Timing is Everything: How to Strategically Plan Your Day

I sat down to write this post 20 minutes ago and instead started a grocery list, consumed 13 almonds (okay, 48 but that’s not important), searched Getty images and watched a video about the secrets of Disneyland while working on a design layout. None of which I sat down to do. But there’s a reason for that. There’s a science behind why I’m useless right now. It’s all about timing. We are efficient at knocking things off our to-do list first thing in the morning and can’t seem to do more than send an email in the afternoon. Or watch a cat video. And I don’t even like cats.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Boston to attend the HOW Design Conference with my friend and Creative Director, Kate Holgate. One of the keynotes was called, Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Dan Pink. The word “scientific” turned me off a little—too left brained. However, it ended up being one of the more memorable talks of the conference. It applies to everyone in the workforce, children in school, parents at home and most definitely me.

Pink states there is a hidden pattern to the day that profoundly affects our mood and performance. Our daily fluctuations are more extreme than we are aware of.


How to strategically plan your day*This chart represents the 80% of the population that goes to bed and wakes at a traditional time. Night owls and insomniacs may have different times of the day for their swings.


Does that mean that everything has to be done first thing in the morning? Absolutely not. The best time to perform a task depends on the nature of the task. This is especially applicable to marketing.

Analytical work is best during “peak” (morning) time.

This is the time of day to do any conceptual, thought-intensive work. It’s easier to bat away distractions. As an art director, this is when I should be doing identity creation, UI designs, brand campaign components, etc. Anything that requires focused brain energy to land on strategic solutions. Copywriters should be doing their locked-down writing, the account side of the office should do their brand plans and strategy work.

Administrative work is best during “trough” (early – mid-afternoon) time.

Tasks that do not require massive amounts of creativity are best for this time of day, such as communication. People are “not at their finest” during this period so it’s the ideal time to answer emails, enter time, and organize files. I know that I am in the habit of sitting down first thing in the morning to respond to all of my emails before getting started on creative work. I have to change my habits because I end up blowing my peak with administrative work. Doing creative work during a trough period is like riding a bike uphill in the wind. In the snow. With a flat tire. And it’s a unicycle.

Conceptual work is best during “recovery” (late afternoon – evening) time.

Our mood is on the upswing, we are happy, but we are much less vigilant. This is the ideal time to hold brainstorming sessions, iterative work and client meetings. We can solve the problems with less obvious solutions. People are much less combative during this time of day, so meetings tend to be productive and pleasant.

Pink and his wife will not schedule any hospital visits for their family after lunch. It is proven that every hour in the day, things get worse. Anesthesia errors are 4x more likely at 3 pm vs 9 am. Colonoscopies done in the afternoon versus the morning find half as many polyps.

A study, led by Harvard’s Francesca Gino, looked at 2 million standardized tests for Danish students. For every hour later in the day, scores deteriorated. If two students were tested, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the student who tested in later would perform as if they’d missed two weeks of school. That’s pretty alarming. I wish I could blame my ACT score on the hour of the day, but I took it at 9 am.

Now what?

Be deliberate in planning your day and your team’s day to help everyone work smarter. WHEN people work is just as important as WHAT they do. Put your headphones on right when you sit down and vigilantly get to work. Don’t sabotage yourself by quickly checking what’s happening on Facebook. Before you know it, your Peak will be gone. Hit your analytical to-do list hard first thing in the morning. Plan to tackle emails right after lunch. And, if you’re me, use this time to clear off your desk so you can see what it looks like.

Strategically plan meetings for the time of the day that will be the most beneficial. If the meeting is analytical, it happens first thing. If it’s the administrative, trough and if you want to present your new creative to the client, do it towards the end of the day when they are feeling happy. Take more deliberate social, fresh air, and fully detached breaks. And according to Dan Pink, absolutely do NOT schedule a kidney replacement after 10 am.