Life in Routine


As Miles Davis once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” While he was likely talking about music and not the day-to-day affairs of students and professionals, the statement nonetheless applies to all of us. We spend much of our lives trying to be on time, meet deadlines and get the most efficient results out of what time we have. We spend so much of our life living by the clock that, there’s a very strong emotional pattern that most of us exist in from Monday to Friday.

There is an emotional pattern to our daily lives.

People love their daily routines. Day in and day out, we brush our teeth, have a shower, get a cup of coffee, take the dog for a walk, check the mailbox, read the news and so forth. But did you know that, in parallel to these habits, there’s another, subtler pattern to our daily lives?

Researchers at Cornell University looked at Twitter to try and get a sense of the prevailing moods of people during a typical day. By examining 500 million tweets from over a two-year period, they saw a very clear pattern emerge:

There’s a general feeling of positivity that peaks during the morning, drops swiftly in the afternoon and then climbs back up in the evening. This cycle happens every weekday, to pretty much everyone, regardless of race or nationality.

Of course, Twitter isn’t the best gauge for emotional accuracy since it isn’t exactly known for its honesty. And the software the researchers used to scan for words with certain emotional significance can’t pick up on when those words are being used sarcastically; nevertheless, this same pattern has been noticed in other studies, too:

Behavioral scientists, using what’s known as the day reconstruction method (DRM) to go hour by hour through people’s lives, found the same pattern: positivity or happiness levels peak in the morning, plummet in the afternoon and then rebound, or climb back up, and peak again in the evening.

This daily pattern is known as the morning peak, afternoon trough and evening rebound. Likewise, negativity levels show the exact opposite: they’re on the rise in the afternoon and fall in the evening.

What’s interesting is that this pattern has a very direct impact on the work we do. In a separate study that revealed very similar findings, three professors at American business schools analyzed over 26,000 earnings calls – conference calls between a company’s CEO and the primary investors, where they discuss how things have been going and how they expect things to go in the future. These calls often determine whether stock prices rise or fall.

The study showed that the later in the day the calls took place, the worse the “emotional tenor” was, and, as the day went on, the more negative the calls would get. Across over 2,000 public companies, the advice was the same: conduct your earnings calls bright and early in the morning to keep fresh.

To make the most of your day, understand your chronotype.

So there’s substantial evidence that our emotional levels tend to follow a daily pattern – but that doesn’t mean everyone’s pattern is the same. Although everyone shares the afternoon energy trough, there’s a good chance you have friends or family whose schedule is otherwise different. Studies show that, on average, one in every four people has a differing internal clock, or what’s known as a chronotype. In addition to the normal chronotype, which experiences the morning peak, afternoon trough and evening rebound, there are two others: the night owl and, to use the author’s term for early risers, the lark.

Research suggests that 20 to 25 percent of people are owls, who, like inventor Thomas Edison and novelist Gustave Flaubert, peak around 9:00 p.m., which is when they prefer to get down to business, and tend to experience their positive rebound in the morning. Indeed, studies on sleep patterns and personality types show that owls tend to be more creative types, as well as a bit more neurotic, impulsive and depressive than the usual type.

As for larks, these are the “early to bed, early to rise” folks who simply tend to experience the peak, trough and rebound a few hours earlier than normal. They’re also usually a bit more stable, happy, agreeable and introverted than the rest.To make the most of your day, and to schedule it as efficiently as possible, you should identify your own chronotype and understand that certain tasks are best handled during certain times of the day.

For instance, if you’re among the 60 to 80 percent of people who are neither larks nor owls (a group the author calls the “third bird”), then the morning peak is the best time to handle analytical tasks that require a logical, focused and disciplined mind. As for tasks that require more abstract or “outside the box” thinking, this is best handled during the rebound of the late afternoon and early evening.

However, if you’re an owl, you should reverse this advice. Since your peak is at night, this is the time to think analytically, while the morning is for creative and insightful tasks. No matter who you are, try to schedule the mindless, busy-work tasks during the afternoon trough. And if you’re trying to get a favourable decision from someone, always try to book a morning appointment.

There’s a science to timing and how to get the most out of life. By understanding your own chronotype, taking breaks and naps, leveraging the power of the middle point in projects and writing your future self letters, you can use time to your advantage