“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days”
Daniel Pink provides this great descriptive of sluggish afternoons in his provocatively titled LinkedIN article, You’re more likely to screw up in the afternoon. Here’s how to stop it. How severe is the problem? “Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.”
How to stop afternoon error? “Go home early!” This is doubtless not a good idea. Let’s agree that typically people are more productive in the morning than the afternoon. “But doesn’t it simply have to do with the amount of sleep we got the night before?” Yes. But there is something more deeply responsive to the habits of our typical sleep schedule. Something called the circadian cycle.
Circadian cycles are those “recurring naturally on a twenty-four-hour cycle, even in the absence of light fluctuations” [circa = around + dia = day, 24 hours]. Circadian cycles can work to our advantage and to our disadvantage. But it is clear that a short break can overcome temporarily disrupted circadian issues and help to reclaim the afternoon. Here are some of the examples where the research has indicated a short break as helpful:
Surgical teams that take a momentary break prior to critical “nip-tuck” moments, lower their mortality rates. Students who take a short break before tests, benefit in higher scores. Hospital workers are more likely to wash their hands. Vehicle accidents are less likely to occur during their double peak of 2 am to 6 am and 2 pm to 4 pm. Judges who take a break before reviewing cases in the afternoon, are more merciful. [What?!] Well, they were more apt to carefully examine all pertinent factors for prison parole requests and give a more reasonable reply than simply responding out of fatigue.
Each of us seeks to be alert, to do our best on the job, when exercising our tasks. But vigilance has its limits. Everyone has the same limited amount of time. Endurance is another matter. Your ability to stay alert is subject to the state of your body. Pink provides a brief video that is really quite good, describing how vigilance has its limits.
What can you do practically to reclaim the afternoon from its threatened Bermuda Triangle disappearance? Pink offers these steps to reclaim the afternoon:
- Something beats nothing – Sticking to a task too long causes one to lose sight of the goal toward which you started. A short break can help to maintain focus and even reactivate the desire to reach the goal. Research has come up with an optimum of 52 minutes work against 17 minutes break. Experiment to find your own golden mean. I think I’d be very distracted trying to keep track of a 69 minute work hour!
- Moving beats stationary – An hourly five-minute walking break can boost energy levels. Sitting is a clear danger to our health. That’s why fitness watches help you count how many steps in your day. Some will be tempted to collect those five minute activity bursts into a nice long 30 minute walk. But it turns out the “microbursts of activity” are actually more effective than the longer 30 minute walk. Imagine!
- Social beats solo – It may well depend on the kind of person you are. An introvert may find greater enjoyment, less stress and more energy renewal alone. But others will appreciate seeing and talking to others. Three cautions: choose someone you enjoy interacting with; make sure you aren’t interrupting their power moment; acknowledge that talking about something other than work qualifies as a break from work.
- Outside beats inside – There are some exceptions to this outdoor rule, which are weather related. But generally nature is a powerful mental restorative. You also can gain much from indoor plants; more so than from copiers, printers, stair-wells or other plant voids.
- Fully detached beats semidetached – The point here is that detachment must be mental as well as physical. Going outside and checking email or text messages on your phone doesn’t count. Well. It counts as work! But not as a break from. Here’s a great quote about tech-free breaks: they “increase vigor and reduce emotional exhaustion.”
Alert reader that you are, you may be wondering, “What has all this got to do with technology?” I’ve noticed (perhaps you have too?) that there is a “Bermuda Triangle” for tech problems. For example, Microsoft Word software always crashes when 1) you have failed to do a ‘save-as’ early on; and 2) you are right on the verge of finishing your document. Have you noticed that? Or, your computer always locks up on your busiest day. Which is actually an extension of Murphy’s Law, but on the technical side.
There is a strong technical element here. Your smart phone, social media device or Kindle Reader is a technological contributor. The contribution even has a catchy name: Blue Light. So the question posed is, Why is Blue Light before Bedtime Bad for Sleep?
Two scientists have studied how blue light negatively affects health and sleep patterns. A report on the study, provided by a Scientific American article from 2015 by Jessica Schmerler, states the concepts well. Here’s the gist in a nutshell: That blue-light coming from your smart phone is “short-wavelength-enriched.” It turns out that on the color spectrum, blue light is actually of shorter wavelength than, say, green. And the shorter blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.
Blue Light Investigation
You are wondering whether they actually investigated “how different wavelengths of light affect the release of melatonin.” Yes, they did. Thomas Jefferson University neuroscientist George Brainard did. Further, “Harvard University neuroscientist, Anne-Marie Chang, recently discovered that the effects of light-emitting devices on circadian systems extend beyond evening and into the following morning.”
Brainard reported, “In the 1990s my team performed more than 700 experiments over seven years to measure how different wavelengths of light regulate acute melatonin production. Unexpectedly, we found that humans display a peak sensitivity to light in the blue wavelength region of the spectrum.”
One of the experiments tested “the effects of reading on a light-emitting device compared with reading a printed book.” Those with Kindle (and other device) readers “took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep and had higher alertness before bedtime,” than those who read the printed books. The blue-light readers were also sleepier and took longer to wake up next morning. At this point the winds are blowing us toward the Bermuda Triangle. Strongly!
What about astronauts?
Now again, because you are a careful thinker, you doubtless asked the question, “What about astronauts?” Well, you’re absolutely right! They experience a sun rise and sun set every 90 minutes. Imagine the confusion to the body’s circadian rhythms! NASA read the hand-writing on the wall and changed the nature of the lighting system emanating from the wall on the International Space Station “to improve astronauts’ sleep and waking performance.” NASA did this with the help of neuroscientist George Brainard, which is a helpful name for a neuroscientist to have.
Some very simple steps can make you more productive in whatever it is you do. Starting with getting a good night’s sleep by taking precaution what/when you read. Take short breaks during the afternoon to reclaim your alertness stamina. Stock up on Melatonin supplement. While taking melatonin is more discretionary. Protecting your sleep and your alertness are vital aspects to full productivity.