Peak Performance

September 17, 2013


Tackle Tasks at Peak Times

Earlier this month, I met with hundreds of students attempting to balance the competing demands of job interviews, post-interview follow-up, and on-going classwork. This week, I begin my annual tour of new associate orientation programs. Over the next several weeks, I’ll meet with scores of new lawyers who are expected to produce increasing amounts of quality work while balancing the competing demands of multiple supervisors.

All of these clients face the same difficulty: In a 24-hour day, they must accomplish an enormous amount of work.

Successful students and new professionals master a plethora of time management strategies. None may be more important than harnessing the power of their circadian rhythms.

We’re All On the Clock

Each of us possesses a biological clock that affects our mental and physical behavior. Located in the brain’s hypothalamus, our biological clocks respond to darkness by releasing melatonin. During daylight, melatonin secretions subside, resulting in increases in body temperature and blood pressure.

Our internal clocks drive our circadian rhythms. Each of us have a built-in “day” that can be adjusted to our whereabouts. Our circadian rhythms explain why we wake-up at the same time each day, with or without our alarm clocks. It explains the late afternoon slump many of us experience each afternoon, the one that no grandé double espresso alleviates. For those of us who frequently hop time zones, it’s the disruption of our circadian rhythms that causes jet lag, that sluggish feeling that can make travel miserable until our internal body clocks reset.  

Successful professionals concentrate on aligning their work schedules with their circadian rhythms. Doing so enhances efficiency and productivity. It also produces a positive mental state akin to “flow,” a feeling of the mind and body firing on all cylinders.

Beyond enhanced work performance, you should synchronize your work habits with your circadian rhythm for one additional reason: scientists now believe that major disruptions of one’s circadian rhythm can cause significant health problems, including obesity, diabetes, depression and dementia.

Managing Time for Peak Performance

Our biological clocks produce periods every day in which we operate at peak mental, physical and emotional performance. During cognitive peak performance times, adults show improvements in working memory, alertness and concentration.

For the vast majority of adults, the peak mental period occurs throughout the morning hours. Early birds tend to peak between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. Late-risers generally peak between 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 Noon.

If your peak performance time begins around 10:00 a.m., start work earlier in the day, handling routine tasks like reviewing emails and returning phone calls. Then, around 9:30 a.m., silence your phone and turn off your computer’s automatic email notification system. Set aside the next 90 minutes to two hours to focus all of your efforts on your toughest assignment.

For anyone facing a mountain of work, here's the bad news: the afternoon hours are not the ideal time to tackle complex projects. Mid-day hunger causes mental alertness to fade around Noon. In response, most of us stop for lunch. Unfortunately, as soon as our bodies begin to digest food, alertness further diminishes and that slump may continue throughout the afternoon.

What’s the solution? If you need to accomplish a complex task during the afternoon hours, before you begin, take a walk. A brief change in scenery can help refuel dwindling energy reserves.

By the way, if you’re sports-minded, take advantage of the afternoon to hit the gym. Most adults experience peak coordination around 2:30 p.m. and their fastest reaction time around 3:30 p.m. As to cardiovascular efficiency and muscular strength, most adults peak around 5:30 p.m.

Few professionals and professionals-to-be can completely adjust their work schedules to take advantage of their circadian rhythms. However, to the extent you sync the activities you can control with your biological clock, you’ll be more efficient and productive.

To identify your mental peak performance time, spend one week consciously tracking variations in your state of alertness between 6:00 a.m. and Noon.

What Do You Need to Know?

Align your work schedule with your circadian rhythm, and tackle your most complex tasks during your peak cognitive performance time.



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