What is the best time to study?

study clock

As a student, you have probably have noticed that your productivity tends to change throughout the day. Sometimes you cannot concentrate at all and sometimes you feel extremely focused and find it easy to study. So what is the best time to study?

For most students, the best times to study are in the morning and then in the late afternoon (based on the research discussed in the book “When”). In the morning people generally excel at analytic work (such as math problems) and in late afternoons students excel at insight work – tasks that require less resolve and more creativity (such as writing).

However, the exact time is different from person to person because everyone has differing chronotypes. If you are the so-called “lark” earlier times could work better, while if you are an “owl” you might be more productive at later times (see the table below).

Lark – 14%Third Bird – 65%Owl – 21 %
Analytic tasksEarly morningEarly to mid-morningLate afternoon and evening
Insight tasksLate afternoon/ early eveningLate afternoon/ early eveningMorning

In the following sections, we will explore the underlying mechanism behind your energy levers through the day, provide more exact recommendations depending on your chronotype and tell you how to figure out your chronotype.

Footnote: What follows in this article is based on two books: “When” by Daniel Pink and “The power of when” by Michael Breus PhD. Both of the books are based on scientific research and provide decent guidelines regarding the best time to study.

What does science say about our energy levels with respect to time in a day?

Our bodies have the so-called “internal clocks” or in other words follow “circadian rhythm”. This essentially means that depending on the time of the day we have different levels of hormones and as a result either feel sleepy or alert, are more productive or less productive.

Therefore, because of our internal biological clock, we are better at certain tasks at different times of the day. For example, two Danish researchers analyzed test scores of 2 million Danish students and saw that in general students scored higher the mornings than the afternoons. On the basis of this study and some other studies Dan Pink (for most people) recommends doing analytical tasks in the mornings.

Furthermore, another study by two US psychologists, also revealed, some interesting findings regarding how timing affects our performance. In that study people were given the following puzzle:

Ernesto is a dealer in antique coins. One day someone brings him a beautiful bronze coin. The coin has an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 BC stamped on the other. Ernesto examines the coin—but instead of buying it, he calls the police. Why?

This is one of those puzzles where after you hear the answer you might feel stupid (but you are not alone, I failed to observe the issue myself ; the answer is that the designation of 544 BC could not be used because Jesus Christ could not have possibly been born at that time when this coin was minted; thus, that coin is a fake one)

Interestingly, most of the people performed better at this task in the afternoon rather than in the morning. So what is happening here? Well, this the answer lies in the fact that this problem is an insight problem – a problem that requires some creative thinking. In general, based on the research discussed in “When”, in the afternoons most people will be better at the insight problems.

What about lunchtime, late evenings, or nights? Well, according to Dan Pink most people will find it difficult to study or work during these times. In fact, I wrote an entire post on the pros and cons of studying at night.

However, these guidelines do not apply to everyone! This is so because the circadian rhythms slightly differ from person to person – everyone has a slightly different chronotype.

While most people perform well in the mornings and afternoons, there are groups of people like the so-called “larks” and “night owls” that perform better at different times of the day than morning and afternoon.

gray and black owl on tree branch during daytime

The different chronotypes – and recommendations for each

According to research conducted by Roenneberg et al. some of us are “Larks” (prefer to wake up early and go to bed early), some of us are “Owls” (prefer to wake up late and go to bed early) and most of us are “Third birds” (somewhere in between).

Depending on your chronotype you will more productive at certain tasks during certain times of the day. Dan Pink in his book provides a great summary of what types of tasks are the best for each group at different times of the day (you can see it below).

Lark – 14%Third Bird – 65%Owl – 21 %
Analytic tasksEarly morningEarly to mid-morningLate afternoon and evening
Insight tasksLate afternoon/ early eveningLate afternoon/ early eveningMorning
Making an impressionMorningMorningMorning
Making a decisionEarly morningEarly to mid-morningLate afternoon and evening

You probably have noticed that there is no night in this table. But what you prefer to study at night, is are you doing something wrong? Well, the short answer is that it is not recommendable to study at night (after midnight). However, if you want a more nuanced answer read this short article: Should you study at night?

So how can you apply this advice in the context of your studies?

To figure out the best time to study you first have to figure out your chronotype and then study material at times that best suit your chronotype and the study task type.

For example, if you are Third Bird then in the mornings you should do analytical tasks – tasks that require sharpness and focus. In the context of your studies, these tasks can be various problem sets involving math, reading the readings, or your textbooks and taking notes.

While in the late afternoon (if you are a Third Bird) you should engage in insight tasks – tasks that require less concentration or resolve. Such tasks could include a brainstorming session, doing some creative writing (e.g. an essay that was assigned), or solving some problems that require more creative, out of the box thinking.

Of course, while all of that sounds great, what if you do not know your chronotype (I certainly did not). Well, read the next section.

How to figure out your own chronotype?

The easiest way of figuring out which one are you is calculating the so-called midpoint of sleep. You can do it by finding the midpoint between the time you usually go do bed and wake up. For example, if you go to bed at 11 pm and wake up at 7 am then your midpoint is 4 am.

Although this will give you a sense of what kind of “bird” you are it will not give you the exact time. To more exactly determine your bedtime we recommend taking the Horne-Ostberg Morning-Eveningness Questionnaire.

Also, I highly recommend taking the quiz by Michael Breus – you will notice that Michael Breus uses slightly different categories for chronotypes and has some additional recommendations, that might be interesting for you (I have found this quiz the most useful).

Lastly, the best method is not taking some quiz, but observing yourself – for a week every 60 minutes write down how productive do you feel (use 1 – 10 scale). While this might be time-consuming, it could allow you to reach even more accurate conclusions regarding the best time to study.

Other factors that impact the best time to study

Most of this article has been written under the assumption that you do not abuse certain substances (like caffeine or alcohol) and have a proper sleep schedule. However, most of the students (including me) love coffee, alcohol, and are sleep deprived.

The issue with drinking coffee and alcohol and not having enough sleep is that all of that can throw your body off balance, and as a result, you might be either more productive or less productive at certain times of the day.

man wearing panda costume leaning on post

For example, if at midnight you drink 2 energy drinks you might feel rather productive and ready to study. Or if you decide to take some vodka shots in the morning, afterward it might be rather difficult to concentrate on your study material.

If you want to study optimally and yield most of the benefits arising from the recommendations provided in this article you have have a proper sleep schedule (for that see this post) and to not abuse coffee and other substances (see this post).

Closing remarks

While these guidelines might help you to determine the best time to study, just knowing the best time to study might not resolve all of your issues.

Often (based on my personal experience as a student) you do not have the choice to study at the time that is perfect for you. Not only that but sometimes you have to study at times when you don’t feel like studying at all.

So don’t use this article as an excuse for procrastination, use it as a rough guideline. And if you see that you can’t study at the best time for you, but you still need to study – then just study, push through it! To get a bit philosophical here, the best time to study is now!

Danielius Korsakas

Has a BSc in Economics and currently is pursuing a double master's degree in very fluffy but interesting subjects. Loves learning and building stuff.

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