BOOK REVIEW: Why perfect timing is vital for top work performance

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, by Daniel H. Pink

IMAGINE for a moment that you knew the perfect time to do everything.

The perfect time to make decisions, the perfect decision to make regarding timing. When to accept a job offer, and when to leave a job. When to present to a client, and when to take on a new action that needs to become a habit.

And the list goes on.

Author Daniel Pink has collected a startling array of findings from a wide variety of credible sources. All shed light on one of life’s most vexing problems: when is the right time?

It was Miles Davis who said that timing isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing!

Consider just some of the observations and insights Pink shares.

In an article in the respected magazine, Science, researchers reported on their findings across 500 million tweets sent by 2.4 million users in 84 countries posted over two years. They found that positive emotions such as feeling engaged and hopeful were generally higher in the morning, plummeted in the afternoon, and climbed up again in the early evening. Neither the day of the week, nor the weekend made any difference.

Across continents and time zones, the same daily patterns occur: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. It also appears that nearly all living things have biological clocks that affect their moods and energy.

This field of study, called chronobiology, shouldn’t be only of interest to some, because timing can even affect the share price of a company.

A study of over 26k earnings reports from more than 2 100 public companies over six-and-a-half years revealed price-altering results. Reports presented first thing in the morning were perceived as generally more upbeat and positive. In the afternoon, when negativity deepened again, responses to reports “were more negative, irritable, and combative” than reports in the morning.

So aside from shareholder’s meetings, should business people tackle their most important work in the morning? The answer is yes, and no. Here’s why.

Our cognitive abilities are not constant over the course of a day. But not only do they fluctuate, they are dependent on the nature of the task.

Generally, our mental alertness and energy levels climb in the morning, reaching their peak about midday, then plummet during the afternoons, and recover in the late afternoon. Again, that is not true for all people.

Each of us has a “chronotype” - a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influence our physiology and psychology.

Not just larks and owls

In the past we have divided people into two broad classes – larks (an early morning bird,) and owls (a night bird.) However, there is a third bird, according to the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire. While the number of extreme owls outnumbers the extreme larks, 60% to 80% of us are the “third bird”, not too owlish and not too larkish.

Why does it matter? Consider being more of an owl and writing your matric maths exam in the morning. You will do worse than you would have done later in the day. Not because you know less, but because mornings are not when you best show how much you know.

I mention maths particularly because not all brain work is the same. Some problems require analytical prowess, while others require insight. The insight problems are more likely to be solved when birds are not at their peak – mornings for owls and late afternoons for larks.

The “Big Five” psychological traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism,) are also differently affected for larks, the third bird, and owls.

While there are sound tests to assess your chronotype quite easily, Pink offers a simple test and a variety of tips throughout the book in chapters entitled “Time Hacker’s Handbook.”

A ‘quick and dirty’ way to find your avian type is to do the following computation for your sleep pattern. On “free days” when you don’t have to be awake at specific times, take your bedtime and your wake-up time, and find the mid-point. Those of us whose mid-point is before 03:00 are larks, midpoints after 06:00 are owls, and everyone between are “third birds”.

Everyone experiences the day in three stages: peak, trough and rebound, but one in four people, the owls, experience the day in reverse order.

Best time for brainstorming

As a manager you are best served by holding a brainstorming meeting in the late afternoon which will suit most people, and an analytical meeting in the morning.

The best performing business people need to be aware of their chronotype, just as do the best performing athletes. And work around it as much as possible.

Based on good science, we know more about what is required for peak performance today than we did in the past. For example, we now know lunch is the most important meal of the day, not breakfast. We know that taking an afternoon nap is not a sign of shameful indolence, nor best reserved for five-year-olds, but a very smart practice for corporate athletes.

If afternoons are the ‘Bermuda Triangles’ of our days, it would be wise to encourage taking a “perfect nap” if it will boost your individual productivity and corporate performance. In the UK, sleep-related car accidents peak twice every day at 14:00 and 06:00. So, we may assume, do poor decisions.

There are many types of “restorative breaks” not completely dissimilar to the afternoon nap. Some only take minutes, but have dropped death rates in hospitals by 18%. They include physically taking a step back from the work you are doing, and refocusing on the task to be accomplished.

‘When’ does matter. Studies have shown that “if you happen to appear before a parole board just before a break rather than just after one, you’ll likely spend a few more years in jail - not because of the facts of the case but because of the time of day,” Pink reports.

There is no single answer to what breaks look like, but science does offer five guiding principles.

1. Something beats nothing;

2. Moving beats stationary;

3. Social beats solo;

4. Outside beats inside; and

5. Fully detached beats semi-detached.

So, the cinematic supervillain Gordon Gekko was wrong on many counts when he said: “Lunch is for wimps.” About 62% of American office workers eat lunch alone at their desks each day. This is simply a recipe for poor performance, not a sign of commitment or a great work ethic.

And the perfect nap? It’s a coffee followed by a 20-minute sleep, because caffeine takes 25 minutes to kick in, and you will wake refreshed. Pink calls this the ‘napacinno’.

There are so many more insights into how the time of day, week or year affects our working prowess that it is not surprising that this book has become a best-seller.

Readability:  Light ---+- Serious
Insights:       High +---- Low
Practical:      High -+--- Low
  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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