The Natural Reason Why It’s Impossible to Be Productive All Day

With plenty of help from science.


Max Phillips

3 years ago | 4 min read

2:55 pm: the post-lunch slump. Familiar with it?

Research from London-based property experts suggests you’re most likely to start flagging around then. The same study concluded that 10:26 am is the most productive time, with 4:16 pm in second place.

While you may want to be a productive workaholic all day long, your body doesn’t. This is because of your circadian rhythm, which, according to Harvard Business Review, is the natural “ebb and flow in our ability to feel alert or sleepy.”

If you don’t listen to this “ebb and flow,” you’re on a one-way train to burnout, which is more challenging to confront.

Productivity is important, but you first need to understand your body. Here’s how.

Successful People Seem to Have One Thing in Common

If you happen to be a morning person, it’s because your brain has leaked the right amount of chemicals. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says:

“Sometimes chemicals act more like a leaky hose where they just kind of flood into the space between neurons and — what they do is they turn up the dial or down the dial on neural firing. They just make it easier for neurons to talk to each other or harder.”

So, if you’re firing on all cylinders at 7 am, thank your leaky hose of a brain. But it isn’t for everyone.

I rarely ever wake up before 8 am, and although I’d perhaps like to, my brain eventually starts firing at around 10 am. Since I’m self-employed, listening to my body's natural rhythm is vital. Sure, I could get up at 7 and fit more work in, but the quality is just as important as the quantity.

As beardless men around the world will know, go with the grain and you’re less likely to suffer.

Despite this, most people prefer early mornings. CBS claim that 55% of people are most alert between 5 am and 12 pm. Yahoo’s Melissa Mayer supposedly gets four to six hours of sleep every night, while Apple’s Tim Cook and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey both get up at the crack of dawn for some exercise.

To that, I say: good for them. But it isn’t everything.

Being a Morning Person Doesn’t Matter

Firstly, your brain needs 30–60 minutes to feel alert after waking up, according to a sleep specialist. You can wake up as early as you like, but your brain still needs time to adjust.

Secondly, being a morning person isn’t the difference between success and failure.

paper from the University of Southampton compared morning people (asleep before 11 pm, awake before 8 am) and night owls (asleep after 11 pm, awake after 8 am). The night owls had larger incomes, scored roughly the same on a cognitive test, and showed no reported health differences.

The comparison doesn’t stop there.

Night owls have more sexual prowess, but they also procrastinate more and tend to drink and smoke. Morning people consider themselves to be happier and healthier. The two could trade blows all day.

Above all, your body knows what’s best for you. Besides, while your brain might not “turn up the dial on neuron firing” at the crack of dawn, it will happen.

Accept You Won’t Be Productive 24/7

When I have a rough day of work, I get angry and curse the heavens. Why aren’t I an omnipotent productive machine?? But my body doesn’t work like that, and neither does yours.

Instead, you’ll likely peak in the morning, flag in the afternoon, and then re-energize in a rush to the finish line. Remember, your body and mind don’t have an endless supply of fuel. What works for people like Jack Dorsey and Tim Cook probably won’t work for you.

You don’t need to work more hours to be more productive.

Research suggests that people who work long hours aren’t more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours. According to Entrepreneurhaving a life outside of work can make you more successful, reducing stress and re-energizing you.

Realizing this recently, I replaced my monthly writing goals with social goals. I told myself I’d see my friends more and just aim to have 100% more fun. The next month, I felt completely rejuvenated. Having fun works. Who would’ve thought?

However, it’s difficult to detach yourself from the concept of what journalist Brigid Schulte calls the “ideal worker.”

The Greater Good Magazine from the University of Berkeley perfectly describes it:

“Ideal workers don’t have hobbies — or even interests — that interfere with work, and they have someone else (usually a wife) to stay home with sick children, schedule carpools, and find decent child care. Babies aren’t their responsibility, so parental leave when an infant is born isn’t an issue; someone else will do that.

The ideal worker can jump on a plane and leave town anytime for business because someone else is doing the school pickups, making dinner, and putting the children to bed.”

Put differently, the ideal worker lives to work.

study found that humans will choose to keep themselves busy over idleness even when the task is meaningless. Even those with immense power don’t seem to get it, as Donald Trump once said:

“How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?”

The “ideal worker” doesn’t exist, no matter how many CEOs say they only get three hours of sleep.

Your Body Knows Best

Your natural rhythm is the foundation of your productivity.

By accepting you can’t be productive 24/7, you’re giving yourself a rest from inevitable self-loathing. As you begin to be more open to your body’s limitations, you can appreciate your flaws.

Your natural rhythm won’t let you sacrifice sleep for productivity. Sooner or later, your body will catch up with you. Your alertness ebbs and flows as the chemicals leak in and out of your brain at different times.

You’re not an “ideal worker.” You’re a person. A person who has their ups and downs. Is that so bad?


Created by

Max Phillips







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