As a small business owner, every decision you make impacts your business, and it can mean the difference between positive profits or a torpedo headed for your bottom line. Studies over the past few years have narrowed the timing around decision-making to an exact science, so now you can arm yourself with the tools you need to make smart decisions for your business. There’s truth behind the phrase, “sleep on it.”
Knowing Your Peak Time of Day
Do you want to make critical money moves when you’re in constant overdrive and headed toward the midday slump, or when your mind is clear and focused? Whether you’re an early riser or you get in your groove after everyone else is fast asleep, the data doesn’t lie — the best time to make a decision is in the morning, according to Daniel Pink’s 2018 book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Most people are the most productive within the first two hours of waking up because our brains are wired to make optimal analytical and reason-based decisions at this point in the day.
However, exceptions exist based on your biological clock or “circadian rhythm.” Think of your circadian rhythm as being a 24-hour internal clock in your brain that cycles between when you’re drowsy and alert. It’s the reason you fall asleep around the same time every night and it can account for that feeling of being run over by a truck when you fly across time zones.
To figure out your optimal flow, imagine a day when you have nothing to do. This could be a weekend or your day off. When do you fall asleep? When do you wake up? More importantly, what’s the midpoint between those two times? For example, if you fall asleep at 10 p.m. and wake at 6 a.m. your midpoint is 2 a.m. — which makes you an early bird.
According to chronobiology professor Till Roenneberg’s research, if your midpoint lies between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m., you’re an early bird, or lark; if your midpoint occurs between 6 a.m. and 12 p.m., you’re a night owl. If your midpoint lies between 3:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. — where most people reside — you’re in between. Larks and the middle group that Pink calls “third birds” make their best decisions in the morning. Night owls (averaging 5% to 20% of the U.S. population, depending on the studies consulted) find their stride in the late afternoon and early evening.
Making the Best Use of the Day
Timing isn’t everything, but everything comes down to timing. For most of us, we start the day strong — we’re ethical, focused, and energized. Between 2 and 4 p.m., we slide into the midday productivity slump, and then we get a second wind come dinnertime.
The seemingly innocent midday lull can translate to bad news for your business. This is the time of day when you’re more likely to be irritable, sluggish, fresh out of ideas, impatient, and prone to making mistakes. Case in point: As reported in Pink’s book, according to an analysis of 90,000 surgeries, researchers at Duke University discovered that operating room errors occurred more often at 3 p.m. than at 8 a.m., and University of Pennsylvania researchers found that doctors and nurses were less likely to wash their hands as the day progressed.
Timing doesn’t only affect health. Children who took standardized tests in the afternoon performed worse than the morning test-takers. Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel and Columbia University found that Israeli judges were more likely to grant convicts’ parole requests during the morning session (or right after their lunch break) than later in the day. In a study conducted in the Integrated Neuroscience Lab at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina, lead author Maria Juliana Leone determined that we make slower, yet more accurate, decisions in the morning, while we make snap choices that are more prone to error during the afternoon.
Perhaps you’ll want to remember this when you’re disputing a parking ticket or negotiating a new vendor contract.
Applying Chronotypes to Your Business
How do you best apply this time science to your small business? Start by prioritizing the time and quality of your decisions for the best results. Schedule important meetings, tasks, and obligations that are mission-critical first thing in the morning. This is the time to review contracts, financials, and staff-related evaluations. Don’t get sidetracked by email or non-important phone calls. If you need to make quick decisions that won’t hurt your business, make them in the afternoon.
However, for the night owl crowd, if making decisions in the morning is not an option, save the negotiations until after a lunch break, when you’re feeling more refreshed. Or, take a 15-minute break and a walk, preferably outside. Meals and fresh air breaks away from your screen can give you a healthy dose of perspective and renewed energy. Also, take note that you’re inching closer to evening and your optimal internal clock.
As a manager of others in your small business, you may also want to understand the basic chronotypes of your team members, so that you’re making requests of them when they’re likely to be at their best. As Pink explains in his book, different types of work — analytical vs. creative, for example — can be better suited to different times of day. Also, much of the current research reports that the minority night owls are challenged by the demands of the majority early bird working world, so, when you can, make allowances for individual team members’ best work times when setting schedules and meetings.
Making important decisions for your small business is no easy feat, so it’s important to have every tool in your toolkit at your disposal. Knowing there is a science-backed approach to determining when your decision-making skills are their sharpest can help you shape the structure and course of your day. If your biological clock ticks in the morning, then that’s when you should be making your power moves, and, if you’re a night owl, know that you’ll be making key business decisions while most everyone else is sound asleep.