Think:Act Magazine “Circular economy”
Daniel Pink on how timing impacts productivity
The time of day and your own biology make a difference in when you will excel at what tasks
by Neelima Mahajan
Illustrations by Nigel Buchanan
Read more on the topic “Circular economy”
Bestselling author Daniel Pink has made a career out of exploring our complex relationship with work, productivity and creativity. Here, he explains how timing impacts performance.
It's uncanny. We power through our mornings knocking items off our to-do lists with the determination and zeal of the Energizer Bunny. And then, almost inevitably, we hit the dreaded afternoon slump and see our energy levels start to plummet. Before you reach out for yet another cup of coffee to counter that downturn in stamina, it might make sense to consider why this happens. According to Daniel Pink, bestselling author and expert on work, productivity and behavior, our cognitive capabilities vary over the course of the day – and certain times of day, in fact, work better for certain kinds of tasks.
Pink, who spoke to Think:Act during the Global Peter Drucker Forum 2021, an annual management conference held in Vienna, Austria, offers insights on how we can better recognize our bodies' cues and learn to hack our productivity by understanding how the hidden patterns of the day can be utilized to build an ideal schedule, a theme he covered in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
You say the time of day explains 20% of performance variance. How is timing so important for our productivity?
For 20 years, I would go into my home office and make decisions about when I would write, do interviews, take a break, etc. – all in a very sloppy way. When I looked around for guidance, it wasn't there. There was a huge amount of research: literally in 25 different disciplines – economics, social psychology, cognitive science, chronobiology or endocrinology. They were asking the same questions, but not talking to each other. I felt like if you bring it all together, you would provide something useful.
And what did you find looking across all those disciplines?
The day ends up being this fundamental unit of time, because many other units of time that we have in our lives are human constructions, even a second. Time of day has a huge effect on our brain power and performance at work. We have an intuitive sense of it, but we're not acting on it. Our brainpower, our cognitive abilities, do not remain constant over the course of a day. If we know that, we can actually make better, smarter decisions about when to do things. The problem is that we're not doing that when it comes to day-to-day timing at an individual and organizational level. We just go by intuition, guesswork or default settings, leaving a lot of capacity on the table. The time of day explains 20% of the variance in people's performance. If we think about how we explain variance when we look at a typical firm, we have people with different levels of ability and different levels of contribution. There are all kinds of reasons why we have that variance. Some people are more conscientious than others, some smarter, some more experienced, some have more social advantage. Those differences are very hard to do something about. But time of day is something that's pretty easy to tackle.
How does all of this correlate with our biological body clock? Are there specific patterns that we need to work out?
A huge portion of it is biological. There's a concept in chronobiology – the field that studies our diurnal rhythms – that’s called entrainment: We have natural physiological cycles, but we also adjust to the external environment. All of us have a chronotype, a natural inclination to wake up late and go to sleep late, or to wake up early and go to sleep early. Across the human condition, we have about 15% of people who are very strong morning people. They naturally wake up very early and go to sleep very early. About 20% of us are more like night owls. And about two-thirds of us are in the middle, although we lean a little bit toward that morning aspect. A way to think about this is to divide the world into "night owls" and "not night owls," about 20% of the population vs. 80%. Those 80% basically move through the day in three stages: a peak early in the day, a trough in the middle and a recovery later in the day.
Daniel Pink is the author of five New York Times bestsellers on work, creativity and behavior including the #1 bestseller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He has contributed essays and articles to publications including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic and Slate. His latest book, The Power of Regret, was published in February 2022.
What about those of us who stay up late?
For night owls, it’s more complicated. They hit their peak much later at night, from early to late evening. These are the people beavering away on their novel, software or their business plan at midnight. Since we have these cycles, the best time to do something depends on what you're doing. During the peak, which is early in the day for most of us, we are most vigilant: We're able to bat away distractions so it's the best time to do analytic work and work that benefits from not being distracted. The trough, early to mid-afternoon for almost all of us, is a terrible time to get things done.
There are huge decrements in performance. It’s a very dangerous time to go into a hospital if you look at things like anesthesia errors. That's when we should be doing administrative work that doesn't require massive brain power. For the vast majority, recovery happens in the late afternoon and early evening. The combination of a positive mood and low vigilance [at this time] is useful for insight work and insight problems, problems that don't immediately bend to mathematical logic – like iterative thinking, brainstorming. The trouble is that we think that all times of day are created equal.
Natural early risers, this 14% of people does best with analytical tasks in the early morning and insight work in the late afternoon.
This 21% is at their analytical peak in the late afternoon and evening and is better suited for insight work in the morning.
The other 65% fall in between, but are closer to the lark: Mid-morning is best for analytical work and evening for insight work.
Some of us have special roles: Quants deal with numbers and analytics; the job of artists, authors and musicians is to be creative. How should these individuals on different ends of the job spectrum use these learnings about timing?
Let's take a copywriter for an ad agency, a creative job. That person is going to be better off doing her copywriting during the peak. By the same token, a quant who is doing pure data analytics is better off doing that during the peak. But what if you are wondering what other unique questions we could ask of this dataset? You might be better off doing that during the recovery. The same way that the copywriter might not actually create the copy during the recovery period, but might sit around and say, what could be an interesting image to embody this? So, it really has to do with the kind of thinking we're doing.
Not everybody can choose when we time our most important tasks. Doctors, for instance, have to work around the clock. How can they use this insight, despite their very unpredictable schedules?
Some people have to do shift work or work overnight because they’re in a hospital or have construction or security jobs. Shift work is really bad for people. We are not designed to work overnight. People who do shift work for a couple of years pay a significant price, physically. As the science grows, labor laws might actually end up taking care of it like they addressed the safety of people working in coal mines. There are certain kinds of things where we just can't shut down. We need to do a few things here. One, put people in the right shifts at the right time. There's some interesting research from a German chronobiologist named Till Roenneberg who studies diurnal rhythms. He did some work with a manufacturing company showing that if you allow workers to match their chronotype to their shifts, you have higher productivity and less attrition.
It's a to-do list, but for breaks. Try downing a cup of coffee then set an alarm for 25 minutes – this "nappucino" means you'll wake up just as the caffeine is kicking in. Or take a five-minute walk each hour. Or switch gears by listening to a song. What gets scheduled, gets done.
What about planning for or allowing more breaks during long workdays?
Another thing that's particularly true in that afternoon trough is to be much more systematic about breaks. If we know that there's a downdraft in performance, we have to correct for that with things like checklists – when matters of safety come in – and also breaks. We have this notion that powering through is the way to get more work done and that it is morally virtuous. It’s just not true. If you look at a whole range of fields, especially athletics and music, the top performers are the ones who take more breaks than the lower performers. Many of us don't have full control over our schedule, [so] you want to work the margins.
What can management do?
Managers and business leaders [need] to recognize a few things. One in five workers are night owls. There's evidence that night owls are actually more creative than the rest of us. Yet you're forcing people to come to 8 a.m. staff meetings where they are miserable and unproductive. If you have a team that needs to do heads-down work, filling their mornings with meetings is a bad idea. Reschedule meetings in a way that is more consistent with the kinds of cognitive skills you want.
Have you seen any organizations design jobs along these insights?
Not that many. But in some ways, it's happening more organically. The pandemic has accelerated this a little bit because more white-collar workers are working at home. So, if you are working in the office, and you're not at your desk at 9:30, the boss might think you're shirking. Now, if you don't have a 9:30 Zoom meeting and you're just in your home office, you can take a break. The real way to do it is by example rather than by explicit policy. Bosses modeling this behavior will propel this forward.