WHEN? Why Time of Day Matters
“The best time to perform a particular task depends on the nature of that task.”
– Daniel Pink, When; The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing
Just going to tackle that oh-so-important task any old time?
Think again…on when.
I recently finished reading Daniel Pink’s latest book, When; The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It is excellent.
In terms of brain-power, “Our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day,” Pink explains. “We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others.”
This may seem obvious (I, for example, am pretty much useless after 8 p.m.) but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily taken into account when making decisions or solving problems.
And this can lead to problems – often as the result of making poor decisions. “The effects,” cautions Pink, “can be significant but are often beneath our comprehension.”
Most of us are sharper in the morning
“The best time to perform a particular task,” Pink says, “depends on the nature of that task.” According to the research, for the majority of people, our sharp-minded analytic capacities – our ability to concentrate and our powers of deduction – peak in the late morning or around noon.
Why? Because “when our minds are in vigilance mode,” explains Pink, “as they tend to be in the mornings, we can keep distractions outside the cerebral gates…but our alertness and energy levels that climb in the morning and reach their peak around noon, tend to plummet during the afternoons. And with that drop comes a corresponding fall in our ability to remain focused and constrain our inhibitions.”
Not all brain work is the same
I found this differentiation fascinating:
An analytic problem doesn’t require any special creativity or acumen. Yes, it can be tricky but it has a single correct answer and you can reach that answer via logic.
Whereas an insight problem is one in which reasoning in a methodical, algorithmic way won’t yield a correct answer. Rather, the answer will (eventually) come after a “flash of illuminance” – otherwise known as an aha! moment, which can help you see the facts in a new way…and then you will be more likely to solve the problem.
So, for most of us, when our brains are in vigilance-mode in the morning, we are better able to solve analytic problems by keeping out distractions. “In the mornings, most of us (but not all) excel at analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during recovering, most of us do better on insight problems that require less inhibition and resolve.”
Why? “Because insight problems are different,” says Pink. “They require less vigilance and fewer inhibitions. That flash of illuminance is more likely to occur when the guards are gone.”
In fact, there is a term for this phenomenon: “inspiration paradox.”
Get this: “Innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to circadian rhythms.”
If you are not familiar with circadian rhythms, Pink examines the findings on those as well. But basically there are several different “chronotypes,” one of which a person falls under. A chronotype is “a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influences our physiology and psychology.”
For example, I am an early bird (or “lark”). I have the most energy and get my best work done early in the morning – but don’t expect much out of me in the evening (unless I’ve had a nap).
Pink’s book resonated with me because it makes sense. I figured out a long time ago that I did my best writing in the early mornings. The trick has been for me to learn how to stay clear of looking at e-mails or social media until after I have finished my writing for the day.
In the first part of the morning, I am better able to avoid allowing myself to become distracted. I have learned, time and again, that once I have “just taken a peek at e-mail,” I am sucked into the vortex…and my writing – my intense-focus work – for the day is done. So for me, I wait until later in the morning or early afternoon to tend to my e-mail.
Whereas mid to late afternoon has always been down-time for my brain. I’m not alone. This is the time of day that Pink calls a “trough.” In fact, most people are not at their sharpest mid-afternoon. Yet they plow on through – often because their work requires them to. I fade out big-time in the mid to late afternoon and try to either have a nap, do appointments or errands, go for a walk or do a work task that requires less brain-power such as filing, dishes, folding laundry, etc.
But for me, it is often during this mental down-time that the greatest insights come – often pertaining to the writing project I was working on in the early morning. If so, then I just jot down a quick note, then incorporate it into the project when I am sharp and focused again the next morning.
If you’re interested in learning more about how the time of day impacts how your brain works, I highly recommend When; The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
Along similar lines is Chris Bailey’s brilliant book, The Productivity Project; Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention and Energy.
Here are two blogs I wrote about The Productivity Project:
I love learning about how to make better use of my day so that I can get done what needs to get done, in as little time as possible. As I get older, I want to be spending less time in front of the computer, not more.
Interestingly, when I share with people what I am learning about circadian rhythms and how to best utilize our daily energy and focus to maximize productivity, I often hear a comment to the effect of: “Well, you’re lucky you get to work when you are the most productive. Most of us have to work when our jobs require us to work and we just have to make the best of it.”
I never know what to say this. Yes, it’s true: I am blessed to be able to work when I work best – and I take full advantage of that.
But I suspect there may often be some room for tweaking one’s work schedule to better suit one’s energy levels. Individuals working at their highest productivity leads to more productive organizations…and safer, healthier and happier ones, too.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the playwright of Saviour and the screenwriter of God’s Country. Maryanne is CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions and Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. If you would like to receive her regular weekly blog, please sign up here. As a thank you, you’ll receive a short but saucy e-book entitled, Dive into this Chicago Deep Dish – Ten Bite-Sized Steps for a Yummier Slice of Life.