Thought Leader Interview:
For those of us who thought Twin Peaks was just a weird TV show, tell us a bit about the hidden patterns of everyday life.
Behavioural researchers have found that we experience a consistent and strong bimodal pattern — ‘twin peaks’ — during the day. Our positive affect — when we feel active, engaged and hopeful — climbs during the morning hours until it reaches an optimal point around midday. Then our mood and energy plummet and stay low throughout the afternoon, only to rise again in the early evening. Put simply, we move through the day in three stages: peak, trough and recovery, and this sequence is true for most people.
One important implication of this pattern is that we are better off doing certain types of work or activities at certain times of the day. During the peak period, when we’re most vigilant, we do better analytic work. Later, during the trough, we should do administrative work, because that time isn’t good for much else. Then, during the recovery period — when our mood is higher but our vigilance is lower — we should do creative work that requires a bit more looseness.
This pattern also has a huge effect on work performance. There is evidence showing that ‘time of day’ explains about 20 per cent of the variance in how people perform on cognitive tasks. Timing is definitely more of a science than an art.
While these peaks and troughs are internal, research indicates that they have external implications. How so?
One thing we know for sure is that the trough period is a terrible time for important tasks. For instance, hospital hand-washing goes down considerably in the afternoon versus the morning, which leads to more hospital-acquired infections; physicians are much more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics in afternoon exams versus morning exams; and anesthesia errors are four times more likely at 3 p.m. than at 9 a.m.
In the realm of education, research out of Denmark shows that kids who take standardized tests in the afternoon versus the morning score as if they’ve missed two weeks of school. These results were mirrored in an L.A. Unified School District’s study, where kids who took math in the morning learned more than kids who took it in the afternoon, as reflected in their standardized test scores.
Talk a bit about the effects in the business arena.
One study from New York University looked at 26,000 earnings calls from more than 2,100 public companies over six years, examining whether ‘time of day’ influenced the emotional tenor of these critical conversations. Their findings: Calls held first thing in the morning were reasonably upbeat and positive;
A best-selling author unlocks the scientific secrets of ‘perfect timing’, showing that timing really is everything.
but as the day progressed, the tone grew more negative and less resolute. Around lunchtime, mood rebounded slightly — probably because call participants recharged their mental and emotional batteries — but in the afternoon, negativity and combativeness deepened again, with mood recovering only after the market’s closing bell.
Perhaps more important, especially for investors, the time of the call and the subsequent mood it engendered influenced company stock prices: Shares declined in response to negative tone, leading to temporary stock mispricing for firms hosting earnings calls later in the day. Economic rationality, it seems, is no match for a biological clock forged over a few million years of evolution.
There is also evidence that biases and stereotypes are affected by our daily rhythms. Please explain.
In one study, researchers asked participants to assess the guilt of a fictional criminal defendant. All the ‘jurors’ read the same set of facts, but for half of them, the defendant’s name was Robert Garner, and for the other half, it was Roberto Garcia. When people made their decisions in the morning, there was no difference in guilty verdicts between the two defendants. However, when they rendered verdicts later in the day, they were much more likely to believe that Garcia was guilty and Garner innocent. Mental keenness — as indicated by rationally evaluating evidence — was greater early in the day; and mental ‘squishiness’ — as evidenced by resorting to stereotypes — increased as the day wore on.
When our minds are in vigilant mode, as they tend to be in the morning, we can keep distractions outside of our ‘cerebral gates’. But after ‘standing watch’ hour after hour, our mental guards grow tired and they sneak out back for a break. When this happens, interlopers — sloppy logic, dangerous stereotypes and irrelevant information — slip through.
Why do beginnings matter so much to us?
Beginnings matter on many dimensions. One that is germane to your readers is that the initial labour market conditions when you graduate from school have a huge effect on your lifetime earning power. Studies in both the U.S. and Canada show that graduating in the midst of a recession shows up in your wages, even 20 years later. Also, people who get their MBAS during a recession are less likely to become CEOS of a large company than those who graduate in a better economy.
On the bright side, we can also embrace new beginnings to help us with our own behavioural changes, taking advantage of something called ‘the fresh start effect’. This was identified by three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who found that we are more likely to start a program of behaviour change and sustain it if we start on a Monday rather than a Thursday; if we start on the first of the month rather than on the 13th; or if we start on the day after our birthday rather than the day before.
The New Year is the quintessential example of a fresh start date. In the media, we always read that ‘half of New Year’s resolutions are broken’. To me, they are burying the lede. The real story is, half of resolutions actually stick! That is huge when you think about how difficult it is to change human behaviour.
You have studied not just beginnings but middles and ends. Is the midlife crisis a myth?
The midlife crisis is an idea with essentially no scientific support. It’s based on an article from 1965, from a Canadian psychoanalyst named Elliott Jacques. He looked at the biographies of artists and noticed that a lot of them died at age 37, and he concocted this theory.
However, there is evidence of something else: in general, there is a U-shaped curve of well-being. In the middle of our lives, we are less happy. We don’t necessarily have a crisis or bottom out, but well-being is higher earlier in life, dips in midlife and then recovers — not unlike the pattern of daily life. Scientists have found that this pattern of well-being holds across more than 70 countries. The U-shaped curve is consistent with other things we know about midpoints. When people hit a midpoint in any task, there is no question, their performance sags.
Describe the difference between ‘larks’, ‘owls’ and ‘third birds’.
We don’t all experience a day in precisely the same way. Each individual has a ‘chronotype’ — a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influences when we hit our peaks and troughs. Colloquially, we think of this as, are you a morning person or an evening person? But these are actually fairly enduring biological traits.
Our built-in clock uses social cues (i.e. office schedules or train timetables) and environmental signals (i.e. sunrises and sunsets) to make small adjustments that bring the internal and
Kids who take standardized tests in the afternoon versus the morning score as if they’ve missed two weeks of school.
external cycles more or less in sync. The result is that human beings metaphorically ‘open’ and ‘close’ at regular times during each day. In terms of distribution, we know that about 15 per cent of us are pretty strong morning types: We like to get up early and go to bed early. Much of the research shows morning people to be pleasant, productive folks — extroverted, conscientious, agreeable and emotionally stable.
About 20 to 25 per cent of us are very strong evening types, who get up late and go to bed late. ‘Owls’ tend to move through the day in almost a reverse order: recovery, trough, peak—but we still see the two spikes. Owls also display some darker tendencies: They’re more open than larks, but they’re also more neurotic. They are more likely to smoke and are more prone to addiction, eating disorders, depression and infidelity. At the same time, owls display greater creativity, show superior working memory and post higher scores on intelligence tests. Two thirds of us are in the middle somewhere — what I call ‘third birds’. The problem is, our corporate and education cultures are configured for the 75 or 80 per cent of people who are larks and third birds. Owls are like left-handers in a right-handed world.
Research from German Chronibiologist Till Roenneberg shows that chronotypes can even predict which profession people go into. Teachers and surgeons, for instance, tend to be larks; if you’re an owl who wants to be a doctor, it might be a good idea to work in an emergency department on the overnight shift. However, if you’re an owl doctor, I do not want you operating on me at 7 o’clock in the morning!
What is the ‘synchrony effect’?
This is a positive effect that occurs when one’s chronotype, task and time of day align. For instance, even though it’s generally 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. Also, younger people tend to have keener memories than older folks, but many of these age-based cognitive differences weaken — or disappear — when synchrony is taken into account.
Synchrony even effects ethical behaviour. One study identified a ‘morning morality effect’, showing that people are less likely to lie and cheat on tasks in the morning than later in the day. Subsequent research found that one explanation for the effect is simply that most people are morning or intermediate chronotypes; when you factor in ‘owliness’, the effect is more nuanced. Early risers display the morning morality effect, but night owls are more ethical at night.
What does it look like for someone to embrace these findings in their daily life?
I’ll give you a few famous examples. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a classic lark. He would typically awaken between 7 and 8 a.m. and then read, drink tea and take a walk. At 9:30 he went to his piano to compose for a few hours. Then he broke for lunch and another stroll in the afternoon. He believed that walks were essential for creativity. At 5 p.m., he settled back in for a few more hours of work before eating dinner at 8 p.m.
Writer Joyce Carol Oates operates on a similar rhythm. She generally writes from 8 in the morning until 1 p.m., then eats lunch and allows herself an afternoon break before resuming work from 4 o’clock until dinner around 7. Both Tchaikovsky and Oates are ‘peak-trough-rebound’ kinds of people.
Others march to a very different drummer. Novelist Gustave Flaubert would typically not awaken until 10 a.m., after which he’d spend an hour bathing, primping and puffing his pipe. Around 11, he would join his family for a late-morning meal that served as both his breakfast and lunch. He would then tutor his niece for a while and devote most of the afternoon to resting and reading. At 7 p.m. he would have dinner, and afterwards, he would sit and talk to his mother until she went to bed around 9 p.m. That’s when he did his writing. Night-owl Flaubert’s day moved in an opposite direction — from recovery to trough to peak.
Talk a bit about the power of restorative breaks.
What we know about breaks is pretty simple: We should all be taking more of them and we should be taking certain kinds of them. We need to change the way we view breaks. There is this widespread belief that breaks are a deviation from performance. When we see someone take a break, we think, ‘Oh, look at that amateur; she needs a break,’ when in fact, we should recognize that breaks are key to strong performance. We should be looking at that person saying, ‘Wow, what a pro; she’s a great role model.’
With breaks, I think we are today where the science of sleep was 15 years ago. At one time, we sort of respected people who pulled all-nighters. We thought they were more committed than the average person — that they were fiercer and better
Well-being is higher earlier in life, dips in midlife, and then recovers.
performers. But we now know from the science of sleep that people who pull all-nighters are probably hurting their performance — and they might also be hurting the performance of those who work with them.
There’s a lot of research showing that people perform very differently after breaks. In that Danish study I mentioned earlier, the students who took the test in the afternoon scored as if they’d missed two weeks of school; and one way to get their test scores back up was to simply give them a 20 - to 30-minute break to run around before they took that afternoon test. When a break was given, scores went way up.
The research also shows that certain kinds of breaks are better than others: We are better off moving around during our breaks; we’re better off being outside; and we’re better off taking a break with someone else, rather than alone. Perhaps most important of all, we’re better off fully detaching during our breaks — meaning don’t talk about work and certainly do not bring your phone.
If everyone would schedule just one 10- to 15-minute break every day — and take the right type of break — we would see massive boosts to productivity, engagement and happiness in the workplace.
What can a leader do to embrace these findings, starting tomorrow?
One thing that I would recommend is to schedule meetings more strategically. When we schedule meetings, we typically use only one criterion: availability. That’s a huge mistake. We don’t think, ‘Hmm, is this a meeting where people need to be thinking analytically? Is this purely an administrative meeting, or is it a meeting where people need to be brainstorming and thinking creatively?’
If you think about how much time we spend in meetings, this is a ginormous strategic loss. People scheduling meetings need to ask a few fundamental questions: What kind of meeting is this? What kind of thinking do we want people to do? Who is going to be there? And then, use these factors to schedule the meeting at the right time of day.
Another tip is, if you have good news and bad news to deliver, you should deliver the bad news first. The research shows that the vast majority of people prefer bad news first and good news next, because given a choice, we prefer ‘endings that elevate’. And so, when you’re given a performance review, or giving your boss an update, or talking to an important customer, remember: bad news first, good news last.
Finally, no matter whether you spend your days moving money around, treating patients or teaching children, beware of that middle period. The trough can be more dangerous than most of us realize.
If everyone would schedule a 10- to 15-minute break each day, we would see massive boosts to productivity and engagement.