science of us

The Afternoon Is the Worst Time

Woman with her head on her desk.
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images/Westend61

This week the Cut has, as you may have noticed, become the premiere destination on the web for time-related discourse. My esteemed colleagues have published articles on the benefits of waking up and going to bed early, as well as dissents in favor of being a night owl. Inspired by these, as well as the general steady, unyielding march to oblivion, I feel compelled to share my own opinion: it is the afternoon that is the worst time.

I’m a morning person and, like Edith Zimmerman, prefer to wake up around 5 a.m. I admire the boldness of Katie Heaney’s suggestion to go to bed at 8:45 p.m. And though I’m typically asleep around 10:30 or 11 p.m., hours before Anna Silman, I see magic and potential in the late night and earliest morning hours.

The time in between, though, I hate with my life.

My weekdays typically start on a high note: I’m awake! I’m alive! I’m filled with gratitude at the very miracle of existence, or whatever meditative bullshit I’m trying at the moment! I exercise, I shower and get dressed, I eat breakfast, I tell my dog I love him 20 times, and I go to work. I arrive invigorated and productive, looking forward to lunch as a natural demarcation point for my day. It’s when I finish my last bite, usually around 1:30 p.m., that the first bit of dread starts to creep in. (Lunch is, by the way, the worst meal, but that’s for another essay.) I realize I now have at least six hours before I get to unwind and eat dinner, and I get unreasonably sad.

From there, the hours of 2 and 4 p.m. are inevitably the nadir of my day. Time stretches in front of me, a barren desert — not a bougie glamping scene from Joshua Tree, but the Kalimari Desert from Mario Kart 64. I am, for no discernible reason, completely exhausted. I’m full from lunch but if I don’t have 1,000 pounds of refined sugar injected into my veins immediately, I’m going to evaporate. There are somehow more hours left in the workday than when I arrived.

Science, for what it’s worth, is on my side here. One study cited in Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing pegged 2:55 p.m. as the least productive time of day. Mental cognition can drop as well — a study involving 2 million standardized tests in Denmark “revealed that students who’d been randomly assigned to take standardized tests in the afternoon scored significantly lower than those randomly assigned to take them in the morning.” Of course, productivity and sharpness shouldn’t be correlated with quality of life, but the slump is undeniable: Pink also found a pattern in which moods were elevated in the morning, fell in the early afternoon, and then rose again later.

Maybe if I lived somewhere else, my afternoons would be more pleasant. Having an extended lunch break like the Italians or a Spanish siesta might break up the monotony and chase the existential dread away. For now, I must resign myself to this identity: someone who smugly wakes up early, goes to bed at a regular time, and completely and absolutely wilts in the afternoon.

The Afternoon Is the Worst Time