Daniel Pink's Tips to Increase Productivity

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When I work from home, as I did yesterday, I tend to start early, break for a while in the afternoon, and then rally some towards the end of the day—which was important because we had a SIPA Brain Trust dinner last night.

I usually feel a little guilty though for that afternoon break. But according to best-selling author Daniel Pink in his new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, I'm doing the right thing.

"Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days," Pink told Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. He cites a Duke University study that found that harmful anesthesia errors are three times more likely at 3 p.m. than 8 a.m., and Danish test takers who scored significantly lower in the afternoon than morning. "Regular, systematic breaks—especially those that involve movement, nature and full detachment—reduce errors, boost mood and can help us steer around this Bermuda Triangle," Pink said.

Here are more points from Pink's book from a Q&A in The Washington Post:

Make those breaks social. "Research shows us that social breaks are better than solo breaks—taking a break with somebody else is more restorative than doing it on your own," Pink says. My question would be, does the cable repairman count? A trip to the office kitchen—where there is always someone—might be more to his thinking. Or, if you're home, finding a community at the coffee shop.  

Start something new on a clear beginning. "Managers shouldn't start a corporate change initiative on a Thursday—start it on the day after a federal holiday, or at the beginning of a quarter, or on a Monday," Pink says. The basis of this is similar to research that says that we are twice as likely to run a marathon at age 29 than age 28 or 30. "Endings have this power to galvanize us" he said.   

Think when. Of course, Pink says, we don't always have the choice at work to do what needs to be done when we want to do it. "To me, the bigger issue here is that we have thought of 'when' as a second order question. We take questions of how we do things, what we do, and who I do it with very seriously, but we stick the 'when' questions over at the kids table."

Schedule your tasks in a specific way. Pink gives the day three stages: a peak, a trough and a recovery. He wants you doing analytic tasks in the morning, administrative tasks—emails, expense reports, etc.—in the midday, and insight problems in the afternoon. "...We're less vigilant [then] than during the peak," he says. "[But] that looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity."   

Give the bad news first. Why? We like happy endings, of course. Why else would Hallmark Channel get such good ratings? Pink says he used to think the opposite—give good news first. "I didn't want to come on too aggressively... [But] if you ask people what they prefer, four out of five prefer getting the bad news first. The reason has to do with endings. Given the choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate."

Don't worry if your project team starts slow. We've all been on project teams that are assigned a certain amount of time to accomplish our task. Then weeks pass and nothing much has happened. Pink says this is normal. "The typical pattern we think project teams follow is not true. We think we have the beginning, and then it gets going, and it will move linearly to the end. In fact, what researchers have found is that at the beginning, project teams pretty much do nothing. They bicker, they dicker. Yet astonishingly, many project teams ended up really getting started in earnest at the exact midpoint. If you give a team 34 days, they'll get started in earnest on day 17."

Admit to being just a little behind. At that Day 17 point, Pink says that as a leader it's best to tell the group that they're just a little behind. His research, from basketball of all places, "shows that when teams are ahead at the midpoint, they get complacent. When they're way behind at the midpoint, they get demoralized. But when they're a little behind, it can be galvanizing."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…