I never miss an opportunity to read whatever Daniel Pink authors, or give up a chance to hear him speak on podcasts, or interviews, or in person. His books: A Whole New Mind; Drive; and, To Sell is Human are three of my favourites and rarely spend much time on my book shelf, as either I take one down to refresh my memory about an idea, or a staff member drops in to grab one of my copies.
Pink’s latest work – When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing hit the bookstores last week and once again he doesn’t disappoint. One of the central themes is his examination of the research studying the correlation between performance and time of day. Scientists have known for a long time that most living organisms have internal clocks or “circadian rhythms”. Pink’s research takes this one step further as he considers the impact of these rhythms on our day to day performance at work, school, or play.
“For most of us mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a recovery.” Most of us seem to peak in the morning, trough at midday, and recover in the later afternoon. But, as he notes, even casual observation reveals that not all of us experience this pattern in the same way, in fact, we’re all different “chromotypes.” About a quarter of us are “larks” that excel in the morning; others are “owls” that hit their peak in the wee hours, and still others — between 60 to 80 per cent of us — are “third birds,” somewhere in between. Knowing your chromotype is critical to avoid making dangerous mistakes or becoming the victim of other people’s time-sensitive errors. Pink points out that although most of us fall into that middle group, this is not a consistent pattern throughout our lives. Young children tend to be “larks”, up at ’em at the crack of dawn. After puberty there is a significant shift towards becoming an “owl”. Research shows that for most teenagers, 6-7 a.m. is the physical equivalent of the middle of the night. And, anyone who has tried to dynamite a teenager out of bed in the morning, or watched adolescent zombies walk the halls of a high school before lunch will understand that completely. Eventually, most young adults tend to gravitate to the middle ground in their 20s but will eventually become more and more “larkish” in their 60s and beyond.
So, what impact does all of this have on schooling? To begin with, for elementary students, it is a reminder – which all teachers and tutors know from experience – that the most challenging academic tasks are best performed before the early afternoon. Pink identifies the trough period for most people as hitting between 2 and 4 p.m. but for younger “larks” in the early elementary it may come as early as 11 or so. High School students are more productive if, either their day starts a bit later, or begins with less academically demanding courses such as phys-ed or one on one direct instruction, where they can be individually coached and encouraged, scheduled at the beginning of the day.
Can you break this rhythm, or are we doomed to wallow in the afternoon trough with declining focus and productivity? Well, in this case, Pink gives us a little hope to counter our own circadian rhythms. He suggests that the mid-afternoon is a good time to focus on mundane, administrative tasks. If morning is our peak analytical time, and later in the day is our most creative, then the mid-point might just be a time to grind it out! He also points out that research shows that taking a break (not an extended siesta, but rather a deliberate active change of scene) can also be rejuvenating. I heard Pink speak about this on Quirks and Quarks last week. He recommends a brief – 10-15 minutes – brisk walk, outdoors, ideally in the company of a friend or colleague. This tends to clean out the cobwebs, improve mood, and get you back on track. For elementary students this might mean a “body break” on the playground. For high school kids, a 10 minute afternoon opportunity to walk to the corner and grab a snack. These “time wasters” are actually a great investment in productivity.
So next time you have trouble getting your kids up in the morning, or getting them to focus on homework in the evening. Don’t blame them, blame it on their chromotype!
Timing is everything.