depends on it. We can’t tell you why we’re suddenly watching a live feed of newborn kittens instead of drafting that email to our boss—only that it happens, and happens often. And we can’t help but wonder—does time have anything to do with it? Namely, are there certain times of day when our brains are more prone to zeroing in on a task and others when we're more likely to be distracted? We did some digging and looked to science for the answer. Keep scrolling to see what we found!
In order to understand when your body and brain function optimally, you need to understand why it does so. Enter circadian rhythms, a biological process that “involves physical, mental, and behavioral changes” that roughly follow a 24-hour cycle and respond primarily to light and dark. (We talk about how it affects your sleep cycle here.) It’s the reason some people are naturally night owls while others are morning people. Your circadian rhythm is unique to you and determines the peaks and lows of your ability to focus and get work done. Here’s how it affects your productivity…
In a study led by Robert Matchock, researchers found that morning people focus and perform best early in the morning while night owls perform best at night. This might seem simplistic, but it’s true—instead of forcing yourself into a schedule that feels unnatural, let your body’s natural circadian rhythm guide your productivity and focus. However, Matchock did find that self-reported alertness increased in the first half of the day for all participants but only decreased for morning people as the day went on. As for distractions? Matchock says most people were most easily distracted between the hours of 12 and 4 p.m. So, when it doubt, save your studying and focus time for the morning, before noon. (Unless you’re a full-blown night owl, in which case embrace it fully and save your work for later in the day.)
Along with knowing the best time to focus, it’s also important to know the right way to focus. If you’re used to cramming for hours at a time with no break, you’re probably not being as productive as if you were taking short breaks in between. In a study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration, short breaks between longer working sessions resulted in 16% improvement in awareness and focus. Another study by researcher Dr. Alejandra Lleras found that adding two brief breaks to a group’s assigned task allowed them to stay focused during the entire experiment, as opposed to the control group, which performed the 50-minute task without breaks or diversions and saw a significant decline in performance. If you need to, set an alarm on your phone or calendar to remind yourself to take a break (even if it’s just a walk to the kitchen for another cup of coffee.)
And finally, ready for a surprising twist? When it comes to creative thinking, your best ideas might actually come when you’re most fatigued—i.e., the end of the night—according to researcher Mareike Wieth in this 2011 study in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. Why? Wieth says fatigue allows your mind to wander more freely to explore alternative solutions, since being tired makes it less efficient at remembering traditional connections between ideas or concepts. So next time you find yourself in need of a brilliant idea, give yourself some wiggle room—you might just come up with it right before bed.
Were you surprised by any of these findings? Click here to find out seven habits of highly productive people!