How many article headlines have you read about “how productive people spend their mornings” or the “secret morning routines of productive people?” Productive people seem to know exactly how to jump out of bed and start their day right. But keep in mind the people who write these articles or are interviewed for them are a self-selected group. They’re already productive! What about the rest of us? Is there anything special about the early hours that allows us to get more done or increase the chances we’ll accomplish our goals? Should we be focusing on how to spend our mornings, or is it all a load of hooey?
The Promise of Morning
Articles that suggest we can increase productivity by focusing on a morning routine are alluring because they imply we can be more productive without changing anything substantial about ourselves. The focus is on when we do things, rather than what we do or how we do it.
But is there anything to it? Let’s look at what some of the research has found.
Students Get Better Grades in the Morning
One group of people who have been the subject of hard data studies about mornings and productivity are students. Working with a very large corpus of data, Nolan G. Pope (2016) found that students have higher GPAs in math and English class when they are enrolled in morning classes compared to afternoon classes.
The research uses a lot of data. Pope analyzed 1.8 million records from the Los Angeles Unified School District, comprising student-year observations for all students between sixth and eleventh grade between 2003 and 2009.
When he isolated various factors, the results had nothing to do with male versus female students, whether their parents were well educated, or even whether the students were generally high or low performers. Students in morning classes simply did better on average.
Because Pope couldn’t isolate any one cause, he came up with these three theories:
- Students’ learning abilities are higher in the morning (something that proponents of morning productivity routines would like to hear).
- Attendance varies from morning to afternoon. In other words, students cut class in the afternoon, which causes their grades to be lower.
- Teachers do a better job teaching in the morning.
It could very well be some combination of those reasons.
Students Do Better Overall With Later, Not Earlier, Start Times
Ironically, students actually do worse overall in school if the school start time is too early. I researched this topic not long ago while researching a somewhat unrelated topic: driving accidents among teens. Teens get into more car accidents the earlier the school day starts. It turns out that a large portion of teen driving accidents occur while they’re on their way to school. The belief is that kids waking up at 6:00 a.m. to get to school by 7:00 or 7:30 aren’t getting enough sleep, and therefore their focus, reaction times, and cognition are lower, which increases the likelihood of a driving incident.
These studies about school start times are completely separate from studies about morning versus afternoon performance. The former have to do with sleep and circadian rhythm. Pope acknowledges it openly in his work: “For the average adult, the secretion of melatonin starts around 9:00 p.m., peaks between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m., and stops around 7:30 a.m. In adolescents this time schedule is typically shifted two hours later in the day” (citing Cardinali, 2008, and Carskadon, Vieira, & Acebo, 1993). That means teens are only feeling truly awake by around 9:30 in the morning.
So we know that something happens in the morning that allows students to do slightly better in their courses when they learn the material then. And we know that melatonin secretion in adults stops somewhere around 7:30 a.m., meaning any time earlier than 7:30 is, on average, too early to ask the brain to do any heavy lifting. Keep in mind that that’s on average. A person who routinely wakes up at 5 a.m. might find his or her melatonin production stops earlier.
Anecdotally, from interviewing experts in the productivity technology space, I’ve heard the general rule that people hit their productivity stride in the morning, but that it happens at least an hour after waking. I don’t have any hard data for that, though. But it loosely jibes with the idea that we need a little time after melatonin secretion stops to really get going.
People Self-Interrupt More in the Morning
In a study of adults, Laura Dabbish and her co-authors (2001) found that knowledge workers self-interrupt more in the morning than in the afternoon. Self-interruptions are interruptions that are not caused by external factors. For example, taking a break to get a cup of coffee is a self-interruption. Checking Facebook is a self-interruption. But looking at your email inbox when a notification of a new message appears on screen is not a self-interruption because it’s incited by the notification, which is external.
This evidence that we self-interrupt more in the morning and less in the afternoon shakes the notion that mornings are a time for greater productivity.
Dabbish et al. have a hunch that a major reason people self-interrupt is because they remember something they need to do. So maybe the brain is firing so rapidly and thinking about so many things at once in the morning that people tend to have a hard time not letting it interrupt their work.
Later in the day, then, after we’ve had a chance to get all these things to remember out of our heads, we can work without interrupting our own progress so much.
What Can You Do?
Pope notes that “the time-of-day effect on the performance of laboratory and field tasks varies drastically, even for similar tasks” (citing Folkard, 1975; Blake, 1967; Folkard et al., 1976).
Some tasks are particularly well suited to be completed in the morning, and others are not. If we think about all the factors at play—the cessation of melatonin production, self-interruptions, possible increased ability to learn—the research results nudge me to a few conclusions.
- The first hour after waking is not the best time to tackle work or projects that require 100 percent brain power. Instead, the very early morning is probably best spent doing tasks that prepare you for the day but don’t require sharp thinking, such as exercising, eating, packing school lunches, meditating, or journaling (some may disagree with me that meditating or journaling necessitates sharp focus).
- We are likely to self-interrupt during the morning, so have a strategy or rhythm for those interruptions so that they do not derail your productivity. For example, the Pomodoro Technique teaches people to jot down interrupting thoughts on a piece of paper and deal with them during a dedicated break phase.
- Because most people may have a slightly increased capacity to learn during the morning hours, it makes sense to do the work that requires real brain power then and save tasks that are more rote in nature for times of day when we are less focused and a little depleted of the resources/energy that keeps us going.
Blake, M.J.F. (1967). Time of Day Effects on Performance in a Range of Tasks, Psychonomic Science, 9: 349–350.
Cardinali, D. (2008) “Chronoeducation: How the Biological Clock Influences the Learning Process,” in The Educated Brain, Cambridge University Press.
Carskadon, M., Vieira, C., & Acebo, C. (1993). Association between Puberty and Delayed Phase Preference, Sleep, 16(3): 258–262.
Dabbish, L., Mark, G; & Gonzalez, V. M. (2001). Why Do I Keep Interrupting Myself?: Environment, Habit, and Self-Interruption. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: 3127-3130 doi: 10.1145/1978942.1979405
Folkard, S. (1975). Diurnal Variation in Logical Reasoning, British Journal of Psychology, 66(1): 1–8.
Folkard, S., Knuth, P., Monk, T. H., & Rutenfranz, J. (1976). The Effect of Memory Load on the Circadian Variation in Performance Efficiency under a Rapidly Rotating Shift System, Ergonomics, 19: 479–488.
Goldstein, D., Hahn, C., Hasher, L., Wiprzycka, U., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Time of Day, Intellectual Performance, and Behavioral Problems in Morning versus Evening Type Adolescents: Is There a Synchrony Effect?, Personality and Individual Differences, 42(3): 431–440.
Pope, N. G. (2016). How the Time of Day Affects Productivity: Evidence From School Schedules. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 98(1): 1-11.
Image by Drew Perry, CC.