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Timing is everything: The best time for surgery, exercise, coffee and more

Many of life’s big and small decisions have an optimal time. Choose wisely and you'll be healthier and happier.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY
Operating room
If you need surgery, always opt for the morning when doctors' performance may be at their peak, the medical staff is more vigilant and there are fewer errors, said author Daniel Pink.Getty Images file

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If you have a choice about when to go to the hospital, make it in the morning. If you want to enjoy your workout more, head to the gym late in the afternoon. If you want more jolt from your morning coffee, wait before you drink.

Many of life’s big and small decisions have an optimal time: Choose wisely and you'll be healthier and happier, said Daniel Pink, author of “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” His book examines research about behavior, psychology, medicine and other fields to come up with better answers for "when” questions.

“Sometimes, we think of timing as fortune, circumstance, luck and that’s something we don’t have much control over,” Pink told TODAY. “But other things we can be much, much, much more intentional about.”

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Here are some of his tips:

The best time for a workout:

If you want to lose weight, form a habit or start the day with a mood boost, morning exercise is better, Pink said. You get it over with right away, there’s less chance of something interfering with your workout and you have a momentum.

But if you want to enjoy your workout more and find it less of a struggle, the late afternoon or early evening is better. You’re warmed up, leading to a better performance.

“I tend to feel pretty creaky in the morning, but later in the day, I don’t feel creaky at all,” Pink said.

The best time to schedule a surgery:

Always opt for the morning when doctors’ performance may be at their peak, the medical staff is more vigilant and there are fewer errors, Pink said.

“The evidence about what happens in hospitals in the afternoon is terrifying. There’s just a big drop in performance,” he noted. “I seriously would not let anybody in my family have surgery in the afternoon if I could avoid it.”

Build the perfect schedule for you:

To make the most of your day, realize your mind and body follow an internal clock.

In general, Pink said people move through the day in three stages:

  • a peak
  • a trough
  • a recovery

For most of us, that means rising mood in the morning, declining mood in the early to mid-afternoon and recovering mood later in the day.

Peak: For about 80 percent of the population, this takes place in the morning and it’s the ideal time for doing analytic work — anything that requires “heads down, focus and attention,” Pink said. You're at the height of your vigilance and able to bat away distractions, so this is the best part of the day to write a report, analyze data and review a strategy.

Trough: The early to mid-afternoon is a really hard time for most people, Pink noted: “There’s a tsunami of evidence showing we don’t perform very well.” Devote this period to administrative work — tasks that don’t require massive brain power or creativity, like answering routine emails or filling out an expense report.

Recovery: Late in the afternoon and early in the evening, you’re less vigilant than during the peak, but your mood is rising and that combination is good for creative work. This is an ideal time for brainstorming — or any tasks that require more conceptual and expansive thinking, Pink said.

A special note to night owls, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Evening people tend to go in the reverse order: recovery, trough and peak. But the overall pattern still stands. Move your analytic work to the peak, administrative work to the trough and creative work to the recovery.

How to create the ideal morning routine:

Wait a while before reaching for coffee: “That cup of coffee first thing in the morning is actually not doing a lot for your wakefulness,” Pink noted. “You’re much better off having coffee 60 to 90 minutes after you wake up.”

Here’s why: When you rise, your body starts producing cortisol, a stress hormone that naturally makes you more alert. But caffeine interferes with the production of cortisol, Pink said, which diminishes caffeine’s effect in the long run. You’re much better off saving your caffeine boost for when you truly need it: An hour or so after waking up, when your cortisol level starts to drop again, he advised.

Figure out your MIT, the Most Important Task of the day: Pink writes it down on a white board above his desk so he can focus on it above everything else. The key is to be intentional, he said.

When to take a break:

Think of breaks as part of work, not an exception from it.

“I used to think amateurs took breaks and professionals didn’t. I am now convinced it’s the opposite,” Pink said. He schedules breaks on his calendar just as he would a meeting — brief time-outs in the afternoon, perhaps at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Here are the ingredients of an optimal break:

Moving is better than stationary: You are always better off getting up and walking around than sitting.

Outside is better than inside: Nature offers a significant boost, so just seeing trees and grass is replenishing.

Social is better than solo: Taking breaks with somebody else is more restorative than taking breaks alone.

Staying fully detached is key: Don’t talk about work and definitely don’t take your phone with you.

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