Quirks & Quarks

Science explains when to visit the hospital, answer emails, and deliver bad news

Time of day explains about 20 per cent of the variance in human performance on certain workplace tasks.
Most of us tend to go through our days in three stages that are run by our internal clocks, otherwise known as our circadian rhythms. (Pixabay)
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The 'Hospital of Doom' 

There's a hospital that Daniel Pink, the author of the new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, calls the "Hospital of Doom." A lot of things go wrong in this hospital. You are three times more likely to be killed by a fatal dose of anesthesia. Specialists find fewer polyps during routine colonoscopies, leaving cancers undetected. Internists are 26 per cent more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics, leading to more resistant superbugs. Nurses and staff are nearly 10 per cent less likely to wash their hands before treating patients, increasing the odds they'll pass along infections. 

Science explains why visiting the hospital in the morning is the way to go. 0:55

"This hospital though is a place of sorts. It's really what happens in hospitals in the afternoons. There's a huge amount of research out there showing medical care can be quite dangerous in the afternoon especially compared with the mornings. So the 'Hospital of Doom' is in afternoons," says Pink. "As a father, as a husband, as someone who will occasionally go to the doctor, I will do everything I can not to schedule any significant doctor appointment or visit to the hospital in the afternoon." 


Our daily rhythms

Most of us tend to go through our days in three stages. One is the peak. For most people, that's in the morning when our mood is its highest and we are very good at analytical tasks that require focus. The next stage is the 'trough' when our cognitive capacities are at their lowest. The final stage is what Pink calls the "recovery" stage, which occurs in the late afternoon and evening. These three stages take the shape of a "U." We peak the highest in the morning, slump in the afternoons, and peak again late in the afternoon and early evening. 

That's how it is for most people, although there is a smaller group — the "night owls" —  for whom they have the opposite daily cognitive rhythm. 

The best way to get through an afternoon cognitive slump is to take a lot of breaks. (Shutterstock)

These cycles are run by our internal clocks, otherwise known as our circadian rhythms. And it's the afternoon troughs we have to be most careful of. Research shows kids score lower on standardized tests if taken in the afternoon. Even jurors are more likely to resort to racial stereotypes in that time. Pink says, for this reason, we are best off doing our brainless administrative work in the afternoons, like answering emails or filling our reports. In the recovery time, that's when we are most creative. 

Getting through the afternoon 'trough' and endings

The best way to get through an afternoon cognitive slump is to take a lot of breaks. 

Powerful research shows the restorative and replenishing benefits of being exposed to nature. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

"We know that it's better to something rather than nothing. A short break is very helpful. You don't have to do a two hour siesta to get the benefits of a break. You can take a 10-minute break," says Pink. "There's great research showing it's important to move rather than be sedentary during those breaks. There's some powerful research showing the effects of being exposed to nature — that nature ends up being restorative and replenishing in a way that, for me, really blew me away. We know that social breaks are often more effective than solo breaks, at least when we can choose who we're taking a break with. This is true even for introverts. And we know, and this is important in our world where everybody is looking at their phone or listening to a podcast all day long, that semi-detached is not as good as fully detached. You need to fully detach."

The 'Hospital of Doom' occurs in afternoons, says Daniel Pink, author of When. (Penguin Random House )

There's also a science to the beginnings, middles, and endings of things we do. "Endings have a huge effect on our behaviour," says Pink. "They can energize us to pursue certain kinds of goals. Endings help us encode. They help us evaluate and record experiences. So certainly consumer transactions, customer transactions, how that transaction ends has a huge effect on how the customer will remember it."

Not only am I taking more breaks, but I am the king of giving the bad news first.- Daniel Pink, author of "When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing." 

How many times have you heard someone say, "I've got some good news and some bad news." Pink says, "Given a choice, we prefer endings that elevate. We prefer rising sequences to declining sequences. So this is one of the ways this research has changed my own behaviour - not only am I taking more breaks, but I am the king of giving the bad news first."