In a Perfect World
In the past edition, we talked about how to maximize our output through pausing to take small refresher breaks and recharge our batteries. Now it’s time to take a step back and figure out when we should be reaching for those accomplishments in the first place. In the process, we’ll be able to see how we sometimes sabotage our own best efforts in this regard… shooting ourselves in the foot, so to speak, just when we’re straining to reach the finish line. All because we didn’t pay attention to the timing.
No two people are alike, and neither is the way we function at any specific hour of the day or night. For example, I know people who are sluggish all morning but absolutely fizzing by night. When the sun goes down, their brains wake up. Ideas flow. Conversation sparkles. There was a three-year-old I knew who would start off each day drowsy and grumpy, only to visibly perk up as the hours went past. By nighttime, she was her most animated self, often going strong long past the time when many of the grown-ups around her were more than ready for their beds.
And then there are us morning folks. Forgive me for using myself as an example, but it’s the one I happen to know best. As I’ve had occasion to write on these pages before, I am most alert and functional in the early part of the day. That’s why I try to do the creative part of my job then: plotting stories and writing them down. In the morning hours, I have ready access to the parts of my mind and imagination that are necessary for that kind of work.
Gradually, as the day moves on, that first, sharp edge begins to dull. Activities such as editing, translating or cooking dinner are fine for the afternoons because they don’t demand as much creativity as does composing an original piece of writing. Many women experience a “low bio-rhythm” hour or two at mid-afternoon, and they wait for that welcome “second wind” to come to the rescue.
By the time night rolls around, I am good for nothing very productive at all. I could force myself to work, but I know that the task will progress at a slower pace and the results will be less satisfactory. Basically, when darkness falls, producing any meaningful output beyond loading the dishwasher or sweeping the floor is more-or-less beyond me. Tackling any domestic chore in the evening hours more demanding that that feels burdensome. I’d much rather save a complicated recipe, or the creation of a complex plot, for the morning, when the job will take half the time and come out twice as well.
Unfortunately, not everybody gets to choose. Although many employers these days are willing to go with flexible hours, many are not. If your job makes demands on you at a time when you are not physically or mentally at your best, there’s not much you can do except push your way through as well as you can with the help of adrenalin, caffein, and/or sheer will power. It’s a pity, because I think employees would vastly prefer to work when they are in peak performance mode, and their employers would certainly be happy with the results if those preferences were honored.
Some public high schools start their day at the very early hour of 7:30 or 8 in the morning. This means dragging teens from their beds at a time of day when they’re barely conscious, and then forcing them to sit through classes where they can barely absorb anything into their sleep-clogged minds. As the day wears on, they gradually wake up… finally becoming fully human again by the time school lets out in the early afternoon, leaving them with hours and hours of unstructured time on their hands.
I’ve often thought it would make far more sense to work with these students’ natural rhythms rather than against them: in other words, to start the school day at noon and end sometime in the evening. That would allow the teens to get their full quota of sleep while keeping them off the streets at night. That’s what I would suggest if the Board of Education ever asked my opinion—something which, alas, has not yet happened…
Timing is even more crucial when it comes to having a significant relationship dialogue. Suppose you want to have an important talk with someone close to you. When emotions are involved, we may be tempted to blurt out whatever’s on our minds right in the moment and hope for the best. But why not do it the smart way instead, and plan ahead? Why not use the timing in your favor?
If the person to whom you need to broach something difficult tends to be cranky in the morning, then talk to her at night. If he’s not very receptive when hungry, discuss it after a good meal rather than before. If she is not very communicative when she’s busy or preoccupied, then wait until she’s free. You get the picture. You can fall victim to poor timing… or use the timing to your advantage. And lest you worry that this sounds manipulative, just remember that improving a relationship is not a selfish goal. It is something that will benefit both of you. So why not maximize your chances for a positive outcome?
The same rule applies to children. As any experienced mother knows, forcing a kid to do her homework the second she comes home can backfire if the kid in question, after a long and super-stimulating day, needs some down time before taking up her responsibilities again. A good parent or caregiver knows which parts of the day are most conducive to the child’s maximum performance and will work with that knowledge. Since the child often lacks that self-awareness himself, it’s the parent’s job to help with the all-important scheduling of tasks.
If location is paramount when it comes to buying a house, timing is important in just about everything that we do. As far as we are able (and I certainly recognize that we often are not able) to be flexible with our time, it’s a good idea to work with and not against ourselves. That means choosing the times of day that promise the best results, even if this can occasionally lead to your being a little out of sync with those around you.
As with everything else, a sensible balance is called for. No point neglecting your important relationships by filling all your “prime time” with work instead of spending it with family and friends. By carefully consulting your ladder of priorities—family time, domestic obligations, work obligations and community activities—along with your own natural rhythms, I venture to say that you’ll be well on the road to achieving maximum output every time!