Your 'Best' Hours Might Not Be Your Most Productive

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Most people lean one way or another on the clock. Some of us get our second—or first—wind once the sun goes down, while others spring out of bed in the morning, ready to greet the day. Our 9-to-5 society has created a distinct advantage for morning people, but the nocturnally inclined are every bit as productive, especially when they can set their own schedules. However, authors of the new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology say the reverse is also true: Both morning and night people can be equally unproductive—especially if they set their minds to it.

It’s called self-sabotage or self-handicapping: finding excuses for messing up rather than doing what you need to do. (Need an example? Think about the time you stayed out way too late before a job interview, or every embarrassing story that starts, “So I’d had a bit too much to drink …”) Like many personality traits, the tendency to self-sabotage lies on a spectrum, with some people falling prey to excuses more than others.

Curious about the intersection between self-sabotage and time of day, the Indiana University researchers designed an experiment to test how being a morning vs. night person affected self-sabotaging behavior at different times of the day. They brought in 237 undergraduate students under the guise of giving them a new type of intelligence test. Two weeks before the test, the participants completed questionnaires that evaluated their circadian type and their tendency to self-sabotage. This information was hidden from the researchers, who then randomly assigned each student a testing slot at either 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.

All of the participants filled out surveys that measured their stress levels before the test, and then half of the students were offered an opportunity for self-sabotage: a note on their tests mentioned that stress could affect their test results. The others were explicitly told that stress wouldn’t make a difference.

Given what we know about circadian rhythms and performance, the researchers reasonably expected to find that we’re more likely to shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot during our weakest hours (nights for morning birds and before noon for night owls). But their study results suggested the opposite.

Self-sabotaging students who were told that stress would hurt their scores reported higher levels of stress—but only if they took the test during their “good” hours. In other words, excuse-prone morning people were more likely to stress out in the morning if they thought the stress would hurt them. All the students in off-peak testing slots reported the same amount of stress.

The study creators say these results suggest that sabotaging ourselves is hard work, and that it’s best accomplished and most likely during our sharpest, most energetic hours. “What this study tells us is that self-handicapping requires thought and planning,” co-author Ed Hirt said in a statement. “People who are feeling uncertain about themselves and start to fear that they might fail are more likely to identify potential excuses and self-handicap when they're at their peak than when they're not.” 

What a waste of energy. Rather than worrying about the time of day, says lead author Julie Eyink, “working to avoid self-handicapping—through actions such as healthful practices, seeking help or counseling—is the best strategy.”

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