Money Matters

The Rhythm of Great Performance


The psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel in economics for his work in behavioral economics, conducted one of the most fascinating studies in this area. Along with several colleagues, Mr. Kahneman set out to study “diurnal rhythms” — those that occur at predictable times every day — among 909 working women. The goal was to assess whether the way people felt was correlated with the time of day.

The most compelling evidence turned out to be around fatigue. Among a dozen feelings including “happy,” “competent,” “hassled” and “worried,” “fatigued” was far and away the one most strongly correlated to specific times of day.

Interestingly, most respondents in the study experienced the highest level of negative emotions in the mornings, but also the most energy and the greatest feelings of competence. Energy and competence peaked around noon, and then both declined steadily until bedtime.

In short, the longer subjects were awake, the more fatigued they became and the more incompetent they felt.

But there is an antidote to fatigue and its impact on competence. Not surprisingly, it’s rest. Among 16 potential daily activities — including eating, praying, relaxing and exercising — napping had far and away the biggest impact on reducing fatigue.

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So what are the implications for how we ought to work most efficiently?

Here, the work of K. Anders Ericsson, one of the foremost researchers into expert performance, is relevant. In his most well-known study, Mr. Ericsson found that top violinists practice in intense, relatively short intervals, first thing in the morning, for no longer than 90 minutes, followed by a break. They almost never practice more than 4½ hours a day. They also report that practicing is the least enjoyable part of their day.

In short, the best violinists do all of their hardest work in the mornings when they have the most energy and the fewest distractions. In the afternoons, the best violinists regularly take a nap, averaging 20 to 30 minutes. They also report that naps — and sleep — are among the most important things they do to improve as violinists.

Mr. Ericsson studied a sample of just 30 violinists, so his findings are not conclusive. But other researchers have found almost precisely the same practice and renewal patterns among athletes, chess players, artists, scientists and writers.

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The lessons for the rest of us are surprisingly simple:

1. Do your most challenging and important work as soon as possible after you wake up, when you have the most energy. (If your highest energy is in the evenings, and you have flexibility, save your hardest work for then.)

2. Focus in the most absorbed way possible when you are working and then take a break at least every 90 minutes to refuel your energy reservoir. Any activity — like deep breathing, reading a novel, talking with a friend or taking a run — can be effective. The key is choosing something you find restorative.

3. Always have lunch, preferably away from your desk.

4. If you can, take a nap no longer than 20 to 30 minutes between 1 and 4 p.m. It will give you a surge of energy — and potential productivity — for the rest of the afternoon. If a nap isn’t possible, simply closing your eyes for a few minutes can still be a source of modest renewal.

I’ve been practicing these steps for more than a decade, and they have transformed both my energy levels and my productivity. Unfortunately, they remain countercultural in the vast majority of organizations. If that’s the case, consider sharing this column with your boss.

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