Why do some people tend to make better decisions than others? Maybe they have a process. Like Jeff Bezos, who doesn’t spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of easily reversible decisions. Or like Oprah Winfrey, who focuses on deciding which bridges to cross and which to burn. Or like Steve Jobs, who said deciding when to trust yourself can make all the difference in your life.
Or maybe they know when to make important decisions.
First, a little background. Generally speaking, your prefrontal cortex is in charge of complex cognitive behavior like expressing your personality, moderating social behavior, and weighing situations to make decisions. The more complex the decision, the more involved your prefrontal cortex gets. (You don’t have to decide to run away from a wasp.)
Again generally speaking, research published in Cognition found that you’re more likely to think a situation through and make a good decision in the morning, before you’re both physically tired and may have fallen prey to decision fatigue. (Oddly enough, quick decisions — like running away from that wasp — are better made in the afternoon.)
As the researchers write:
We found reliable diurnal rhythms in activity and decision-making policy.
During the morning, players adopt a prevention focus policy (slower and more accurate decisions) which is later modified to a promotion focus (faster but less accurate decisions), without daily changes in performance.
Or in non-PhD terms, save your big decisions for the morning.
But what if you’re a night owl? Good question.
While you might think becoming an early bird is a simple matter of willpower and persistence, research shows that whether you’re an early riser or a night owl is predominately biological and close to half of your internal body clock is genetic. (So if you aren’t a morning person, stop trying to be.)
If you truly are a night owl, make important decisions during your version of the “morning.” A 2017 study published in Chronobiology International showed that brain areas responsible for cognition are at their peak in the morning hours, and gradually dip as night approaches.
The opposite is true for night owls; nighttime is when your prefrontal cortex kicks cognitive butt.
Keep in mind this framework applies to all sorts of decisions. Take business: Morning people are more likely to make rational decisions about high-risk propositions in, you guessed it, the morning. Night owls are much more likely to channel their inner Richard Branson and say, “Screw it, let’s do it,” in the morning.
Or shopping: Morning people are much more likely to make impulsive purchasing decisions in the evening or at night. (Again, that could be partly because of decision fatigue; we’ve all experienced those moments when thinking seems like too much effort.) Night owls are the opposite.
Or even deciding when to try to inspire the people you work with. According to research published in The Leadership Quarterly, people tend to be much less charismatic when they’re at a relatively low point in their circadian rhythms, and much more charismatic when they’re at a relatively high point.
Yep: Morning people are more charismatic in the morning, and night owls are more charismatic later in the day.
Which means deciding when you will have an important meeting could be just as important as thinking through what you will say.