Whether you are a student preparing for exams or simply looking to improve your mental performance, knowing the best time to study can impact your success.
The short answer is that you should be studying shortly after waking up between the morning and late evening. The specific window you should study in is going to vary depending on your chronotype, meaning the time you prefer to wake up and go to sleep. If you are a night owl you should study from 1:00 PM – 9:00 PM and if you are a morning person you should study from 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM.
But there are more chronotypes than just the morning person and night owl. So if the above answer doesn’t sound totally right for you, keep reading.
Now that you have a quick answer, let’s get a bit more detailed.
Studying During the Day vs. Night
Studying at night
So, should we be studying at night?
The quick answer to this is that nighttime cognitive performance is uniformly worse during the night. Various tasks like reasoning and working memory have been shown to be worse at night compared to the day.1 This obviously has implications for when you should be studying. Studying is a cognitive activity that uses these cognitive processes heavily. For this reason, studying at late hours is not ideal.
Lastly, I will note that studying at night is probably not the best lifestyle choice in the long term. You can read more about this here.2
Studying during the day
Ideally, we should be studying during the day as cognitive performance seems to be highest during this time.3
I will start by outlining where your mental performance is lower during the day for most people and refining the answer from there.
First, when you wake up in the morning your performance will be lower.3 Most people just don’t feel their best in the morning, especially university students.4 Additionally, there is another performance dip that occurs in the late evening with the best performance being generally between these two points.3
Lastly, there is a temporary performance slump just after lunchtime. It’s not clear what causes this dip but it seems like a robust effect. This dip still happens if you skip lunch but it’s less significant.3
So what we have left is the time between the morning and late evening. This is the general window you should aim to study in.
But this is a huge window of time!
However, we can narrow it down more by making it personalized to your unique chronotype.
What Science Says the Best Time to Study is
Generally, our mental performance will improve rapidly after we wake up. This means that shortly after waking will be your best time to start.3 However when you wake up and when your optimal performance window is will depend on many factors. According to the research on this, your chronotype is one such important factor.4
Your Best time depends on your Chronotype
A Chronotype is essentially the scientific term for whether you are an early bird or a night owl. You can also be a hummingbird, which is in between these two extremes.5
Okay enough with the weird bird references.
To truthfully answer the question of when is the best time to study, we need to first understand the different chronotypes.
Each chronotype has its own optimal performance time but you can still work effectively outside these hours, they just aren’t the absolute best times to be working.
I have summarized the best studying times for each chronotype using research data on university students studying performance depending on their chronotype in the table below.4
|Type of person||Optimal performance time|
|Morning chronotype||9:00 AM – 12:00 PM|
|In-between chronotype||10:00 AM – 9:00 PM|
|Evening chronotype||1:00 PM – 9:00 PM|
Below I elaborate in more detail for each of the specific chronotypes, beyond just the optimal performance window in the table.
Research indicates that, if you are a morning person, you will be at about 68% functionality by 8:00 AM. And you will be in your optimal zone by around 9 AM. This optimal window continues until 12 PM when it begins to decline until around 8 PM. Performance is still not bad during this time, but it’s not as good. However, after 8 PM, performance drops off rapidly.4
If you are an evening person you probably wake up feeling like you got hit by a truck. By 9:30 AM these people are still below 50% functionality. However, you will start to find your stride by about 1:00 PM. Your performance will really peak at around 5:00 PM until it declines from 9:00 PM.4
There is a variant discussed in the research I am citing called the “definitely evening person” as well. This is a more extreme evening person. The whole optimal window is shifted about 1 hour or 2 later. So if the evening chronotype isn’t extreme enough, you might be this one as well.4
If you fall somewhere in between these groups, you will be at about 50% functionality at 8:00 AM and reach your peak functionality at around 10:00 AM, maintaining your optimal performance all the way until 9:00 PM. After 9:00 PM your performance will decline rapidly.4
How do you Know your Chronotype?
It’s likely that you already know what chronotype you are. But if you are not sure you can take an online quiz to get a basic idea. Although I wouldn’t take its result as a definitive answer.
The bottom line is that paying attention to how you feel you perform during different times of the day over a long period of time is going to yield the best-personalized results.
My quiz results indicated that I was a morning type, and this is in line with what I had already naturally fine-tuned my schedule around.
Below you can see from my schedule that I clearly work within the morning chronotype time window. I start at around 7:00 AM and my work often stops or falls off at around noon.
The brown entries in this calendar are time logs of when I was actually working, not just scheduled time.
These types are not going to be exact fits for each type of person and you should always keep in mind that you will need to fine-tune your optimal working window beyond these general types.
The time that you study is important. But beyond this, it’s also important to recognize that we are all different in our preferences for when we sleep and when we wake up. Your chronotype will have a massive influence on when your best studying time is and you should take this into consideration when you are planning out your studying.
But it’s also important to realize that the time you study is just a small piece of the puzzle for figuring out your perfect studying environment.
Studying location is another crucial and tightly related part of this topic. I wrote another article that deep dives into why you should not be studying in the same place every day, even if you are consistently studying at the same time.
This way you can have both the perfect time and location(s) figured out for you.
- Monk TH, Buysse DJ, Reynolds CF 3rd, Berga SL, Jarrett DB, Begley AE, Kupfer DJ. Circadian rhythms in human performance and mood under constant conditions. J Sleep Res. 1997 Mar;6(1):9-18. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2869.1997.00023.x. PMID: 9125694.
- Does Being a Night Owl Affect Your Health? (2018, March 29). Keck Medicine of USC. Retrieved December 18, 2022, from https://www.keckmedicine.org/blog/does-being-a-night-owl-affect-your-health/
- Valdez, P., Reilly, T., & Waterhouse, J. (2008). Rhythms of Mental Performance. Mind, Brain and Education, 2(1), 7–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1751-228X.2008.00023.x
- Evans, M. D. R., Kelley, P., & Kelley, J. (2017). Identifying the Best Times for Cognitive Functioning Using New Methods: Matching University Times to Undergraduate Chronotypes. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 188–188. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00188
- Chronotypes: Definition, Types, & Effect on Sleep. (2021, January 8). Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/chronotypes
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