How can designers maximize both their analytical and creative potential without sacrificing their wellbeing over the course of a working day? It will not come as a surprise that our cognitive function rises and dips throughout the day. As we ponder this question, we have gathered some of Daniel Pink’s insights from his book When, published in 2018, to offer ideas on how to format the workday to leverage analytical thinking as well as creative flow. Or rather, when to.
Imagine you are a member of the jury for a case of robbery. You are presented with all the facts and asked to draw a conclusion based on them. Would your verdict be objective? We would like to think so. Yet, according to Pink, we are not all as objective as we believe. The verdict may change depending on when you are posed with this scenario. Some of us are more analytical in the morning and creative in the afternoon, others of us are the opposite. The trick is determining when your own peak in analytical and creative thinking happens.
We all have moments throughout the day when we perform better in any given number of tasks, and moments when we are not at our best. We are all familiar with the lark and owl analogy. Which one are you? Chances are, you are neither. Pink describes a third category which better encapsulates the tendencies of the majority. “According to research over several decades and across different continents, between 60 and 80 percent of us are third birds” (D.H. Pink, p.29), he says. Third birds tend to peak–show higher levels of alertness and awareness–between 11am and 1pm. During the afternoon, third birds experience a phase of slowness and lowered perception before regaining that heightened perception in the early evening.
If we want to enhance our performance, regardless of the type of bird or “chronotype” we are, we can personalize our work schedules. As a designer, the key to producing excellent work consistently would be to first identify your chronotype – or circadian rhythm – and program tasks accordingly. You can click on this link to discover yours. If you are a third bird, creative activities are best tackled in the afternoon, when your analytical precision is lower, and your mind welcomes more abstract ideas. With regards to communication and idea selection, the morning may be the optimum moment, as you can be more precise and rational. However, we should remember that everybody works differently. The following infographic may better illustrate the best times to undertake specific activities based on the different chronotypes:
Pink suggests that “If you’re a boss, it’s important to understand these two patterns and allow people to protect their peak” (D.H. Pink, p.34). For those of us with deadlines and a standardized working schedule, we know this is not entirely possible, if at all. The author admits that: “The problem is that our corporate, government and education cultures are configured for the 75 or 80 percent of people who are larks or third birds” (D.H. Pink, p.31), hence it may prove difficult to instill a cultural coup in time for that impending deadline next week.
Fortunately, there are ways to harness our most productive moments and mitigate the slumps throughout our day, thus reducing our stress levels and enhancing our overall wellbeing. When worker autonomy is not possible – there are small steps we can take, such as anticipating such low points and taking regular breaks. There is no definitive answer as to how these breaks should be incorporated as all of our workdays are different, but Pink makes the following suggestions:
- Breaks should be short but frequent
- Movement is better than stationary
- Social interaction is more beneficial than solo
- Getting outside is better than staying inside
- Fully detached beats semi-detached – During a break, we should disconnect from cognitively demanding tasks such as checking messages in order to fully detach.
Dr. Kevin Tremper, anesthesiologist and professor at University of Michigan Medical School’s Department of Anesthesiology has incorporated what Pink describes as a “vigilance break.” Before every surgery, they do a checklist of the patient and then put them under. Then the medical team themselves take a few minutes to go through a checklist of questions. “In the time since he implemented these breaks, the quality of care has risen, complications have declined, and both doctors and patients are more at ease” (D.H. Pink, p.52).
Breaks can often mitigate a low point period of performance, but the standard 30-minute-coffee-and-a-magazine-in-the-staff-room break isn’t feasible in many working environments. A vigilance break could be the solution in corporate environments. What should a vigilance break look like in the case of a designer? Before a meeting with clients, your team can work through a checklist of questions for discussion that could be based on the following:
- How has the design evolved from the first draft to the current version and why?
- Is there anything that might have been missed that needs addressing? Can creative decisions be confidently backed-up?
- In what order should the client’s pending feedback be addressed and how can the design team’s ideas be best communicated?
- How can the meeting be structured to get the most out of everyone’s time? What should be talked about first and last?
- What is the aim of this meeting and what is needed to ensure it is achieved?
- What documentation should be on hand in case it is needed to clarify or support a decision?
This small practice can really make a difference to your meetings, your customer satisfaction measures, and your team’s ability to convey ideas and have clients buy into them.
Contrary to popular belief, you can still have a productive day when you skip breakfast. Pink reveals that: “Most of the research showing the salvation of a morning meal and the sin of missing it are observational studies rather than randomized controlled experiments” (D.H. Pink, p.64). Lunch – and more importantly how people take it – was a far better indicator of wellbeing. The evidence shows that those who get away from their desks at lunchtime feel better upon their return. According to Pink, “the non-desk lunchers were better able to contend with workplace stress and showed less exhaustion and greater vigor not just during the remainder of the day but also a full one year later.” (D.H. Pink, p.65). Making lunch a social event further enhances the benefits. The social aspect of eating lunch is considered a pillar of the five break-taking commandments. What are the others?
- Microbreaks – even a few minutes of switching off from the task at hand can help gain better clarity. Just make sure it’s not switching between tasks– a break should pull you away from the work not into a new task.
- Moving breaks – when you take a break, get away from your desk and walk around.
- Nature break – it is favorable to remove ourselves from the interior environment and get fresh air and natural light
- Mental gear-shifting break – this involves a stark change in circumstances. A different room, a different location or a different activity. The point is, switch it up.
Providing a space for teams to nurture creativity is undoubtedly important but, remember that strong teams are founded on good timing. Creativity can flow more easily for most of us in the mid-afternoon, when our analytical perception is lower and abstract ideas are more forthcoming. Run a test for a couple of weeks and only schedule creative design meetings in the afternoon and see for yourself if your team seems more adept at conceptually bridging ideas. Conversely, when the meeting requires an analytical approach, say a budget meeting, try a morning schedule when most of the people contributing will be in their peak hours.
Additionally, it’s important to consider that as a design leader, it is not only how you respond to the needs of your team but when. One of the suggestions that Pink offers regarding response times to emails may surprise you: “The longer it takes for a boss to respond to their emails, the less satisfied people are with their leader” (D.H. Pink, p.208). Creating a nurturing environment in your workplace can be as simple as honing the timing of your actions. By responding quickly to emails or any other issues that arise, you send a signal to your team that you value their needs.
Even at the end of a disastrous day, there are ways to change our perception of the day as a whole and bestow wellbeing across the board. People like things to end well, as Pink affirms: “The science of timing has found—repeatedly—what seems to be an innate preference for happy endings” (D.H. Pink, p.161). “Ending the day by recording what you’ve achieved can encode the entire day more positively” (D.H. Pink, p.172). We have all spent time preparing our to-do lists this week, but how about a ‘ta-da’ list as Leila Gowland suggests? Highlight your achievements or someone else’s. As a small gesture with big implications, send a thank you email to somebody. Gratitude is a powerful restorative for our sense of wellbeing.
To summarize, the timing of when we address our daily tasks and communicate with our teams can be an invaluable tool in harnessing the full potential and wellbeing of our team members and clients. If we can plan tasks according to the chronotypes of our team members, allow frequent breaks scheduled to individual needs and value everybody’s time, our working days can be much more efficient. Not only will our work be more enhanced, our sense of wellbeing will be enriched, too.
- Gowland, Lelia. “Turn Your To-Do List into a Ta-Da List.” Forbes, 30 May 2018 www.forbes.com/sites/leliagowland/2018/05/30/fun-productivity-hack-turn-your-to-do-list-into-a-ta-da-list/?sh=367d55b9166f
- Pink, Daniel H. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Riverhead Books, 2018.