When’s the Best Time to Work? The Psychology of Brain Performance and Creativity

Written by Bethany Johnson on April 5, 2017

How do successful freelancers manage to do it all? Where do they find the time? Even after you’ve quit your nine-to-five, there are more tasks to tackle than hours in a day. You need to scope and vet new prospects, assemble proposals, pitch ideas to ongoing clients, maintain records and produce deliverables. And that’s just business. Toss in familial and societal duties, and by the time you catch your breath, it’s time to do it all over again — let alone sleep.

The answer isn’t finding more time to work, but instead, learning the best time to work.

The Body Clock

According to the American Psychological Association, younger people tend to perform well mentally during the afternoon hours, when they’re most awake. As you grow older, the trend shifts, and most creatives’ best cognition happens earlier in the day. If you feel baffled by your inability to sit down and jam out great work at 8 p.m. after the kids are in bed, this may be the reason why.

I started freelancing in 2011, when my first baby arrived. I was deprived of sleep but determined to stay productive. It didn’t take me long to start seeing those nighttime feedings as a great time to brainstorm new ideas for clients. As I walked the baby back and forth, I kept a pad and pencil nearby. Every day, as I reviewed the previous night’s notes, I marveled at how intuitive the concepts were and how well each one played out in business.

When the baby began sleeping through the night, I decided to capitalize on my newfound gold mine and set my alarm for 3 a.m. The first few minutes of getting up at that hour were torturous, but once I was up, my productivity was off the charts. It was glorious. To build my career, I decided to keep doing it.

Making It Happen

You’ve probably heard of other go-getter types who set the alarm and wake up before the rest of the world to knock out to-do’s when they’re mentally fresh. Every time I tell my story, people express how desperately they want to cash in on the benefits of waking up early. More often than not, they say, “I could never do that,” or, at best, “I wish I could do that.”

To clarify, I’m not naturally a morning person. When I described those first few minutes as “torture,” I’m not stretching the truth. It’s brutal. But my mind is superhuman early in the day, and if you think yours may be, too, I urge you to try it. Here are a few tips to make those first few moments out of bed more bearable.

  • Go to bed early. This one is a no-brainer, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Turning the TV off or closing your laptop at 9 p.m. can feel like a form of unusual, self-imposed punishment, but your morning self will thank you for those hours of sleep.
  • Optimize your room for great sleep. This means no night lights. You should turn your text alerts and messaging apps to “silent,” and tell family members not to wake you unless it’s an emergency. Consider nixing heavy meals before bed, and avoiding coffee after 4 p.m. each day. I diffuse lavender essential oil for a calming effect. You should also ensure the bedroom’s temperature won’t have you sweating or shivering a few hours into your snooze.
  • Exercise daily. No, you don’t need to become a swimsuit body coach to enjoy the benefits of regular exercise. But to achieve the best early morning brain performance, a good night of sleep is imperative, and to get that, the experts at Michigan State University recommend a basic workout routine.
  • Set more than your alarm. For less than 10 bucks, I bought an outlet timer that turned on my lamp at the same time my alarm sounded. This made for a cacophony of light and sound — and yes, my lamp was across the room. Even if I felt the urge to sleep longer, too bad. I was up.
  • Get a partner. There’s nothing like finding the best time to work and then realizing you’re not alone. Post a message on Twitter asking if anyone’s up with you working, and you’ll receive a chorus of responses from other go-getters. Or, encourage another freelancer to check in with you online at a certain time each morning to hold you both accountable.
  • Find a 24-hour breakfast joint. Most cities have coffee shops or pancake places that stay open all night. If your 24-hour gym has a cafe, get your workout session in with a good block of early morning creative work.

Have you convinced yourself you have no time? I know how it goes, because I’ve been there. Thankfully, I found what works for me, and as it turns out, my discovery is backed up by science. If you want to join me tomorrow morning, go to bed early tonight, and in the morning, you can be sure I’m awake with you, getting my slice of the freelance pie.

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