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Building the Perfect Day

Oct. 7, 2017 Psychology Today

We start every day hoping it’ll be great, maybe even perfect. But then, after snoozing, commuting, sitting in meetings, and grabbing junk food, we realize that, once again, we haven’t exercised, engaged with family and friends, or knocked much of anything off our to-do list. Staying up late, hoping to be productive, we manage only to watch TV and check Facebook before collapsing—and then starting all over again.

We can do better.

Believe it or not, most of us have the opportunity to get more done. We actually spend more time on leisure than ever before, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, dedicating about five hours and 16 minutes a day to pursuits we perceive as pleasurable, like socializing and watching TV (although research finds no correlation between the latter and feelings of satisfaction).

But we increasingly experience our free time in small, scattered chunks, says Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus of leisure science at Pennsylvania State University—nibbled half-hours on Netflix vs. restorative weekends away.

The foundation of any perfect or even half-decent day is adequate rest. As you can imagine, most of us start out behind. Our bodies run on an internal 24-hour chronobiological clock; when the retina captures light, a message sent to the brain suggests to this clock what time of day the body should think it is. It’s a system that has served us well for most of human history. “But over the last couple of generations, these natural rhythms have been gravely disrupted,” says Michael Grandner, the assistant director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Our near-constant exposure to artificial light has made nighttime effectively optional, leaving our bodies and brains struggling to do tasks that feel off schedule.

Can we fix our day? Absolutely. When Ken Wright, the director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, took eight people camping for a week in the Rockies with no electronic devices or man-made lights, the group was exposed to about four times more natural light than usual. “We were able to shift everyone’s internal clock two hours to become in sync with nature within a week,” Wright reports, and his campers began waking up less groggy.

So there’s hope. Researchers in sleep health, nutrition, cognition, fitness, and productivity are working to identify where our modern schedules have gone wrong and how to better set ourselves up for success. We now know that with a handful of hacks, both large and small, and some changes to preconceived notions—wake-up sex and bedtime baths?—we can reconstruct our 16 waking hours to maximize productivity, leisure, and connection, while restoring alignment with our core chronobiological instincts.

You don’t need to follow this suggested schedule to the minute, but its consistency and healthier routines can bring you a lot closer to a more perfect day:

6:00 a.m. WAKE UP
No universal wake-up time will fit everyone, Wright says, but it’s ideal to rise when your body is best prepared—at the conclusion of REM sleep. We experience our longest nightly period of REM right before we naturally wake up. When is that? It’s so rare to wake without an alarm that many of us don’t know, but the amount you sleep on vacation should give you a good idea. Then track backward: If you need 7.5 hours of sleep to feel your best; need to be at work by 8 a.m.; need an hour to get ready; and have a one-hour commute, then a bedtime of 10:30 p.m., with a wake-up time of 6 a.m. might be best. If you can rise without an alarm, all the better, because when you hit the snooze button, you coax your brain to rewind to the beginning of the sleep cycle, making it that much harder to wake feeling refreshed, according to research by Edward Stepanski of Chicago’s Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center.

6:10 a.m. SEX
Surprise: Our level of testosterone—the hormone that spurs desire, our energy to perform, and even our generation of fantasies—is highest in the morning, for both men and women, says clinical sexologist Kathleen Van Kirk of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. We also get an immediate boost in circulation in the morning, further fostering energy and arousal. Sexual activity is a pleasurable way to launch the day, not least because it causes a release of mood-elevating, stress-reducing hormones. Research on oxytocin has demonstrated that the hormone surge we get from intimacy can significantly reduce our level of the stress hormone cortisol and markedly boost positive communication between partners.

7:00 a.m. BREAKFAST
Eat within one to two hours of waking, says psychologist and dietitian Ellen Albertson. It may be 10 to 12 hours since your last meal, and your brain needs fuel. “Your brain is only about 2 percent of your body weight, but it consumes up to one-fifth of your body’s energy intake,” she says. “When you raise blood-sugar levels with breakfast, you increase your energy and improve mood.” Bonus: Your metabolism is at its peak in the morning, so your body efficiently uses most of what you consume, depositing less in fat stores, says Matthew Edlund, M.D., the director of the Center for Circadian Medicine in Sarasota, Florida.

7:45 a.m.  GET OUTSIDE
The best time to go outdoors and get moving is within two hours of waking up, says Jacqueline Olds, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “The UV component of sunlight is low,” she says, “but the bright light sets you on a good course of wakefulness.”

The morning is a great time for a workout at your gym as well. Brigham Young University researcher James LeCheminant found that 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous morning exercise reduces the urge to eat throughout the day, but if that’s not possible, he suggests that you fit it in whenever your daytime schedule allows, because it still provides cognitive benefits and fosters restful sleep. “Pick the time when there are the fewest barriers,” he says, noting that this is often in the morning because the day’s events haven’t interfered yet.

8:45 a.m.  SEND EMAILS
Messages sent between 6 and 10 a.m. are much more likely to be read promptly than those sent between 10 a.m.  and noon, when people are more focused on work, says Dan Zarrella, the author of The Science of Marketing.

The average person spends 28 percent of the work week managing email, one reason 26 percent of us label ourselves chronic procrastinators. Limiting temptation by quitting your email app when you’re not using it can be instrumental in reclaiming your day. Start establishing two times during the workday to review messages—one here, one later in the afternoon.

9:30 a.m.  COFFEE
You may be used to pouring your first cup much earlier, but it will do more for you if you wait until later in the morning. “Our circadian clock controls the release of cortisol, a hormone that makes us feel alert and awake,” Albertson says. “Production is usually highest between 8 and 9 a.m., when most of us drink coffee,” negating the usefulness of the caffeine. This may be why regular coffee drinkers have an average of 3.1 cups a day—the first doesn’t help much. “Drinking caffeine too early can lead to too much cortisol, which can disturb our natural circadian rhythms,” Albertson adds. “It’s much better to drink caffeine between 9:30 and 11:30 when you actually need it.”

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