There are some quirks of timing that we can’t control. We hear stories of serendipity in which a chance occurrence leads to love, success, eternal happiness! Or stories where the difference of one second is a matter of life or death. Timing seems so uncontrollable. But what if it’s not? What if there are some aspects of timing we can control? And what if this could help us do better in our jobs?
Author Daniel Pink takes on timing in his book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” Pink argues there is an optimal time to do certain types of work… and non-optimal times when you should avoid other types of work. Interestingly, when it comes to analytics, there are certain periods of the day that are better than others to gain insights. Let’s take a look.
The science of circadian rhythms
Every internal body clock is guided by one’s circadian rhythm or sleep/wake cycle. After you wake up, your body gradually reaches its peak wake level in the morning. It then dips mid-day, and has a recovery period in the afternoon. Your wake level then plummets at night when you go to sleep, to repeat it all the next day.
This general rhythm probably makes sense to you. We generally feel at our most alert in the morning a couple hours after waking up. And there’s definitely that mid-day slump where we want to crawl into our beds after lunch.
Some of us naturally do certain activities to match what our body is telling us. For example, when I feel that mid-day slump coming on, I take a walk down to the local Starbucks for a pick-me-up coffee. Pink argues that we should be more cognizant of our internal clocks and schedule certain types of work for specific times of the day.
Do analytical work in the morning
Work that requires us to analyze information and use logic should be done in the morning, according to Pink. In his book, he writes:
“When we wake up, our body temperature slowly rises. That rising temperature gradually boosts our energy level and alertness—and that, in turn, enhances our executive functioning, our ability to concentrate, and our powers of deduction. For most of us, those sharp-minded analytic capabilities peak in the late morning or around noon.”
Researcher Christopher Barnes also wrote about this, saying, “The most important tasks should be conducted when people are at or near their peaks in alertness.” That means doing critical work just before lunchtime, before energy levels dip and focus drops.
Creativity flourishes in the afternoon
So our minds peak in the morning, and then crash in the early afternoon. But we have a recovery period later in the afternoon. Wouldn’t this be a great time to do our analytical work again?
According to Pink, there’s actually a better type of work to do during this period, and that is more creative work. That’s because during our recovery period, we aren’t quite at the same level of performance as in the morning, and we have less vigilance and fewer inhibitions. That’s a great time to do creative work that helps yield new insights. Pink writes:
“That ‘flash of illuminance’ is more likely to occur when the guards are gone. At those looser moments, a few distractions can help us spot connections we might have missed when our filters were tighter.”
Takeaways for analysts
If working with data is your job, what does this mean as to how you should structure your day? For most people (and Pink goes into a discussion about morning larks and night owls that I won’t get into here), it means you should do that work that requires the most focus when you get into the office. Need to crunch numbers and prepare that important report? Great, do it in the morning. After lunch is a great time to catch up on emails or do other menial tasks that don’t require a whole lot of effort. But those last few hours of the day? That’s when you can devote time to the “what ifs.” What if we looked at the data this way? What if we tested this out? What if we did things a little differently?
Indeed, what if we did things differently when it comes to time? What if we tested out new ways of working? Perhaps we’ll find unexpected insights that will improve our job performance and the performance of our organizations.