January 10, 2018

The secret to keeping your New Year's resolutions: It's a matter of timing, research says.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Dec. 21, 2020.

    Many people tend to think about the "why" and the "how" behind their New Year's resolutions—but few have considered a question that could help them "actually stick to those resolutions: 'When?'" Daniel Pink writes for the Wall Street Journal.

    According to Pink, while most people consider the timing of our decisions more an art than a science, research suggests otherwise. In fact, he writes, "by understanding the science of the day—and by giving more attention to the question of 'when'—we can improve the effectiveness and success of our resolutions."

    How to work better, based on the time of the day

    According to Pink, research indicates people's cognitive performance shifts based on the time of day. To maximize our efficiency at work, people should align their tasks with what research has identified as the three major parts of the day:

    • The peak, cresting in late mornings or around noon, when the "ability to focus is at its best," making it ideal for work requiring "heads-down attention and analysis, such as writing a legal brief or auditing financial statements";
    • The trough, which occurs in the early to midafternoon, when "alertness and energy levels tend to plummet," corresponding with a "fall in our ability to remain focused and constrain our inhibitions"—making it a good time to do "mindless administrative work, such as answering email, filing papers, and filling out expense reports"; and
    • The rebound, occurring in the late afternoon or early evening, when people tend to be a little less vigilant than during the peak, but also more alert and in a better mood than they were during the trough—making this time ideal for "brainstorming sessions and other creative pursuits."

    "The key is to seek what psychologists call the 'synchrony effect'—to bring your own daily rhythms, your task (is it analytical, administrative, or insight?), and your time (is it early, midday, or later?) into alignment," Pink writes. And that alignment may vary from person to person, according to Pink. Night owls, for instance, experience those three parts of the day in reverse. Failure to align your work with your experience of the day can have negative ramifications, Pink adds, citing research showing that "the trough is an especially dangerous time for health care-professionals and their patients."

    How to exercise better

    Research has similar insights on how to schedule a workout to meet personal goals, Pink writes. For instance, research indicates that people should work out in the morning if they would like to:

    • Lose weight, since our bodies in the morning have low blood sugar and will therefore use fat stores to provide needed energy. In fact, research suggests that "morning exercise may burn 20% more fat than later, post-food workouts," Pink writes;
    • Improve their mood, since the mood-enhancing benefits of a morning cardio workout will last all day—as opposed to an evening workout, when those benefits will only last a few hours before sleep; and
    • Establish a routine, as research indicates people are more likely to keep to morning workout routines.

    Meanwhile, people should aim for afternoon or evening workouts if they want to:

    • Avoid injuries, since our muscles in the evening are warmer and more elastic, making injuries less likely;
    • Fine tune their performance, since lung function and strength peaks in the late afternoon or early evening, and our reaction times improve—leading to a disproportionate number of athletic records being set during this time of day; and
    • Enjoy the workout a bit more, since people in the evening tend to perceive they are exerting themselves less—even if they are doing the exact same workout as a morning routine.

    How to be happier and more productive

    According to Pink, many people hope to garner a "broader sense of well-being" through their New Year's resolutions—and a "powerful way to recast your daily routine is to take more breaks."

    But breaks are a science as well, Pink writes, and the ones that best boost our focus and rejuvenate our commitments should be: 

    • Frequent, brief, and physically active: A 2016 study, for instance, found "hourly five-minute walking breaks boosted energy levels, sharpened focus, and 'improved mood throughout the day and reduced feelings of fatigue in the late afternoon'";
    • Communal: According to research, "social and collective rest breaks have been found to minimize physical strain, cut down on medical errors, and even reduce staff turnover" in high-stress jobs, such as nurses;
    • Outdoors: Research suggests that people who walked outdoors were happier and better rested than those who walked indoors—and they tended to underestimate how happy that time outdoors would make them; and
    • Detached: People should avoid multitasking while on a break, making sure to "fully detac[h]" from digital devices to best ease stress and improve their mood, according to research (Pink, Wall Street Journal, 12/29/17).
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