Quality Time: The Presentation That Changed My Work Life

Have you ever learned something that radically changed the way you work? I experienced that kind of paradigm shift this summer during a Professional Development Day on my campus.

The session was on time management, led by David Gurzick, a professor of management at Hood College. I walked in expecting to hear about tools like Trello and Evernote, or maybe bullet journaling. But the session wasn’t about the HOW or WHAT, but the WHEN. Using workplace research and Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dr. Gurzick talked us through how our brains function throughout the day, and how to match the right task to the right time. Dr. Gurzick’s talk and the book When have transformed how I structure my day.

Both Dr. Gurzick and When emphasize the importance of timing and becoming aware of what researchers have found to be the natural pattern of the average work day. Over the course of a day, most peoples’ moods follow a consistent pattern that starts high in the morning, dips in the afternoon, and rises for the rest of the evening. Pink calls these phases of the day the peak, trough, and recovery:

Image of graph that spikes, dips low, and gradually rises again over the period of 12 hours.

“During the peak, which for most of us is the morning, we’re better at analytic tasks. That’s when we’re most vigilant, when we’re able to bat away distractions and concentrate deeply. During the trough, which for most of us is the early-to-mid-afternoon, we should do our administrative tasks—answering routine emails, filling out expense reports. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, we’re better at insight problems. Our mood then is better than during the trough. And we’re less vigilant than during the peak. That looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity.” (Daniel Pink, interview on Scientific American)

Being invited to notice this pattern hidden in everyday life was personally revolutionary. I can easily see the clear rhythm of peak-trough-recovery in my day. And if this pattern doesn’t resonate with you, you might be a night owl. For night owls this rhythm is actually reversed – you wake up in the recovery phase, hit your trough in the middle of the day, and are the most alert to detail in a peak phase till bedtime.

So how did I work these ideas into my library life? Well, at my library we don’t have a strict schedule for desk shifts. Like I imagine many directors and department heads, my boss doesn’t direct my day hour by hour. So I have at least the illusion that I’m in charge of how I spend my time, which can be both good and bad. There are definitely days where I feel like I’ve lost half the day fighting my own distractions and discouragements.

In fact, during the quiet of the summer, structuring my own day was particularly challenging. Without classes to teach or students to interrupt me, I struggled to prioritize tasks. My habit was to do the “easy” things first, like reading email and shelving books. What I didn’t realize until Dr. Gurzick’s talk was that I was wasting my strongest brainpower on the tasks that required the least attention and energy. Simply by becoming aware of when I focus best and when my mood is the most hopeful, I have been able to harness the work hours more effectively. For example, I’m working on this blog post at 11:00 in the morning because I know this is the best time for me to write thoughtfully.

Dr. Gurzick also shared this matrix, which illustrates a few types of work that we all have to do every day:

2x2 grid that shows an axis of high to low engagement and an axis of high to low challenge. Highly engaged, not challenging work = rote; Hihgly engaged, challenging work = "focus"; Low engagement, low challenge = "bored"; low engagement, high challenge = "frustrated"From Bored Mondays and Focused Afternoons: The Rhythm of Attention and Online Activity in the Workplace by Gloria Mark, Shamsi T. Iqbal, Mary Czerwinski, Paul Johns

In the mornings, I am tempted to do “rote” work: tasks I find fun but not challenging, like shelving books or cutting out images for the bulletin board. According to When, this is my peak time – the time for vigilance and analysis. So now instead of wasting my sharpest attention on clip art, I tackle writing first thing in the morning. An unexpected benefit of this: the afternoons are more fun, now that I’m not forcing myself through punishingly slow writing sessions. I’ve learned to downshift into rote tasks that match my energy level during the afternoon slump.

I also let this awareness of my brain’s peak, trough, and recovery times help me choose meeting and break times strategically. Although I might have no say in when a class takes place, if I’m scheduled to teach right after lunch (during my sleepy time), I might take a brisk walk to jumpstart my mind.

When you learn a new way of seeing the world that resonates, it’s hard not to evangelize it to everyone you meet. “Hey, have you heard of minimalism?” “Have you ever tried yoga?” But one gem from this book did catch on with my co-workers – the reason we’ve all been crabby and directionless during our staff meetings is because we keep scheduling them for the end of the day! We now shoot for 10:00 or 11:00 am, when people are more alert and less prone to pessimism.

You don’t always have control of what you need to do in a given workday, and sometimes your day is derailed by the surprises of librarianship. But being aware of your brain’s peak functioning times may help you structure your day to best advantage. Especially if you have some flexibility in your daily schedule, I recommend checking out Pink’s book and thinking about what you do when.

Notes:

  • Many thanks to David Gurzick for his talk and sharing his slides with me!
  • For a preview of Daniel Pink’s book, you can check out this planner he has made available online.

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