Building the perfect day

Building the perfect day

Hack your routine to make every hour count

By Holly Pevzner

Published: Fri 26 Jun 2015, 1:59 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 Jul 2015, 10:24 AM

Building the perfect day

We start every day hoping it’ll be great, maybe even perfect. But then, after snoozing, commuting, sitting in meetings, and grabbing junk food, we realise that, once again, we haven’t exercised, engaged with family and friends, or knocked much of anything off our to-do list. Staying up late, hoping to be productive, we manage only to watch TV and check Facebook before collapsing — and then starting all over again.

We can do better.

Believe it or not, most of us have the opportunity to get more done. We actually spend more time on leisure than ever before, according to the US-based Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, dedicating about five hours and 16 minutes a day to pursuits we perceive as pleasurable, like socialising and watching TV (although research finds no correlation between the latter and feelings of satisfaction). But we increasingly experience our free time in small, scattered chunks, says Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus of leisure science at Pennsylvania State University.

The foundation of any perfect or even half-decent day is adequate rest. As you can imagine, most of us start out behind. Our bodies run on an internal 24-hour chronobiological clock; when the retina captures light, a message sent to the brain suggests to this clock what time of day the body should think it is. It’s a system that has served us well for most of human history. “But over the last couple of generations, these natural rhythms have been gravely disrupted,” says Michael Grandner, the assistant director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Our near-constant exposure to artificial light has made nighttime effectively optional, leaving our bodies and brains struggling to do tasks that feel off schedule.

Can we fix our day? Absolutely. Researchers in sleep health, nutrition, cognition, fitness, and productivity are working to identify where our modern schedules have gone wrong and how to better set ourselves up for success. We now know that with a handful of hacks, both large and small, and some changes to preconceived notions, we can reconstruct our 16 waking hours to maximise productivity, leisure, and connection, while restoring alignment with our core chronobiological instincts.

You don’t need to follow this suggested schedule to the minute, but its consistency and healthier routines can bring you a lot closer to a more perfect day: 



No universal wake-up time will fit everyone, says Ken Wright, the director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, but it’s ideal to rise when your body is best prepared — at the conclusion of REM sleep. We experience our longest nightly period of REM right before we naturally wake up. When is that? It’s so rare to wake without an alarm that many of us don’t know, but the amount you sleep on vacation should give you a good idea. Then track backward: if you need 7.5 hours of sleep to feel your best; need to be at work by 8am; need an hour to get ready; and have a one-hour commute, then a bedtime of 10:30pm, with a wake-up time of 6am might be best. If you can rise without an alarm, all the better, because when you hit the snooze button, you coax your brain to rewind to the beginning of the sleep cycle, making it that much harder to wake up feeling refreshed, according to research by Edward Stepanski of Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center. 



Eat within one to two hours of waking, says psychologist and dietitian Ellen Albertson. It may be 10 to 12 hours since your last meal, and your brain needs fuel. “Your brain is only about two per cent of your body weight, but it consumes up to one-fifth of your body’s energy intake,” she says. “When you raise blood-sugar levels with breakfast, you increase your energy and improve mood.” Bonus: Your metabolism is at its peak in the morning, so your body efficiently uses most of what you consume, depositing less in fat stores. 



The best time to go outdoors and get moving is within two hours of waking up, says Jacqueline Olds, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The UV component of sunlight is low,” she says, “but the bright light sets you on a good course of wakefulness.”

The morning is a great time for a workout at your gym as well. Brigham Young University researcher James LeCheminant found that 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous morning exercise reduces the urge to eat throughout the day, but if that’s not possible, he suggests that you fit it in whenever your daytime schedule allows, because it still provides cognitive benefits and fosters restful sleep. “Pick the time when there are the fewest barriers,” he says, noting that this is often in the morning because the day’s events haven’t interfered yet. 



Messages sent between 6 and 10am are much more likely to be read promptly than those sent between 10am and noon, when people are more focused on work, says Dan Zarrella, the author of The Science of Marketing.

The average person spends 28 per cent of the work week managing email, one reason 26 per cent of us label ourselves chronic procrastinators. Limiting temptation by quitting your email app when you’re not using it can be instrumental in reclaiming your day. 



You may be used to pouring your first cup much earlier, but it will do more for you if you wait until later in the morning. “Our circadian clock controls the release of cortisol, a hormone that makes us feel alert and awake,” Albertson says. “Production is usually highest between 8 and 9am, when most of us drink coffee,” negating the usefulness of the caffeine. This may be why regular coffee drinkers have an average of 3.1 cups a day — the first doesn’t help much. “Drinking caffeine too early can lead to too much cortisol, which can disturb our natural circadian rhythms,” Albertson adds. “It’s much better to drink caffeine between 9:30 and 11:30 when you actually need it.”

10 30 AM


“Alertness follows the same trajectory as core body temperature,” says Matthew Edlund, MD, director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida. Both steadily rise in the morning, then start to decline by early afternoon. This means mid-to-late morning is the best time for mentally taxing activities that take maximum alertness, says Albion College psychologist Mareike Wieth, because we’re less distractible and exceptionally good at screening out irrelevant information. 



Workers who take the most breaks get the most accomplished. In 2014, the Draugiem Group, a social-networking company, tracked the habits of its most productive employees. It discovered that the crème de la crème took 17 minutes of break time for every 52 minutes of work. Yet even though 86 per cent of us know that breaks can aid productivity, more than a quarter of us don’t take any true breaks other than lunch. The reason? One in five of us say it’s guilt.

When University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers tested people’s ability to focus on a repetitive task for 60 minutes, they offered some participants breaks, but not others. “Those who got breaks maintained their focus significantly better than those who didn’t get any,” says study coauthor Alejandro Lleras. Brief breaks, he explains, enable your brain to shift attention to a different goal, so when you go back to your original task, the main goal is reactivated and revitalised. 



Putting lunch off much later can cause your blood glucose to decrease, negatively affecting your ability to focus, and making you start to feel sluggish, Albertson says. While many of us reach for a light lunchtime salad, saving our appetite for a larger dinner, it’s actually wiser to have the bigger meal at noon. “You want to eat more during the day when you need the energy. Having a large meal in the evening, as we traditionally do, signals your body that you’ll be awake for a while,” she says. It’s also vital to remember the “break” part of “lunch break”. University of Toronto researchers found that not taking a proper lunch, away from your desk, can increase fatigue and torpedo productivity. 



If you work at home, or for an especially progressive company, this is the ideal time for a short nap. Sleep clears the brain’s short-term-memory storage, making room for new data. University of California, Berkeley researchers asked people to complete a task designed to tax the hippocampus, the brain region associated with fact-based memories. Afterward, half the group napped. Several hours later, when both groups completed another learning exercise, the nappers performed substantially better. Limit your own nap to 20 to 40 minutes.

If you’re in an office that’s not nap-friendly, and you have paperwork, photocopying, or collating to do — anything that doesn’t require a lot of mental energy — this is the time. “After eating, blood is directed to the digestive system instead of to the brain. This postprandial crash causes focus and concentration to slide,” says University of Iowa psychologist J. Toby Mordkoff, whose research confirms that executive control is at its lowest in the middle of the day, leaving early birds and night owls equally susceptible to distraction. 



By this time, your cortisol levels are starting to dip again. If you’re feeling it, grab another cup of coffee — your final one for the day. “Caffeine has a half-life — the amount of time it takes for the body to eliminate one-half of the total amount — of between three and seven hours,” Albertson says. “Time your last cup so caffeine is out of your system before you’re ready for bed.” 



If you’re not home to pick up your children from school, this is the time to call or Skype with them. “Most parents use bedtime to have talks with their children, but it’s not the best idea,” since kids are tired then, says Cedarhurst, New York, child psychologist Laurie Zelinger. “To really connect, talk after school while their energy is still high.” 



Analysis by the online scheduling service found that this is the time that the most people will say yes to a meeting request. It’s late enough in the day so that all attendees can (at least theoretically) be prepared, and it’s close enough to the end of the day that people know they cannot push the time much later. 



“During the day, eat every three to four hours,” Albertson says. “If you go longer, your blood glucose decreases, impacting alertness and metabolism.” And don’t feel guilty about your diet; the right snack — combining protein and complex carbs — can actually keep you from overeating at dinner. Think plain yoghurt mixed with oatmeal; hummus and veggies; or peanut butter-stuffed celery stalks.




Innovation and creativity actually peak when we’re not at our best, according to a study by Wieth and colleagues. For many of us, that’s between 4 and 5:30pm, although night owls may experience the same effect between 8:30 and 9:30am. “We found that during the non-optimal time of day, our cognitive processes are not functioning as well,” she says. “We’re less able to tune out irrelevant info. But having that seemingly irrelevant info in our heads leads to new ways of thinking and innovation.” 



“Early evening is when a majority of people — whether larks or owls — feel quite alert and sociable, making it a good time for group work if you’re still at the office, or for getting together with friends or a partner if you’re not,” Edlund says. The timing may be a holdover from our hunting-and-gathering days. “Dusk is when people had to be especially aware to stave off dangers they couldn’t see,” says Harvard’s Jacqueline Olds. “It was the time of day we’d group together for safety.” 



Consuming food elevates body temperature, which signals your body to stay awake, Albertson says. Eating dinner less than three hours before bedtime can interfere with sleep — and greatly increase your chances of nighttime reflux, according to research reported in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. A full post-meal stomach produces gastric distention, causing the lower esophageal sphincters to relax. Coupled with lying down horizontally to sleep, these conditions can result in reflux. 





If you’re a Facebook user, post a status update at 8pm when your chance of garnering Likes peaks. A study co-authored by psychologist Stephanie Tobin of the University of Queensland found, not surprisingly, that all those thumbs-up icons positively influence our sense of belonging, meaningfulness, and self-esteem, which can deliver a major late-day mood spike. While you’re online, share the love. “You’ll satisfy friends’ needs and set up a positive cycle of reciprocity,” Tobin says.

But logging off is at least as important. According to the 2013 Sleep in America poll, most of us are still engaged with a TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone within an hour of bedtime. No matter what you’re doing on a screen, shut it down two hours before you go to sleep. Exposure to these electronics suppresses production of melatonin, a hormone that helps prepare the body for rest. When you delay that signal, you make it harder to fall asleep. 



It’s not a luxury: our temperature naturally dips at night to help us get ready for slumber. Taking a hot bath ups body temperature, but the rapid drop afterward prepares you for sleep, Edlund says. To maximise the effect, make the bath as hot as you can comfortably stand. 



Reading is relaxing and helps prepare the brain for rest. It’s also best in general to read in a quiet, comfortable setting, and that’s most likely achieved at the end of the day, says psychologist Michael Masson of the University of Victoria. When we read amid distractions, he says, the information being processed in our working memory is disrupted, so we retain less. 



It’s bad news for Jimmy Fallon, but since most of us need seven to eight hours of sleep to stay healthy and perform at our best, we should turn in before any late-night show kicks off. But there’s a reason Fallon is so popular: only 47 per cent of us meet our sleep minimum during the workweek, according to a poll. At the end of the day, there’s only one way to get that sleep: go to bed. It may take a few weeks to turn a new and improved sleep schedule into a habit, but the payoff — a more perfect day — is worth it.


There’s no question that some of us like to wake with the sun and others prefer to stay up all night. It’s not simply personal preference: research indicates that the tendencies are at least partly genetic, and MRI studies have found the brains of self-identified “morning people” to be most engaged at 9am, with that excitability slowly decreasing throughout the day. For night owls, brain function peaks at 9pm. It’s generally acknowledged that our nine-to-five workday, and even earlier school day, favours early birds. It’s probably one reason that studies find night owls to be generally less happy and healthy than average — although they can shift their sleep-wake cycle earlier by limiting nighttime exposure to artificial light and maximising exposure to daytime natural light.

— Psychology Today

Illustrations by Rajendran

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