Adaptation in dynamic environments depends on the grain, magnitude and predictability of ecological fluctuations experienced within and across generations. Phenotypic plasticity is a well-studied mechanism in this regard, yet the potentially complex effects of stochastic environmental variation on optimal mean trait values are often overlooked. Using an optimality model inspired by timing of reproduction in great tits, we show that temporal variation affects not only optimal reaction norm slope, but also elevation. With increased environmental variation and an asymmetric relationship between fitness and breeding date, optimal timing shifts away from the side of the fitness curve with the steepest decline. In a relatively constant environment, the timing of the birds is matched with the seasonal food peak, but they become adaptively mismatched in environments with temporal variation in temperature whenever the fitness curve is asymmetric. Various processes affecting the survival of offspring and parents influence this asymmetry, which collectively determine the ‘safest’ strategy, i.e. whether females should breed before, on, or after the food peak in a variable environment. As climate change might affect the (co)variance of environmental variables as well as their averages, risk aversion may influence how species should shift their seasonal timing in a warming world.