Have you ever felt like an ant pushing a boulder up a mountain?

A deadline for an important project is looming. You’re pushing hard to get this completed, but you can’t seem to make any progress.

It’s a constant “one step forward, two steps back” exercise. After repeated attempts to push ahead, you grow weary. Soon, this task might get pushed to the back burner, even when the consequences for missed deadlines are dire.


Rest assured, you’re not alone. Still, to set the stage for your best life stage yet, it’s important to sync up with your natural tendencies.

Lyrics from a 1965 hit song by the folk rock group, The Byrds, come to mind…

“To everything – turn, turn, turn.

There is a season – turn, turn, turn.

And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

Let’s explore the science behind perfect timing to make sure you’re doing the right thing, at the right time. After all, time is too precious to waste at any age.

Timing Is Everything

Best-selling author Dan Pink explores a wealth of research and fascinating stories in his latest book, WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. While I recommend you give this book a read, I’d like to share a few highlights, starting with our day-to-day natural tendencies or circadian rhythms.

Pink outlines three phases most people navigate through in any given day:

The Peak

For most, the peak kicks in during the morning hours. It’s a time when our brains are wired for heads-down thinking and complex analytical tasks.

Is there a major project you need to advance? Consider blocking off time from 9am to 11am to have a better shot at making progress. If possible, shut the door and turn off digital devices to minimize distractions.

The Trough

The perilous trough phase tends to hit in the early afternoon for most people. It’s a phase where energy and cognitive skills dip sharply. Therefore, this would not be your best time to take on difficult, deep-thinking endeavors.

Less taxing administrative tasks are better choices during this period when we’re moving a bit slower and our brain isn’t firing on all cylinders. Pink refers to the afternoon trough as the “Bermuda Triangle of our days.

Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics and health.” Pink recommends avoiding hospitals in the afternoon, if you can. Studies show that hand-washing in hospitals deteriorates in the afternoon and anesthesia error rates run higher.

The Recovery

The recovery is a creative surge phase that tends to hit in the late afternoon – typically around 3:30 or 4pm. For those working jobs, the finish line is in sight, yet your brain is warmed up and loose enough for one more productive rally before you head home.

The recovery stage was a surprise for me, but as I leaned in to this creative thinking zone a bit more, new and more actionable ideas started to emerge.

Going a step further, I started to schedule 4pm calls with other innovative pals, so we could brainstorm together. Sometimes I’d get an idea and I’d apply ‘peak’ brain power on the following morning, to flesh it out further.


With this three-phase circadian groove established, there’s one more thing we need to consider: chronotypes – which speak to individual sleep patterns during a 24-hour period.

In his book, Pink goes on to explore three chronotypes: Larks, Owls and Third Birds. Obviously, Larks are the early risers, while Owls are more apt to hit the snooze button and catch a few more zzz’s.

As for Third Birds, where most of us fall, they’re a hybrid mix of the two extremes, though they tip slightly in favor of lark schedules. By the way, if you’re an owl, your trough may not hit until late afternoon or early evening, so plan accordingly.

It’s interesting, but many people shift chronotypes across their lifetimes. Young children tend to be larks, while many gradually transform into teenage owls. I’ll bet many parents are nodding in agreement over that revelation.

Later, in our 60s, lark tendencies dominate. Today, more people age 60 and older are striving for a blend of work and leisure in these later stages of life.

If that’s you, before you retire from your job you might consider pitching a part-time freelance gig to your current employer. Choose a gig that will allow you to apply your best skills doing work you enjoy during the morning peak brain-power hours.

Your Best Timing Benchmarks Are Your Own

With all this fascinating research on the table, here’s the big takeaway: your best benchmarks are your own. There are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to all – merely tendencies that apply to most.

Now would be a good time to start journaling to better understand your own natural tendencies. Experiment a bit more, tackling different types of tasks during different times of the day to arrive at your ideal performance and sleep schedule.

How about you? Are you a Lark, an Owl or a Third Bird? What tips can you share to help us push through the trough phase? Please join the conversation and share your observations.

Donna KastnerDonna Kastner is founder of Retirepreneur, a collaborative community for professionals in their 50s and 60s, striving for a smooth segue from full-time job to part-time consulting practice. Through articles, videos, podcasts and workshops, Donna’s ushering in new conversations about blending work and retirement. You can visit her website here, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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