Did you know that more mistakes happen in hospitals in the afternoon than in the morning? That means more surgical errors, more mis-diagnoses and, in fact, fewer employees washing their hands (yikes!).
Did you also know that a student will score lower on a standardized test in the afternoon, too?
Or that judges deal more favorable sentences in the morning and are more likely to not grant parole in the afternoon?
I’ve written before about why minimizing daily decisions can save yourself from making mistakes on the important ones, but after reading psychologist Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, I’ve learned that timing plays a huge role in the types of decisions we make every day.
The fact that in the afternoon more mistakes happen is simply a facet of human nature: our bodies have internal clocks that regulate our abilities throughout the day. So, come to find out, timing plays a significant role in our everyday lives.
The good news is there are ways to account for this effect, take advantage of your energy levels throughout the day, and help prevent yourself from committing terrible errors in judgement or on your job.
First, you have to figure out your “chronotype.”
I’m sure you’ve heard of your “biological clock”, which controls the internal circadian rhythm inherent to your specific body.
As Daniel Pink puts it,
“Human beings don’t all experience a day in precisely the same way. Each of us has a ‘chronotype’ — a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influences our physiology and psychology.”
I, for example, know I am a true “lark” — aka the early bird. I jump out of bed in the mornings, usually smiling, singing and whistling. The students I teach every morning often ask me how I can possibly be so happy in the morning. That’s because during this time in their lives, my students and many other adults belong to the polar opposite “chronotype” group of absolutely-hate-the-morning types known as the “owls” — the night-alert birds. And in between those two groups is the largest group of all — the “third birds”, as Pink calls them. Those are people who are neither early risers or night owls.
You can take an assessment to find out your “chronotype” or simply find the midpoint of the time you go to bed and the time you wake up according to the following graph.
The reason “chronotypes” matter is that our internal clock dictates not only our mood, as one might easily guess, but it also regulates our mental abilities and may even impact our personalities.
Your “chronotype” will help you understand your body’s basic pattern for each and every day. Basically, humans wake up and their energy and mood increase steadily for a few hours, until they reach their peak levels. About the middle of the day is when our energy levels fall and we experience a lull in our mood. After this low period, we enter a recovery until the end of the day when it’s time to recharge for the next day.
Although this pattern might seem obvious, there is an underlying science behind how it affects different abilities. Recognizing the effect that this pattern has our behavior every day is the key to maximizing your work and preventing costly mistakes.
So the next important step is to organize your work based on your “chronotype.”
Timing is at the heart of everything that humans do every day. So it’s important to organize your day’s tasks based off of your “chronotype’s” daily timing pattern. The three distinct periods — the peak, trough and recovery — are different for each person and each period is useful for different type of work.
For example, for “owls” the day actually happens in reverse — recovery, trough, peak — because they’re more awake and mentally alert at night, when “larks” are in recovery from the long day.
So there are three categories of tasks that we do every day: analytic tasks, insight tasks, and administrative tasks.
Do your analytic work during your peak, when you have the focus to avoid distraction. These are the tasks that require important decisions and high-levels of focus in order to work through and solve tough problems. For “larks” this is in the morning and for “owls” this is in the evening. For the “third birds” it’s somewhere in between.
Then, no matter what group of “chronotype” you fall in to, we all typically experience a dip in energy about seven hours after waking up. This is the trough period.
Daniel Pink writes on this topic,
“One British survey […] found that the typical worker reaches the most unproductive moment of the day at 2:55 p.m. When we enter this region of the day, we often lose our bearings.”
This dip in productivity is more dangerous than people realize, because it’s during this period that bad decision-making and errors in judgement occur (which is why shouldn’t visit hospitals in the afternoon!). So do your administrative work during the trough. These are the easy, mindless tasks we all have in our daily jobs — answering emails, filing paperwork, organizing files etc.
And lastly, do your insight work during your recovery period. Your mood goes back up, but you’re less vigilant. It’s the best time to brainstorm new ideas and find creative approaches to problems in your work.
Figure out the ideal daily schedule for your “chronotype” using the chart below:
Most importantly, when you hit the trough period, treat yourself to a “nap-puccino”.
Americans as a society take our work very seriously. We get up early and work late all in the name of getting more work done. Rarely do we take breaks throughout the day and, in fact, many look down on those who do. Research, however, proves that breaks are a good thing. That naps actually help us to re-focus and re-charge, remember and retain important information as well as relax and refresh ourselves to avoid burn out.
Of course, the timing of the nap matters just as much as the timing of all of the other day’s tasks. Daniel Pink says that naps should occur during the trough period and should last for only about half an hour or less. Otherwise, as you’ve probably heard before, a nap can turn into a full on sleep cycle and that will only make your recovery period worse.
But, did you also know that afternoon naps are even more productive if you drink coffee before you take one? It takes about twenty-five minutes for caffeine to take effect, which is exactly when your nap should end and your body will then get a double jolt of renewed energy. Science proves that these two things are beneficial for our productivity, so next time you go for a coffee run try out the “nap-puccino” instead.
Unfortunately, until American businesses recognize this benefit to their employees, you might not be able to take a full on “nap-puccino” at work. But, as Daniel Pink advises, you should still find a way to take some kind of break during the trough period. Americans too often push through their lunch breaks, working while they eat or skipping this midday meal altogether, and this can have disastrous effects on not only our health, but also on our work.
So, what are the keys to taking a good break?
- Some break is better than no break. Even a quick five minute pause in your day can help in allowing your body and mind to re-charge and recover. Everyone hits a wall — so to speak — at some point in the day, so listen to your body and treat yourself to a break.
- Relaxing with someone is better than being alone. Find someone you work with or call up someone you know. Taking a break with someone helps alleviate stress and build community.
- Moving around is better than sitting. I like to take a “sisu” break, as the Finns would say. I always remind my students that movement is what gets the blood flowing to your brain and it’s no different for adults. Get up, get away from your desk and get your body moving.
- Outside is better than inside. Again, this component also gives you some critical “sisu” by connecting with nature as humans were meant to do, not cooped up under artificial light looking at digital screens all day. Give your eyes a rest, for real.
- Fully detached from work beats semi-detached. When you give yourself a break, leave your phone and computer behind. Go out and socialize, without talking about work. This matters, because as Daniel Pink says,
“Staying focused on work during lunch, or even using one’s phone for social media, can intensify fatigue, according to multiple studies.”
I know I myself am guilty of eating lunch with my colleagues and all we talk about is work. I know that this doesn’t allow my body and mind to relax, so my lunch “break” is a wasted opportunity. It’s important that we detach ourselves from our work in order to regain our mental focus and push through to the end of the day. Daniel Pink recommends that we even schedule these breaks into our daily calendar, so that there’s no excuse for skipping it.
Thanks to Daniel Pink’s book, I’ve completely re-organized my daily work. I focus on teaching and handling my most important decisions in the morning. I reserve responding to emails and entering grades for my midday low-energy period. And in the evening is the best time for my brain to be creative at creative lesson planning and making new classroom activities. I even take time now to leave school to take breaks outside in between my teaching and coaching duties or other after-school activities. I might grab a coffee, even when I can’t nap, but just by getting outside I feel myself re-charge so I can push through a long day.
Or, as a Medium writer, I think of my schedule like this: I utilize the morning hours for writing. It doesn’t matter what, but I have to focus and produce. I use the midday time to read other articles on Medium and comment on them. And, finally, I use my evening hours to brainstorm new stories, outline them, and read other books to inspire future stories.
Science shows that every day the pattern of time is something we should all recognize and use as a guide for our daily tasks. By understanding our “chronotype”, we can maximize productivity and minimize our mistakes.
So, try it out for yourself. Re-organize tomorrow’s tasks based on the type of task and your “chronotype”. And of course, go ahead and schedule that “nap-puccino” for yourself. You deserve it.