4 ways to hack your schedule for optimal productivity
We love to say “timing is everything,” but often we sure as heck don’t act like it. (Bookstores have an entire “how to” section but not a “when to” section.)
As we’re going to find out, timing really can be everything. And often we’ve got it all wrong. Luckily, bestselling author Dan Pink has come to the rescue. His book is When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It’s loaded with information on the best time to do almost anything — including the best time to get married. (You might wanna tie the knot between 25 and 32.)
… an American who weds at twenty-five is 11 percent less likely to divorce than one who marries at age twenty-four, according to analysis by University of Utah sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger. … past the age of thirty-two – even after controlling for religion, education, geographic location, and other factors – the odds of divorce increase by 5 percent per year for at least the next decade.
And if you’re already married, try and be extra nice in March and August — that’s when divorce filings consistently shoot up.
Ever have to give someone “good news and bad news”? Dan reports that you should deliver the bad news before the good news.
Several studies over several decades have found that roughly four out of five people “prefer to begin with a loss or negative outcome and ultimately end with a gain or positive outcome, rather than the reverse.”
There’s no way I could cover all the great insights in the book, so we’re going to focus on how to use Dan’s findings to be more productive and effective during the day.
All your hours are not created equal — not by a long shot.
1. Do think-y stuff in the morning
Anything requiring you to be at your most rational and analytical should be done early in the day. This is a very robust finding with mountains of studies to back it up.
Researchers usually just present data — they don’t often give explicit recommendations. But the writers of one paper Dan cites found their results so overwhelming they just came right out and told people what to do — make important decisions early.
“[A]n important takeaway from our study for corporate executives is that communications with investors, and probably other critical managerial decisions and negotiations, should be conducted earlier in the day.”
Maybe you’re thinking, “Meh. I’m sure it’s not that big a deal if I wait until after lunch.” Wrong.
You might as well pound a few beers before sitting down to work — that’s how big the performance difference can be.
“[T]he performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effect on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol,” according to Russell Foster, a neuroscientist and chronobiologist at the University of Oxford.
And this jives with previous research. Dan Ariely of Duke University found that mornings really are magical for getting stuff done:
… it turns out that most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning. Not immediately after waking, but if you get up at 7 you’ll be most productive from around from 8-10:30.
You know what else Ariely’s research found? We usually waste most of that golden time with email and Facebook. Bad. Mornings are when you want to handle your most important tasks.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So mornings are magic. But what’s the latter half of the day good for?
2. Afternoons are sluggish — but insightful
One study found that 2:55 p.m. is very likely the most un-productive moment of your day.
Researchers refer to mornings as the “peak” and afternoons as the “trough.” You’re probably thinking about how that negatively impacts your work. Well, don’t just yet.
Think about how it affects other people’s work. I, for one, am never going to a doctor’s office in the afternoon for the rest of my life.
Anesthesiologists commit three times as many errors that result in patient harm during the latter half of the day. (Errors by a surgeon are pretty scary. Errors where somebody puts you to sleep and you never wake up are terrifying.)
The number of studies that show just how much stupider and less in control we are during the afternoon is staggering.
The #1 time for sleep-related car accidents is, unsurprisingly, late at night when people are exhausted. Guess when #2 is? Not rush hour or morning commute when the most cars are on the road — it’s between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. All around the world.
In the United Kingdom, sleep-related vehicle accidents peak twice during every twenty-four-hour period. One is between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., the middle of the night. The other is between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., the middle of the afternoon. Researchers have found the same pattern of traffic accidents in the U.S., Israel, Finland, France, and other countries.
After the morning ends, we’re a bit of mess. But there is an upside. When your brain is tired, creativity jumps. Those misfiring neurons aren’t as rational but they’re much more likely to come up with new ideas.
Some have called this phenomenon the “inspiration paradox” — the idea that “innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms.”
So you might want to come up with new plans in the afternoon — and execute them the next morning.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
I know there’s a group of people right now who are vigorously shaking their heads at all of the above: “I am not sharper in the morning; I’m a zombie. It’s takes four hours before my brain even starts working.”
I’m not talking about the sleep-deprived (they’re a mess all day long.) I’m talking about night owls. And guess what? They’re right.
3. “Strike that — reverse it”
If you’re a night owl, take everything I just said and reverse it.
(Night owls who only read the very beginning of this post received some really bad advice. I feel no guilt. That’s what you get for not reading to the end. Nyah.)
“Larks” (early risers) and “third birds” (people who are neither extreme) peak in the morning, have a trough in the afternoon, and then experience a period of recovery. For night owls, it’s recovery, trough, peak.
In short, all of us experience the day in three stages — a peak, a trough, and a recovery. And about three-quarters of us (larks and third birds) experience it in that order. But about one in four people, those whose genes or age make them night owls, experience the day in something closer to the reverse order — recovery, trough, peak.
And sure enough, night owls get into more car accidents during their morning commute.
… even though it’s obviously more dangerous to drive at night, owls actually drive worse early in the day because mornings are out of synch with their natural cycle of vigilance and alertness.
If you’re a child of the night, plan creative tasks for the morning and critical thinking for the afternoon. And don’t drive anywhere near where I’m at until 2 p.m.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
While very interesting, all this information can also be upsetting. If you have little control over your schedule, you’re going to be doing a lot of stuff at suboptimal times. And if your job doesn’t involve much creativity, is half the day just wasted?
How do we turn that trough into more of a peak? The answer is simple: take breaks. But what’s really interesting is there is more than one type of break that we need.
4. The two types of breaks
You’re a night owl and you’ve got a big presentation at 9 a.m. Or you’re a lark and it’s scheduled for 2:55 p.m., the Productivity Minute of Doom. This is when you need what Dan calls a “vigilance break.”
Vigilance breaks are “… brief pauses before high-stakes encounters to review instructions and guard against error.”
Stop what you’re doing. Don’t just barrel forward with your brain feeling like mush. Take a moment to review everything that needs to be done and how you need to do it. A checklist made during your peak hours can really help here.
One year after the Veterans Hospital Administration implemented vigilance breaks for doctors they found that the surgical mortality rate had dropped by 18 percent.
Now if vigilance breaks are great for marshaling your defenses against errors, “restorative breaks” are what you need to recharge and improve performance. Instead of reviewing a checklist, you want to get some distance from your work and relax a bit.
Students that take standardized tests during their trough perform worse than those who take them during their peak. But when allowed restorative breaks, the afternoon group actually got better scores than the morning students.
Danish schoolchildren who take the tests in the afternoon score significantly worse than those who take the exams earlier in the day … When the Danish students had a 20-to-30-minute break “to eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores did not decline. In fact, they increased.
What’s the best restorative break? Combining the insights from many studies, Dan recommends “a short walk outside with a friend during which you discuss something other than work.” And another study showed that the highest performers usually worked for 52 minutes and then took a 17 minute break.
I know, I know: It might not be realistic for everyone. In that case you want to make sure to maximize the break that is built into everyone’s schedule — lunch. It can be a big performance booster if done correctly.
The most powerful lunch breaks have two key ingredients — autonomy and detachment. Autonomy — exercising some control over what you do, how you do it, when you do it, and whom you do it with—is critical for high performance, especially on complex tasks … Detachment — both psychological and physical — is also critical. Staying focused on work during lunch, or even using one’s phone for social media, can intensify fatigue according to multiple studies, but shifting one’s focus away from the office has the opposite effect.
If you leverage breaks properly, your trough can actually be more productive than your peak.
(To see the schedule that very successful people follow every day, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned quite a bit about how to be more productive. Let’s round everything up and learn the best time to implement these changes…
Here’s the best time to get stuff done:
- Think-y stuff in the morning: If you’re reading this at midnight, you’re breaking my heart.
- Afternoons are sluggish — but insightful: Creativity peaks when you aren’t thinking straight.
- Night owl? Strike that — reverse it: I wrote this post during the evening, but don’t worry — I’m a night owl. Hoot. Hoot.
- The two types of breaks: Vigilance breaks are when you take a step back and review your checklist before an important moment. Restorative breaks are when you relax to recharge your dwindling batteries.
Okay, ready to make some big changes in your schedule? Want to feel like you’re making a fresh start? Dan has the right time for that as well.
Yes, you could begin implementing all this tomorrow but the research shows we are actually more likely to follow through when we start on what are called “temporal landmarks.”
These are natural turning points on the calendar when you can open a new mental account and feel like a “new you.” Best example is New Year’s Day, that time when most of us make resolutions — but it’s not the only one. There are two kinds: social and personal.
The social landmarks were those that everyone shared: Mondays, the beginning of a new month, national holidays. The personal ones were unique to the individual: birthdays, anniversaries, job changes.
So pick your temporal landmark and start fresh.
Align your schedule with how your brain naturally works and time really is on your side.