Monday, 5 March 2018

When We Work

In recent posts I have focussed on how we can make ourselves more productive by selecting the work we do and choosing who we work with. I think the next logical subject, before moving on to where we work, is deciding on when we work.

Only the other day I was on route to yoga (I’m of that age now) and planned to be there at 6.30pm. However, I arrived late because I hit the “rush hour” (or more appropriately “slow three hour”) traffic. Isn’t it bizarre that in an age when most large businesses have offices across all regions of the world, and many of us liaise with offices in different time zones, that we still have the 9 ‘til 5 office hours? One consequence of which is the morning and evening “rush hours”. I wondered what any aliens observing us would think when seeing us all queuing, in our cars or at stations, to get to and from work at exactly the same time as everyone else.

Anyhow my point is that, to be more productive it may be wiser to start work slightly earlier or later than everyone else, and correspondingly finish early or late. I appreciate we may go to work to collaborate with our neighbouring colleagues, but how often does that happen and does it need to happen at 9 o’clock sharp? There are other factors to account for, such as families, socialising, machinery and daylight hours, but do the majority still really need to work the same hours each day? And do they really need to be in the same location?

So, are you a morning or an evening person, are you a lark or an owl? In scientific terms, what’s your chronotype? A few years ago, in an on-line survey, I asked the participants what time of the day they are most productive? Our sample, a mix of 937 respondents with a high proportion in the design and construction industry, said they are most productive early morning before 09.00 (37%) or from 09.00 to 12.30 (41%). It’s interesting that over one-third are productive before the traditional time of starting work, because in a later survey I found the most common coping strategy for avoiding distractions was coming into work early (or working late). Regardless of my own data, I know I work better late afternoon to early evening, and occasionally into the wee hours - it takes me a while to get going (especially if writing) but once I do motivation takes over and the time just flies by.

So, I am not an early riser but caught the 07.00 train the other day to travel to a breakfast seminar (my worse type of meeting). I sat next to an acquaintance, who I hadn’t seen for some time. Apparently, he caught that same train each day and then apologised to me because he wanted to respond to all his emails before arriving in the office. Is this normal behaviour – responding to emails on the commute (I assume in his own time) at around 7am? Maybe that is when he was most productive, or maybe he just didn’t want to speak to me. He did say he gets home no later than 5pm so I admire his working of non-traditional hours. However, I wondered whether he expected his colleagues to answer those emails at that same time. Would they be reading and typing away over breakfast, or are they also early risers? There is a serious point here – it’s not uncommon for some people to work unusual or extended hours, late into the night and weekends. We can argue whether such hours are productive or legal (the French appear to think not), but it is certainly not acceptable for said people to expect their colleagues to work similar hours. It seems such emails are about creating time rather than for communication.

Using my own survey database, I also examined whether different personality types, measured using OCEAN, considered themselves productive at different times of the day. I found small, but statistically significant, differences but not as I expected! The extroverts say they are more productive in the early morning compared to introverts (p=0.04). Similarly, those more open (the creatives) appear more productive in the morning compared to their counterparts (p=0.02). In contrast, the more conscientious rated themselves as more productive in the evening (p=0.05) – perhaps they work late alone to complete their tasks. However, overall my data doesn’t suggest a huge impact of personality on the best time to work. It is more likely to do with other personal circumstances and preferences.

One such factor maybe intelligence. Contrary to popular belief, research has found that night owls outperformed morning larks on most intelligence measures, in particular working memory and processing speed. Their results even held up even when the cognitive tests were taken in the morning. In contrast, other research found that morning people tended to be more agreeable, conscientious and proactive but procrastinate less. Our preferences have also been linked to health, sleep patterns, genetics and circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms relate to the physiological regulation of sleep patterns etc. As the sunlight declines, melatonin is released by the pineal gland which in turn lowers the heart rate and blood-pressure preparing us for sleep. So, from a physiological point of view, night-time is not the best time for productivity, and not preferred by most anyhow. Despite adapting to different work patterns, long-term working at night can affect health and lead to loss of performance as is evident from studies of night-shift workers. But motivation, interest, deadlines, stress, adrenalin, caffeine and rest can change all that – at least in the short-term if not the long-term.

After lunch may not be the most productive time for some – ever felt a bit drowsy early afternoon? It could be circadian rhythms, or poor sleep patterns, but there are several other food related views such as energy/blood being focussed on digesting food, a blood sugar crash, changes in insulin and serotonin levels etc. There are several solutions to counter post-lunch drowsiness, for me it’s a walk in fresh air, either or alone or preferably with scintillating conversation. This not only re-energises us but conducting activities with non-taxing involuntary attention in nature also aids creativity. In contrast, for others a power-nap (the modern-day siesta) may be the solution, and indeed sleep pods seem to be on the increase in the trendier offices.

A more interesting concept than circadian rhythms is ultradian rhythms, built upon by Tony Schwarz in his Energy Project. After studying athletes and sleep cycles, he discovered that we can only focus, and work at maximum performance, for 90 minutes before requiring a break. He proposes that we work in cycles of 90 minutes full on effort followed by a 20 minutes break. It needs to be a proper break from work, without feeling guilty. Make it a walk and you will have additional creativity and health benefits. Overtime we can build to four 90 minutes sessions in a day – six hours at maximum performance. I’ve tried it and it works, but I expect it is easier to achieve when working from home alone than in a large office surrounded by your colleagues and boss.

In conclusion, we are all different so choose the time to work that best suits you, the time of day that minimises wasted effort and wasted time from distractions or just queueing. It’s absurd in an age of global commerce (with multiple time zones) and a world of 24/7 service to expect everyone to perform at their best 9 ‘til 5. Also recognise that your colleagues are more productive at different times of the day and, unless you have an important and urgent enquiry, respect that timing.


  1. Excellent article, thanks. I work on the basis of one hour work, then walk downstairs (4 flights), walk around for 10 minutes outside (irrespective of the weather minus 10C today, quite pleasant), then walk back up. Gives me exercise, clears my brain, chance to think things through (and have a cigarette!).... Certainly works though in my case, much more productive that way.

  2. Nigel Ive found a simple App from Public Health England. Its called ACTIVE 10 and the idea is that you track your movements during the day. Rather than counting paces, all it does is measure your brisk walking times. 3 brisk walks, 10 minutes uninterrupted, is a surprisingly difficult target. Doing that would fit with your 90 minute cycles perfectly. Matthew

  3. Interesting to see you taking the psychological perspective Nigel. And completely acceptable for one who is a psychologist. Your perspective on being productive answers the question whether I as an individual think I am productive. When it comes to the economic perspective we have to face Total Factor Productivity, the output created by ALL input factors together. From an organizational perspective we should look at TFP. From an HR perspective you might assume an "ALL EMPLOYEES" perspective, if ever HR people think and act in terms of productivity?

    In 1996 I was appointed as supporting civil servant in the Committee for Daily Routines as initiated by the Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. I recall that weekly routines as related to work, to participation of women, to commuting and congestion were recognized as inevitable unalterable "biological". Not due to working people but because of the needs and time-patterns of children, and the school hours throughout the week. The consequences were: more asphalt, not a better use of existing infrastructure, more grandparents looking after the kids so mum could go to work, but also and in the meantime developed as a mature economic sector, the before and after school care for kids. The introduction of Flexible offices without less workplace than employees doesn't seem to work for becoming more productive; we keep coming to the (smaller) office to meet or to concentrate, however some people learn to deal with this, but we don’t now at what organisational consequences or costs. And how odd: we seem to perceive the concentration time as being productive, while chatting over a cup of tea is not productive. How do we count our off-time, when our subconscious brain is processing.... ?

    The "time-place-me-you-us"- arrangements still hold a fair amount of secrets to be unhidden. Once we have done that we might answer the question HOW to do better. Until that it is trial and error, the thing that is left for us is live the imperfect learning life. Or maybe that is HOW to do better!

  4. quality Nige, thanks! See you soon