The best time of day – and year – to work most effectively

|     Jena McGregor, The Washington Post     |

THEY say timing is everything. Yet when it comes to how we work, it’s often not given much thought at all. We work nine to five (or 7am to 7pm) not because that’s when our bodies work best, but because that’s when we’re supposed to show up. We spend weeks preparing a pitch presentation for a new client, but give no thought about when we give it. We spend the first two hours answering email in our inboxes rather than doing our most challenging work.

But in Daniel Pink’s latest book, timing really is everything. What’s your “chronotype”? When’s the best time of day to do your hardest work? What does research say about giving good news or bad news first?

Pink, the longtime business author and former speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore, answers these questions and more in his latest addition to the work-smarter genre, ‘When’. Well known for his popular books that apply research from psychology and other social sciences to motivation, creativity and sales, Pink delves into one of the less frequent questions about our jobs: Not just what, how or with whom we do our work, but when – the best time to take breaks, start a new project or compete in a bid for new clients.

Pink’s book goes on sale January 9, no doubt timed for when people make all those New Year’s resolutions about working more effectively in the New Year. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Where’d you get the idea for this book?

Daniel Pink, author of ‘When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing’. – WP-BLOOM

A: I realised I was making all kinds of ‘when’ decisions in my own life. When in the day should I work out – early or late? When should I abandon a project that isn’t working very well? How should I configure my day for maximum productivity?

I realised that there weren’t very good answers – I actually wrote this book so I could read it. There’s a huge amount of research out on this topic, in a whole array of fields: Fields I’m comfortable with, like economics and social psychology, and things like endocrinology where I had to read a paper three or four times to realise what they were saying.

Q: Or “chronobiology” – which is what?

A: It’s the study of our biological rhythms. Some of us rise early and feel energetic in the day and fade out by early evening. Other people are groggier in the morning and take a while to ramp up and hit their peak in the late afternoon or evening. Some of us are larks – some of us are owls. But if you look at distribution, most of us are a little bit of both – what I call “third birds”.

There’s a period of day when we’re at our peak, and that’s best for doing analytic tasks things like writing a report or auditing a financial statement. There’s the trough, which is the dip – that’s not good for anything. And then there’s recovery, which is less optimal, but we do better at insight and creativity tasks.

Q: But many of us don’t have control at work over what time we do things. Are workplaces starting to wake up to this?

A: Not that many. There have been a couple of experiments: A chronobiologist did an experiment with a German industrial company where he allowed people to configure their day based on their chronotypes and, not surprisingly, satisfaction and productivity went up. To me, the bigger issue here is that we have thought of ‘when’ as a second order question. We take questions of how we do things, what we do, and who I do it with very seriously, but we stick the “when” questions over at the kids’ table.

Q: What is it about a new year? How does our psychology influence how we think about that and making fresh starts?

A: We do what social psychologists call temporal accounting – that is, we have a ledger in our head of how we are spending our time. What we’re trying to do, in some cases, is relegate our previous selves to the past: This year we’re going to do a lot better.

People managing corporate change can take advantage of that. Managers shouldn’t start a corporate change initiative on a Thursday – start it on the day after a federal holiday, or at the beginning of a quarter, or on a Monday. There is absolutely no reason you can’t, but it’s a quirk of our psychology. It’s similar to research that shows people are twice as likely to run a marathon at age 29 as they are at age 28 or 30. There’s no reason for that. There’s no physiological difference between a 29-year-old and 30-year-old. It’s just a quirk of how we think about time and how we think about endings. Endings have this power to galvanise us.

Q: Let’s talk about breaks. There’s all these different theories about the approach. Does the science say one is better than the other?

A: I’m sceptical of any claim that says it should be 14 minutes or it should be 17 minutes. I don’t think the evidence is there for that. What the evidence does tell us, though, is a broader set of design principles, the most important of which is that breaks are much more important than we realise.

Fifteen years ago, someone who pulled an all nighter or got by on two hours of sleep was seen as a kind of a hero. But fewer people today think that not getting enough sleep is a good idea, and that’s largely because the science of sleep started pointing us in that direction. I think breaks are following the same trajectory. Many hard-core workplaces think of breaks as a deviation from performance, when in fact the science of breaks tells us they’re a part of performance.

Research shows us that social breaks are better than solo breaks – taking a break with somebody else is more restorative than doing it on your own. A break that involves movement is better than a stationary one. And then there’s the restorative power in nature. – WP-BLOOM