When you ask people how they are, the most common response is “busy.” People routinely report being overwhelmed with the level of their personal and professional responsibilities. Not surprisingly, one of our major challenges is how to effectively manage our time. This conundrum prompted Daniel Pink, top-rated TED speaker and best-selling author of Drive and To Sell Is Human, to write his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
“We’re in a constant battle for every minute of our attention. I found there was an enormous amount of research in many fields, from social psychology to economics to endocrinology to chronobiology, where we have scholars asking very similar questions: “What are the effects of the time of day on our productivity? And, how do we then best maximize and manage our time?”
While seeking out these answers, Pink made an important discovery: “In the course of an entire day, we all experience a peak, a trough and then a recovery in our energy, which ends up reflecting our pattern in performance as well.” To be at your best, look for what scholars call the “synchrony effect,” to match up your type, your task and your time available.
To take advantage of this effect, the most important step is to first determine our type: larks, night owls or in between. Extreme larks tend to wake up when extreme night owls fall asleep. According to Pink, approximately 14 per cent of us are larks, who go to bed and get up early. Night owls, on the other hand, represent 20 per cent of the population; they fall asleep later and wake up later. The majority of us, including Pink himself, fit in the middle.
There are several instruments we can use to figure out our chronotype, such as the Munich Chronotype questionnaire, which helps us understand how our biological clocks might impact our social lives.
However, you need not be limited by these formal assessments. “You can also measure it using the ‘back of the envelope’ way,” Pink says, “by recording your midpoint of sleep on what we call ‘free’ days — days when you don’t have to be awake at a certain time, for example on a Saturday. If your midpoint of sleep between when you go to bed and when you rise is 3:30 a.m. or earlier, you are a lark. If your midpoint is after 5:30 a.m., you’re more of an owl.”
Armed with this self-knowledge, we can organize our days much more productively by figuring what tasks we are doing and when should we be doing them. Here’s an example:
“During our peak, which for most of us is the morning but for some of us is the late afternoon or early evening, we’re better at doing what social psychologists call analytic problems,” says Pink. “By analytical, I mean work that requires head-down focus and attention, like writing a report or analyzing complex data. That’s the time of day when we are most vigilant, where we’re able to bat away distractions more easily.”
Not surprisingly, as the sequence progresses, so too do the tasks in which we should be involved. “During the trough, which for most of us is early afternoon … that’s not good for very much.” What’s more, Pink cites disturbing research highlighting the perils related to this part of our daily cycle, because, we’re more likely to make mistakes.
“There are more medical errors during the trough,” he says. “Nurses are less likely to wash their hands, standardized test scores go down. There are lots of examples. There’s just a big decline in performance during this afternoon trough.”
What should we do during our trough?
“You’re better off doing your administrative work, such as answering your email — all of the routine tasks that we have to do,” Pink counsels. “Right now, I have 191 messages in my inbox, but I won’t spend my peak doing that kind of work.”
This leaves the recovery period, which science tells us is when we are much better off dealing with what are labelled “insight problems,” which require more creativity. “During this time, our mood goes up, but we have less vigilance. That is a powerful combination for brainstorming and creativity. So I end up doing a lot of my interviews later in the afternoon, because I like that more freewheeling kind of thing.”
Pink cautions that learning the secrets of your perfect timing is not a magic bullet. However, there’s tremendous upside in figuring out whether you’re capitalizing on the science of synchrony.
• Craig Dowden (PhD) is president of Craig Dowden & Associates, a firm focused on supporting clients in achieving leadership and organizational excellence by leveraging the science of peak performance. Connect with him by email or LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @craigdowden.