Do you work better at certain times of the day and fight sleep at others? Suffer through a post-lunch haze of drowsiness? Get a burst of energy just as the workday is winding down?
Through the course of any given day, we all have natural peaks and troughs in our energy levels that can affect our alertness and ability to concentrate. These fluctuations in cognitive performance may largely be due to the influence of circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms are the 24-hour sleep-wake cycles that direct a wide range of biological functions—not just when we go to sleep and wake up, but virtually every element of our physiology. Circadian influences on human physiology have been extensively researched, but scientists are just beginning to understand their impact on cognitive performance.
Some studies have demonstrated that individual differences in patterns of circadian arousal—the time of day that we are most alert—correlate with performance on a variety of cognitive tasks, and that such performance peaks more or less regularly at a specific point in the day. For “morning types,” performance generally peaks in early morning hours, while “evening types” perform better in the late afternoon.
Are you a lark, cheerful and talkative in the morning? Or an owl, coming alive after the sun goes down? The answer may depend on your age. Older adults tend to be morning types, while younger adults show an opposite pattern. When tested at various points throughout the day, both young and older adults show dramatic differences in memory performance. But younger people tend to improve as the day progresses, while older people generally exhibit a decline.
As we age, there appears to be a shift in our circadian arousal patterns toward a morning type, and this shift seems to begin around age 50. Fewer than 2 percent of older adults show a tendency toward evening arousal, while nearly 80 percent are morning types. This change in the phase of circadian rhythms and the sleep-wake cycle seems to have some relationship to the phase of the melatonin and core temperature rhythms of individuals.
These patterns suggest that morning may be the best time for older adults to undertake challenging cognitive tasks, and that late afternoon or evening may be best for younger people. These are generalizations, not hard-and-fast rules. By paying close attention to your own fluctuations in energy, alertness, and mental clarity throughout the day, you can learn to recognize your own patterns and adjust your activities accordingly. If you want to make the best use of your time, it is extremely important to find out what time of day you learn the best. Find this “zone” is what separates those who are extremely efficient and productive and those who are just getting by. So find out what time of the day you peak at and do your most crucial and important work then.
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