Tag Archives: productivity

Figuring Out when the Lights are On

Picking  the wrong time to perform a demanding task is the penalty we pay for not knowing our own efficiency curve.

We are in a waking state most of the day, roughly two thirds of our life.  But being awake and being alert are not the same thing.  All of us have an efficiency curve: a line that tracks when we are least and most able to face the big mental challenges that the world throws at us.  Many tasks don’t require knowing the moment of one’s peak performance.  Answering phones in an office or helping customers in a retail setting may require more stamina than a period of intense focus and concentration.  But for many others, finding the moment when the lights are really on is an important workplace survival skill.

I was reminded of this by reading Janet Malcolm’s profile of MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow.  Malcolm asked her subject why she started work in the early afternoon.  (Maddow’s show airs live at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time).  Maddow sensibly answered that she had to pick her moment.  She noted that you can only have your brain ‘light up’ for a limited time. She needed to perform well in what amounts to a series of extended narratives delivered in her prime time spot. It is possible to hit the high point of her curve if she starts preparing for her show after lunch. Her particular ‘high noon’ happens at 9 in the evening.

A lot of writers note the importance of the same natural curve, with many finding that mornings are when they are their most productive. In my own scheme for getting a book done, mornings are for writing; afternoons are reserved for rewriting or polishing. The curve flips for others who work best late at night.

It is true that a jolt of adrenaline might be enough to overcome encroaching mental dormancy. A pianist about to perform a set of demanding solo pieces for a paying audience will probably find hormonal reserves to carry them past the torpor caused by a sleepless night.  But that’s no way to live.

Students are often slow to learn their own curve, sometimes making the mistake of saving the toughest mental work of the day for the periods when their minds are fallow. High school schedules don’t help. They often require punishing early morning starts of classes forced upon nearly comatose teens. Many are simply not ready to handle an A.P. Physics at 7:30 a.m.


Is it good to be the first surgery patient on a Monday morning?  What if the doctor was at the Tiki Bar in Costa Rica just 15 hours earlier?


We all know the feeling of staring at a blank page or screen waiting for inspiration that may never arrive. Picking  the wrong time to do a demanding task is the penalty we pay for not knowing our own efficiency curve.

Sometimes it bears not thinking about potentially consequential mismatches of work tasks against a person’s natural curve.  Is it good to be the first surgery patient on a Monday morning?  What if the doctor was at the Tiki Bar in Costa Rica just 15 hours earlier?  And how about pilots flying a ‘red eye’ coast to coast?  One can hope that at least somebody in the cockpit is a late riser.

I had a friend who worked on a car assembly line one summer. In the days before robots and computers he swears that they managed to partly assemble a three-door sedan early into the first morning shift.  Workers on the line realized too late that the company was making a two-door car on one side and a four-door car on the other side.  Clearly someone was off their game.

moving lights background

The Mistake of Multitasking

There’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and accurate listening decline when we fragment our attention.

Fall’s quicker pace in the school and workplace offers the chance for a timely remember that some work habits are self-defeating.  In terms of attention to detail, perhaps nothing exacts a higher price than the belief that we can do several things at once.

As I’ve noted in this space before, the fundamental problem is that no one is good at multitasking.  We are simply not wired to fully deal with a variety of stimuli at once.  We may think otherwise. But how often do you hear someone else offering reminders that suggest our attention was elsewhere? “I told you that yesterday,” “You must have missed it,” or “You left some important things in that email” all serve as useful indicators.

In computer terms, we are better at serial processing than parallel processing. Technology writer Nicholas Carr explains why our brains cannot successfully process more than a few competing bits of information:

Why the Human Brain Can’t Multitask

Complete video at: http://fora.tv/conference/ideas_economy_information Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, explains why the human brain struggles to process information that is presented “with the intensity and the quantity and the speed we find ourselves surrounded by today.”

There’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and listening declines when we fragment our attention. To put it simply, multitasking makes us just a little bit stupid. As researcher Clifford Nass famously noted, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy.”  Because “everything distracts them,” their intellectual performance on important tasks deteriorates.  Sometimes the person addicted to a digital stew of stimuli is the last to know that they have become functionally impaired.

It’s a common mistake to assume that being “busy” means being “fully engaged.”  We perform our busyness as a badge of honor.  But it’s closer to the truth to conclude that the more we structure lives to include distractions, the less we are able to get past this self-induced noise that complicates the completion of an important task.

Try a simple experiment.  Read your email or a series of text-messages while also listening to someone explain how to get to an address on the other side of town. No GPS device allowed. An active and full-time listener will probably process the directions correctly, or ask questions until they have the mental map they need.  The split-time listener is more likely to end up lost, often compounding their distraction by calling from from a moving car to get new directions.  Alas, that makes things even worse. Distracted driving is a form of multitasking that kills more pedestrians each year.

Look for models in those from all walks of life who still have the will to engage with one thing for an extended period.  These linear thinkers may be younger readers happily caught in the thrall of a writer or literary genre; newspaper consumers who will follow an investigative story across three pages of a broadsheet; or the curious who are in the thrall of a speaker or performer over a sustained period of time. To be sure, these individuals increasingly seem to be outliers. We now tend to notice an “unusual” passion for thirsty listening, ‘doing’ or reading.  These linear thinkers are now much more out of the norm, different from the rest of us swamped in a clutter of trivia.