When is the best time to make important decisions?

When you make a decision can be critical.

Last week I reported on some information from Dan Pink’s new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I mentioned that I was getting my copy that day and I would be writing about my reading of the book. This is the first report of several in the coming month.

Timing can save lives

Pink, in his chapter, Afternoons and Coffee Spoons, tells about changes hospitals have made that saved lives. Pink tells the story of the “hospital of doom.” It turns out it is not one particular hospital but can apply to all hospitals. Study after study has shown that mistakes increase a dramatic amount in hospitals in the afternoon, and mistakes in hospitals mean people get sick and die. These mistakes occur because people are less vigilant in midafternoon due our circadian rhythms. Most of us are more diligent in the morning, less so in the afternoon. All living organisms have circadian rhythms. Within people, Pink says there are larks, owls and, what he calls “third birds.” He even provides a way for you to determine what you are, though most of us have a feel for when we are better during the day.
Getting back to our discussion of the hospital of doom, one hospital realized that this diminution of attention was having disastrous results for patients. To overcome this lack of vigilance the hospital instituted, what Pink calls “vigilance breaks.” This hospital, like many, tries to be very certain they are operating on the right person and performing the right procedure. They have information written down in several places to ensure the proper process, but they do something else too. Before they start the surgeon calls a timeout. Everyone steps back and they introduce themselves to the group by their first name and then they go through a nine-step verification that they have the correct patient and are performing the correct process. This check, recheck process occurs everytime they move onto another critical step in the process. These vigilance checks have reduced the number of errors made and saved everyone, especially the patient, difficulty.

Attention and energy flag and decision suffer

Pink reports from his review of the research that a decline in vigilance occurs for everyone. It is not just doctors who suffer from this. We all suffer from this reduction in vigilance. Managers make worse decisions, drivers are less attentive, employees take more shortcuts, and people increase “cheating” in whatever form that may take in their job. Pink says the good news is that “’vigilance breaks’ can loosen the trough’s grip on our behavior.” The trough is the lull in attention.

What can you do?

Most of us in our jobs push through the workday and often don’t take a break, especially in HR. Pink suggests there are a number of things that can be done to help overcome the trough or lull. He suggests:

  1. Something beats nothing- Take a break. Even short ones, in fact, several, help prevent task habituation.
  2. Moving beats stationary- Simply standing up and walking around is better than sitting in your chair.
  3. Social beats solo- If you can socialize during that short break the better. Talking with co-workers about something other than work can be very restorative.
  4. Outside beats inside- Being in nature works wonders. If you can go out into nature go stand by some plants.
  5. Fully detached beats semidetached- Taking a break and then checking your email on your phone does not help restore you. Leave it on your desk, or at least in your pocket.

How HR can use this information

HR should pay attention to this information. Encourage managers to let employees take the needed breaks. Don’t let managers punish people for taking breaks. Realize that this applies to you as well.
Also, don’t make major people decisions in the afternoon. Studies on judges and parole boards found that stricter sentences were passed or more paroles were denied if decisions were made in the afternoon.
By the way, a bit of personal advice, always try to see your doctor in the morning.
Next time we will talk about the most important meal of the day.

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