These days, the concept of “finding your why” is prevalent in schools, the corporate sector and across communities thanks to Simon Sinek’s prolific book Starting with Why. As a result of this important work, people across the world have been on the quest to connect more wholeheartedly with their purpose in authentic, soulful ways at work, within their families, and through service to their communities. A wave of motivated individuals has begun actively rejecting the notion that we should simply be ‘putting in our time’ at work for the payoff of retirement, and more connected to the ideal of reigniting passion that once existed.
While “why” is an essential question that has certainly helped to guide my goals and focus on desired outcomes for success, I’ve learned recently about another important W…
…the art of finding your When.
According to Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (2018), we all have individualized internal neurobiological clocks that determine our effectiveness throughout the day. He argues that the better we understand our when, the more effectively we can plan our work and personal lives for efficiency, relaxation, and most importantly, reduced stress.
Our Three-Part Day:
Our day is generally broken into three sections that can impact our ability to be function at work, home and in the community in an ethical, efficient, patient, fair, and unbiased manner:
The peak is characterised by efficiency and general wakefulness. According to studies, the peak is when judges tend to be the most ethical and fair, surgeons and hospital staff tend to be the most accurate, and people do their most effective thinking and work. Three quarters of people experience their peak in the morning.
We’ve all had that feeling of sluggish sleepiness in the afternoon, where our brains feel like syrup and it seems impossible to get anything done. This is the trough. Pink states that “afternoons are the Bermuda triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.”
Hospitals and judicial systems tend to do their worst during the mid-afternoon trough: more people die due to medical negligence on the whole and fewer paroles are granted during this time of day.
This is the period when we start to regain our energy and spirit, recovering from the low-energy of the through. If you think about this through the lens of self-regulation, this is when the body is regaining its balance after a low-energy period. For most people, this occurs in the late afternoon or evening.
We all have individual circadian rhythms, but there are three generally-accepted chronotype patterns that exist in humans:
1. The Lark: Early risers, early to bed.
2. The Owl: Late risers, late to bed.
3. The Third Bird: A combination of both, but follow a fairly standard pattern.
Why Should we care?
So why does this matter? What are the implications for us at work, school, and home?
Well, the more we understand our own chronotype, the better we can manage our days and tasks for success.
Pink has also come up with some super handy tips and tricks to overcome the trough, especially when we recognize its onset coming, which I’ll address at the end. These strategies and the concept of the chronotype are particularly important for teachers to consider with intention in the educational setting.
• Three-quarters of us tend to be early risers or the third bird. This means we tend to want to do our most pressing, mental work in the morning.
• More leisurely routine tasks such as filling out forms, sorting paperwork, or cleaning can easily be done in the early afternoon during the trough. Creative work for this group tends to work best either in the morning or in the late afternoon.
• It doesn’t make sense to schedule decision-heavy or intensely academic tasks during the trough. Once you understand that, you’ll be more likely to keep those activities for your peak times.
• Cleaning or mindless sorting-type work can easily be allocated to the trough period, because it gives your brain a break from heavy cognitive overload.
• Nearly a quarter of people, however, are owls or late to rise. Their chronotype dictates that their best cognitive working time (recovery, then peak) is in the late afternoon and evening, while their trough tends present in the morning. For those people, they should keep the light cognitive work to the mornings.
Our Chronotype Can be Dictated by Age:
Interestingly, our chronotype can change throughout our lives.
• As young children, we tend to be larks (as most parents have discovered through experience) and do our best thinking and growth in the morning. Most young toddlers continue to need naps to regain their energy through the trough period.
• Teenagers, as you might have guessed, tend to take on the owl chronotype, which obviously has implications for school schedules and overall success at school.
• As we reach adulthood, most of us fall back into the lark or third bird designation.
What about when we have no choice about our schedules? How do we beat our trough?
• Pink talks about the importance of creating what he’s coined “vigilance breaks,” which are especially useful in high-stakes situations and careers in healthcare or where people’s safety is at risk. He describes these times as cognitive breaks or check ins that keep us focused on the task at hand. For example, in effective hospitals, medical staff redundantly confirm checklists aloud to one another to ensure that patients’ livelihoods are protected from the perils of human error.
• But, it’s not only careers that deal in life or death that benefit from breaks. “If we stick with a task too long, we lose sight of the goal,” Pink asserts.
• Regular breaks or time outs from cognitively exhausting work is essential to recharge and reinvigorate us at work. Studies have shown that our efficiency increases if we allow ourselves breaks every 60-90 minutes of work.
What might these breaks look like, day-to-day?
• Connecting with nature
• Exercise or move your body regularly throughout the day
• Listen to music
• Talk to a friend or connect socially for even a few minutes (in person, not virtually)
• Do a small act of kindness for someone-the endorphins and helper’s high will carry you through the trough
• Do yoga or stretching at your desk at least every hour of work
• Have a nappuccino…yep! Dan talks about the research-based benefits of coffee plus 10-20-minute nap. The caffeine doesn’t enter your system until after you’ve woken up. Win-win!
How can the concept of chronographs affect the classroom? How can we give students regular breaks in the classroom?
• Take your students outside for regular breaks. There have been studies shown that student academic success improves when students are given frequent opportunities for unstructured breaks throughout their days. Some schools have provided their students with 4 recess breaks…and it works!
• Employ most of the above suggestions (minus the nappuccino, perhaps!)
• Try to do the cognitive heavy-lifting in the morning, and allow for more passive or creative expressions of learning to occur in the afternoon. (Of course, there’s an argument that we should flip this in middle and high-schools because most of our students will fit the owl profile).
• Tell your students about the different chronographs and help them to understand themselves. They can get better at self-regulation when they understand the implications of timing, too!