Describe your daily schedule. When do you wake up? When do you go to bed? …you do have a daily schedule, right?
I seem to go through a month-long cycle. For two consecutive weeks – my productive weeks – I will easily adhere to a good, disciplined schedule. For whatever reason, weeks three and four become increasingly difficult for me, and it becomes a struggle to maintain my good habits. This shows itself as a decrease in energy, mood, and overall productivity.
This makes me wonder; what are the most important factors that determine my own productivity?
Amount of Sleep Affects Productivity
This is the same question Jeffrey Shrader et al. wanted to answer, hypothesizing that amount of sleep greatly affects productivity. Since “productivity” is a somewhat ambiguous term, they used wages earned as a marker for productivity and compared it to the amount of sleep people got. Of course there are an incredible number of factors that influence wage aside from amount of sleep such as gender, race, age, etc. To eliminate as many of these variables as possible, Shrader et al. discovered an interesting trick…
The continental United States is broken up into four time-zones across about 4300 km of land. In physics, strange things often happen at interfaces. Likewise, if you had two otherwise identical people living on either side of the boundary of a time-zone, one will have a sunset offset by an hour. To quote the original paper,
“…sunset time is a relevant instrument because human sleep timing responds strongly to solar cues. Examination of ATUS activity logs [an enormous time-use study] shows that workers experiencing earlier sunset also go to bed earlier and that this correlation between sunset and bedtime persists even if the worker goes to bed well after dark. Coordinated work start times translate this earlier bedtime into longer sleep.”
In other words, since business hours (wake-up time) are unaffected by sunrise time, and bedtime is strongly influenced by sunset time, one can do a side-by-side comparison between people who chronically sleep more and people who sleep less by comparing people who straddle a time-zone. By controlling for other variables like gender, race, age, etc, they found increasing sleep by one hour corresponded to a 16% increase in wages. This is significant, and unlike many other studies that use things like Daylight Savings Time (which wear off after a couple days), corresponds to long-term sleep trends.
Evidently, the amount of sleep one gets is positively correlated to how much money they make, which is a not-too-distant variable related to (but not to be confused with) productivity. Of course, one always needs to be careful with findings like this. It suggests that sleep determines productivity in some way, but offers absolutely no explanation as to why. However, the hypothesis that more sleep corresponds to a well rested brain sounds reasonable.
So, I can try and get more rest each night. But does the timing of when I sleep matter?
Larks vs Owls
A paper by Danish researchers lead by Bonke charmingly dubs early and late risers “Larks” and “Owls” respectively, and looks at the wages earned by each group. In 2009 they found that, unadjusted for qualifications and job type, Larks earned 7% more than Owls, but when these factors were accounted for, the difference dropped to a statistically insignificant value. However, data from 2001 showed the adjusted difference was a significant 7% (while the unadjusted difference was a staggering 14%).
Comparing the unadjusted data to the adjusted data from 2009, the researchers hypothesize that an early bird lifestyle is more in line with how societal institutions operate – it’s easier to make it to school and work on time, and if you are productive at those hours, you will have an easier time in those endeavors. This, in theory, leads to higher education outcomes and higher wages. So Larks are more likely to attain higher education and training than Owls, leading to higher wages. By accounting for education and job type, they found no significant difference between the two groups, meaning an Owl that perseveres and attains the same qualifications will have the same outcomes as Larks… though fewer Owls manage to do this.
One can also compare these results to the 2001 results. In 2001, the researchers still found a 7% difference between the two groups, even accounting for education and job type. This seems a little mysterious, but digging into the methodology of the study can give some insight.
The Lark and Owl groups were determined based on individual’s weekend sleep habits. The idea being, one the weekend you will default to your preferred sleep schedule. Late risers on the weekend are capable of waking up early on the weekday, but will be less chipper and effective than a naturally early riser. So a Lark is someone who wakes early all week, while an Owl wakes late on the weekend, but may still wake early during the work week.
At this point I will speculate – between the years 2001 and 2009, many more high paying jobs moved from rigid 9-5 hours to having more flexibility. With many technology jobs allowing employees to work remotely and in a sense “make their own hours”, one need not be in the office at the ungodly hour of 9:00 AM. Likewise, many schools offer online courses which allow for students to obtain high education without forcing them into a Lark’s world. I think these results may be telling us that letting late risers work on the schedule that best suits them is *gasp*, a good thing.
Learning from the Best – Beating Decision Fatigue
These studies are thorough, but the nature of the problem is very difficult to treat quantitatively. In fact, before enormous data sets like the ones from the studies above were available (and analyzable – thanks to computers), anecdotal evidence was the currency. While psychologists, economists etc are working to answer these questions rigorously, sometimes the most immediate, actionable advice can be obtained anecdotally – by explore the daily habits and schedules of successful people.
In the book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work”, the author Mason Curry collects and presents the daily habits of some 161 famous writers, composers, scientists, and otherwise successful creatives. Of course these descriptions, especially when self-reported, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Humans are incredible at finding patterns, even when there are none. It’s quite likely that if one is asked about daily schedules, the regularity of the schedule or how well it is adhered to may be exaggerated.
With that in mind, one of patterns in the book is that the majority of these impressive intellectuals rise early (about 6:00 AM) and begin working quickly, often finishing for the day by noon. After this period, many take to socializing and leisure, followed by a relatively early bedtime.
This seems to be consistent with the findings of Bonke. Many of the people profiled worked in solitude, often writing, composing, or otherwise working away from others. Just like the increased freedom afforded by technology, many of the greats could do what they did outside of societally deemed “normal hours”. Even many of those with let’s say, engaged social lives, seemed to thrive off routine. The son of Ernest Hemingway recalled that his father would wake every morning between 5:30 and 6:00 AM and begin writing, regardless of the number of drinks that came the evening before.
This sort of makes sense. In the words of American philosopher and psychologist William James (who, by the way, struggled with keeping a regular schedule),
“The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more of our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of ever cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”
To put this into context, let’s take a second and roleplay.
Partner 1: Honey, what do you want for dinner?
Partner 2: I don’t know, what do you want?
Partner 1: Doesn’t matter, whatever you feel like.
Partner 2: No, that’s ok, you can decide.
Partner 1: Really, I don’t really have a preference.
Partner 2: Well, I decided last night.
Partner 1: So? I didn’t realize we were keeping a ledger of who chose dinner.
Partner 2: Pizza. We are ordering pizza. Happy?
Partner 1: Yeah, sounds good. What do you want on it?
Partner 2: I want a divorce.
The more daily decisions you can offload to routine, the more mental capacity you will have for work (or not enraging your partner at the end of the day). This concept has been branded as “decision fatigue”, and while not a new idea, has recently gained attention in pop culture.
The current thinking is that everyone has some amount of mental reserve for making decisions. Each decision you make takes some effort, and by the end of the day, even simple decisions become incredibly unpleasant. Some hypothesize that this has disproportionately detrimental effects to people with lower income, for whom more decisions like “did I pay rent”, or “can I afford to buy lunch today” weigh on their minds.
This concept has pushed some people to make seemingly strange lifestyle choices – like having several sets of only one or two outfits, which is a total Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg and Obama move. (As someone who loves efficiency but gets pleasure from fashion and building outfits, I am torn on this strategy).
As a physicist, I am trained to take an interesting phenomenon and strip it away to its bare bones. This, unfortunately, is exceedingly difficult when it comes to human behavior. Scientists who study this sort of thing have such an incredibly hard job, but the results are worth it. While I can’t say definitively “this is the schedule you should adhere to in order to be maximally productive”, it appears that quantity of sleep is important (surprised?) but regularity of your daily habits may in fact be just as, if not more, important.
So what can you do to be more productive? First thing, is do exactly what your mother taught you; have a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Next, perhaps experiment with an extra hour of sleep per night. But most importantly, try to adhere to a daily schedule. By offloading conscious decisions to habit, hopefully you can save some mental energy that I can put towards more productive things. Specifically, weekly meal planning, packing your things for the next day before you go to bed, keeping a regular schedule at work, and having a non-negotiable time to exercise are all good things to try.
Or maybe, you should just do exactly what these successful people did. Here, try this; one of philosopher Kierkegaard’s daily rituals. I call it the “Cafe au Kierkegaard”.
Cafe au Kierkegaard
- Have assistant select a mixed cup and saucer pair from two of fifty unique sets (2500 possible combinations)
- Demand that they justify their choice!
- Fill cup completely with sugar. Seriously, right to the top.
- Slowly pour very strong, black coffee over the coffee, stirring constantly to form a horrible sludge
- Consume rapidly
- Chase with a glass of sherry