The complete guide to structuring your ideal work day

Optimize your schedule.
Optimize your schedule.
Image: Reuters/Russell Boyce
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Optimizing your work day to maximize your productivity and happiness admittedly isn’t a hard science. Differences in body chemistry, sleep routine, personality, profession, and office culture mean that one person’s ideal day is another’s productivity nightmare. But there are some evidence-based guidelines you can follow to get yourself on the right track. Here’s our take on a top-notch schedule:

When you first wake up

Unfortunately, it’s hard to say exactly when one should wake to start the day right. Adults need seven to nine hours sleep, but your exact wakeup time just needs to be consistent. Do you like waking up before the rest of your household, and spending a few hours on your own? Great, but try to do so every day. The same goes for those who are hitting the snooze button until it’s time to rush out the door. If you’re used to waking up late every morning, the day you decide to rise at dawn will be an unpleasant one.

If at all possible, resist the urge to inhale a cup of coffee first thing in the morning. Instead, wake yourself up with a shower and a light breakfast. Your body’s production of cortisol, a hormone that promotes alertness, peaks on average between 8am and 9am anyway (or about 30-45 minutes after you wake). Of course, early risers might feel the need to sneak in an extra cup before 8am anyway. No one will know but you.

Before leaving for work

Send out emails that don’t require a response straight away—particularly ones that might require some thought before the recipient can respond. Our reasoning: Most people check emails first thing in the morning. According to a 2014 survey by Pew Research, 44% of American cellphone owners sleep with their phone next to their bed. And online marketing software company HubSpot reported in 2012 that emails sent at 6am tend to have higher open rates. But you don’t want to force your colleagues to get bogged down writing responses on their way out the door: 6am is a time for reading emails, not a time for answering them at any length.

Get creative on your commute

If at all possible, zone out and have a good think (perhaps about the emails you’ve got to answer) while you’re still on the groggy side: Research suggests that innovation and creativity peak whenever your alertness dips. To get a more precise read on your best time for deep thoughts, take this quiz to estimate your body’s natural rhythm.

Settle down and drink

Caffeine addicts rejoice: Peak coffee time is between 9:30 and 11:30am. Your cortisol levels start to dip after 9am and don’t pick up until noon, so a caffeine boost is most effective during your first couple of hours at the office. If you want to keep track of your caffeine levels throughout the day, try Jawbone’s UP Coffee app. When you enter your caffeinated beverage (or medication, like Excedrin) of choice, the app estimates how long your body takes to metabolize it. Remember: A healthy adult can have as much as 400 mg of caffeine a day without worrying about jitteriness or other side effects. That’s around two to three 8-oz cups depending on the strength of the brew. Choose wisely.

From 9am until lunchtime, get your toughest work done

University of Southern California biologist Steve Kay told The Wall Street Journal that most adults do their best focused work in the late morning. Rising body temperature gives concentration, memory, and alertness a boost. All of those benefits start to decline around noon—especially after a meal.

Take a real lunch break if you can

Taking regular breaks is great for your productivity. In fact, you probably shouldn’t work for more than an hour straight before taking a quick breather to disengage. But taking a longer break in the middle of the day will set you up for a more productive afternoon. Leave your desk, take a walk, enjoy some pleasure reading or a spot of TV in the office canteen. Consider it a meditative break.

But we understand that lunch often happens at your desk and without much fanfare. Try to get in a few minutes of non-work regardless, and check out this handy guide to foods that will keep you awake later.

Afternoon coffee and email interlude

Around 2pm is the perfect time for your second caffeine infusion, because your cortisol levels will start to dip again. According to email service provider MailChimp, it’s also another peak email opening time. It’s a great time of day to catch people sitting at their desks, so 2pm is the right time to send emails you want answered promptly.

Brush your teeth at 2:30

You’ve now reached the most sluggish part of the afternoon slump, and that 2pm cup of coffee or tea is just starting to work its magic. In the meantime, we happen to think that a brief dental hygiene break can do wonders for your mood. You need to wait half an hour after eating or drinking before brushing in order to protect your teeth from undigested food acid, so don’t jump the gun.

Check out our complete guide to brushing in the office for more pointers.

As your attention wanes, think deep thoughts

Just as your early morning grogginess can lead to surprisingly good creative thinking, you’ll find your creative powers peaking when your body most wants to nap.

Consider an evening workout

Your muscle strength and lung capacity are in a great place around 5pm, so it’s the perfect time to work out if your schedule allows for it. But as the American Heart Association points out, the best time to exercise is whatever time you’re most likely to do it. And whether it’s at 5am, 5pm, or in 10-minute intervals several times a day, a workout might actually help you maintain a better balance between work and your personal life. Taking the time to get fit can make you feel like you’re more in control of your schedule, and have more time to yourself.