I recently stumbled upon the largest study ever conducted on the relationship between sleep and performance.

And I’m not exaggerating here. The Stanford university study observed 31,793 participants over 18 months, which amounts to a data-set of 3 million nights of sleep and 75 million interaction tasks – which is just MASSIVE.

The study provides a ton of useful take-aways, especially regarding the impact that poor sleep has on our attention.

But it also produced this beautiful graph – which depicts how people’s focus and attention declines over the course of the day:

I’ll explain the graph in a second. Just some context first:

The study monitored participants as they engaged with online search-engines. It then measured how long it took them to click on the links that they found. The researchers used this ‘click time’ as a measure of people’s performance. Which isn’t a stretch at all. Using a search engine relies heavily on our ability to reflect on our goals, plan ahead, and then execute.

Perhaps not surprisingly they discovered that people had their fastest “click time” 2-3 hours after waking up, with their performance dropping slowly throughout the day:

So if you look at the graph, you can see that people have their lowest dip (representing faster ‘click time’) early in the day.

The implications here are that one can meaningfully distinguish between one’s ‘strong’ attention that one has in the hours after waking up, and one’s ‘weaker’ attention that happens later in the day.

Given that one of the main reasons people procrastinate is because tasks are (perceived to be) too difficult, one effective way to make those tasks easier is to tackle them with your best attention.

For me personally, knowing that I have these two types of attention has helped a lot with my productivity. It has certainly made me more protective of my limited strong morning attention.

For example, I make sure that less demanding activities, like replying to emails or meetings are scheduled later in the day, and tasks that require more critical engagement like research, writing or filling out delicate forms, are done earlier in the day.

And for all you night-owls or late risers, this study results are based on ‘hours after wakeup’, so if you naturally wake up at 12.00 pm every day, then the same applies for you.

And if you happen to be a statistical outlier, and you have your best attention 10 hours after waking up –  that’s fine – just try to find at what point in the day you have your strong attention and work around that.

That’s all for hack #1. Have a productive day!

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Althoff T, Horvitz E, White R &  Zeitzer J (2017) Harnessing the Web for Population-Scale Physiological Sensing: A Case Study of Sleep and Performance. Proceedings of the 26th International Conference on World Wide Web (Perth, Australia) Available Online: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1701.07083.pdf  

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