Most of us have to-do lists that we make, but do we actually consider the right time of day to execute these tasks well? According to author Daniel Pink, time-of-day effects can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on work tasks. He believes that timing is both an art and a science, and that when people work often matters as much as what they’re working on.
Pink, the best-selling author of Drive and To Sell is Human, spoke to a packed house at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto about his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. For the past two years, Pink and his research team studied and analyzed more than 700 studies across diverse fields to unearth the hidden science of timing. The world of big data, he says, give us the ability to capture a whole new array of insights.
To show the connection between time of day and mood, Pink cited Cornell University research done by sociologists that used a powerful text analysis program to evaluate the emotional content of over 500 million tweets from 2.4 million users in 84 countries over a two-year period.
When plotted against time of day, they found that there was a fairly consistent pattern to emotional state. Do people’s emotions change? Does their mood change throughout the day? The short answer is yes. In this analysis, the researchers identified a peak, trough and rebound. People were more positive, active and engaged in the morning. This subsided in the afternoon, and climbed back up again in the early evening. It’s no surprise that commuting was found to be the most negative task, while socializing with friends was the most positive.
Ideally, the time when we do certain tasks depends on the nature of the task. This starts with understanding whether you are a morning (lark), middle (third bird) or owl (afternoon) type. For every type, there is a cycle, although most people are third birds (a combination of both).
Knowing your peak time is critical because it is often squandered on administrative tasks. For most people, the peak period is in the morning, when our energy and body temperature are high. This is a time when we should be doing analytical work, yet we spend our mornings in operational meetings or answering email.
In the peak period, when our alertness and energy levels are at their apex, we are highly vigilant. We can manage distractions and focus and concentrate. We pay attention to details. The trough period, which generally starts around noon, is best suited for administrative work. The recovery period, typically in the afternoon, is perfect for inspiration, creativity and conceptual thinking, so use this time for brainstorming, creative reviews or doing qualitative interviews.
Mood, while internal, can have an external impact that anyone in leadership should take note of. One of the most interesting data points Pink found was from New York University, where a team of business school professors evaluated 26,000 transcripts of quarterly corporate earnings calls with analysts from 2,100 public companies over six and a half years using linguistic algorithms.
They asked: ‘Can we detect any change in mood from the executives based on time of day of the call?’ They found that morning calls were upbeat and positive, but afternoon calls become more ‘resolute.’ The research notes that: “Afternoon calls were more negative, irritable and combative… leading to temporary stock mispricings for firms hosting earnings calls later in the day.” This is true even when you control for fundamentals.
Breaks are a part of the day, and affect performance because they allow recovery. Pink recommends a minimum of two breaks in the afternoon. Disconnect from technology. Be social. Walk outside and enjoy nature. The pattern of the day affects mood and performance. Professionals take breaks, he says; amateurs don’t.
— Daniel Pink (@DanielPink) January 21, 2018
Timing can also affect your life. Pink cited research that shows that judges are more lenient after breaks while doctors find more polyps in colonoscopies in the morning. There are also implications for education policy. Harvard researchers found that Danish students perform worse in standardized tests when they are randomly assigned to take them in the morning. For every hour that tests were taken later in the day, scores decreased. According to an analysis of four years of test results for two million Danish children, students scored higher in the morning.
One of the biggest learnings for Pink in writing the book was about the importance of endings. When our time is constrained we ‘attune to the now.’ According to research, the majority of people who run their first marathon do so at the age of 29. Or 39. Or 49. Why at the end of a decade? As we age, we edit—our lives, our friendships and our careers. He believes that endings are a positive force that helps us energize and elevate because we are seeking meaning. The most powerful endings deliver poignancy, and hence significance.
Pink believes that this kind of scientific thinking can help people make better decisions about when things are timed. Instead of relying on intuition and guesswork, we need to acknowledge that time of day affects our performance.
While there are many actionable tips in the book, here are five of my key takeaways to help you be more intentional about your time:
1. Never make important decisions in the afternoon.
2. Don’t speak at conferences right after lunch, or hold major communications events in the afternoon.
3. Give people the bad news first, then the good, and then elevate.
4. Take at least two breaks in the afternoon without your mobile phone, but with a friend.
5. Try to schedule major surgery, tests or more analytical events in the morning.
Carolyn Ray is a brandchannel contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @thecarolynray