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What Our Body Clocks Can Tell Us About the Way We Work

“In the workplace, having greater control of time leads to higher productivity.”

Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock
Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

We can’t stretch time. When I ask students or people in an audience what the number 168 means they often look blank. It is the number of hours in the week. It is almost as if we have become so in thrall to large numbers of data and digital limitlessness that a small, fixed number feels confusing — and way too small. But it’s the reality. The complexity of modern life eats into time, rather than keeping things simple. Research shows that the average internet user spends six hours a day online. Our time is spent zigzagging across a complex set of tasks including communication (250 billion emails are exchanged daily around the world), search (5 billion Google searches per day), shopping (we’re spending more than $3.5 trillion dollars annually across the world on the internet). That is before you count the time we spend on social media and before you count the time that we do other things like walk, talk, commute, eat, and sleep. Yes, the way we spend time is often that of a helpless bystander as the egg-timer trickles the sand down in front of our eyes. So, this sixth and final side to simplicity is all about this most precious commodity and the axiom is simple: ‘Treat your time like your body.’ 

The Simplicity Principle aims to help you make the most of time, by focusing on what happens to it. We cannot stop the meter running, inside or outside our bodies, but we can control how we approach the very question of time, and simplify it by considering:

  1. Deadline: Keep control of deadline and timeline 
  2. Schedule: Be the gatekeeper of your time 
  3. Time Zones: How to work in global villages 
  4. Interruption: Setting boundaries often and keeping them 
  5. Body clock: Finding the best time to suit you 
  6. Past and Present: There is no time like now

Deadline

Douglas Adams said that he loved deadlines: ‘I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ I think the world divides into those who keep deadlines and those who don’t. Like people who are always late and those who keep to time. Keeping to time, holding on to it, matters a lot. And deadlines are important because they give us focus and shape. On the whole, I like deadlines. Lots of us rely on deadlines to power us over the line and get finished. I find a deadline is often a good thing, focusing my mind on what really matters. Ask any good journalist how they work, and they will usually say ‘to deadline.’ But many of us work all the time to deadlines which are not really in our control at all. Take the quarterly result. Businesses rely on a cycle of reporting to shareholders the status of various measurements in any given calendar quarter. Their standing on stock markets may depend on it, but the concept works across sectors and has become mainstream. In practice, what this means is that a short-term mindset often creeps into how we run things when it might be better to take the long view. 

In nature, the long view can be seen in our friends the trees. They too have seasonal deadlines, but the overall time frame is much, much longer. The Great Basin bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), for example, date back 4,500 years — at least. They don’t have quarterly results. Businesses and those tied to the quarterly cycle are doing something essentially un-natural, making the idea of deadline something artificial. The next generation of purposeful leaders will recognize this, and I’ll know the change has happened when we see the end of quarterly reporting.

 Growth stocks

What about another measurement: Growth? In the investment business, growth stock is one which is held and matures in value over time. This at least builds in fewer deadlines and more of a financial evolution. Let things take their own course. We should learn from this kind of stock when we look at our own deadlines. How instant do we need our gratification to be — or how fast are we gratifying someone else’s idea of success? A deadline is a form of pressure and not everyone or everything thrives under pressure. A deadline can be false, too fast, and can cause distress rather than productivity. Deadlines matter if you want to be productive and grow. You have to use judgement and some of the characteristics I have covered earlier, such as integrity, to get the best out of them.

Timeline

There is another kind of deadline to be wary of too, and that’s the timeline of a corporate or a career politician. The electoral cycle as it is known often radically shapes policies which are often crunched to match politics not people. One of the reasons why politics has become so distrusted is that simplistic promises are made based on political cycles and not reality. Certain things may not take 4,500 tree-years to deliver, but they take more than several hundred days. 

Simplicity, as I see it, is about what can be realistically achieved, rightly pared down and focused on. Being simplistic is where you are wildly unrealistic. So, any time you have a deadline or a timeline which suggests something is not possible, or where corners get cut to achieve it, I have one word for you: avoid.

Nobody knowingly lets someone else feed them unless they are unable to feed themselves. Yet what does happen on an everyday basis is that we lose control of our time or hand it over to others. It’s called the schedule, the calendar and the diary. I find that the best way to apply the Simplicity Principle to my life is to control my time to the best of my ability. This covers when I am on and offline, when I’m in meetings or not, and what I do with my time. I am one of the lucky ones. Not everyone can control their time, and this is not just a case of ‘time poverty,’ but of not being able to decide how to spend it. In the workplace, having greater control of time leads to higher productivity. (I define productivity not just as the dry output of product per hour but of motivation, engagement, creativity). In Sweden the Svartedalens study has shown that when you give workers control over their time by giving them a six-hour day, for instance, the amount of absenteeism from sickness and stress halves. So flexibility, what I call ‘flexibilism’, counts every bit as clock-watching does.

Overtime

All of this means that the new wealth in life is not just money, and not just health, but time. Research done by University College London and the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that a tiny bit of overtime is no bad thing, but that the minute you go significantly over that, the rate of heart attacks or coronary heart disease spikes by as much as 60 per cent — another indicator that when someone else controls our time we suffer. As more and more people enter the unstable job market, from zero hours to freelancing, every hour counts. So, when you decide to simplify your time, one of the first things to do is look at how your calendar is going to be shaped: what the pattern of time looks like and feels like. I never, for instance, agree to be on one side of town one hour and another side of town the next. I often have back-to-back meetings in the same place, and I try and build in a realistic amount of time for anyone I hire or work with to get what they need to do done. I’m not a fan of overtime, because it usually means you’re spending someone else’s time and not really paying for it. That’s bad form.

Body clock

Being sensitive to time is exactly what humans are. I once spent almost all of a business call with the director of a multimillion-dollar global business discussing how we manage jet lag. (Tip: for me it’s nothing to eat, drink plenty before the flight but less during, eye masks and melatonin on arrival.) The organizations which do well across different time zones recognize that the practical impact of time and time travel do matter. The idea of staggering on and off the red-eye, then being a good parent or spouse, while coping with altered time zones is not a good recipe for productivity. These organizations have to create different time zones which reflect body and mind clocks too. We now know a lot more about circadian rhythm — taken from the Latin circa (around) and dies (day) and also known as the body clock — than we used to. Our internal clocks reflect the earth’s rotation around the sun over 24 hours. All our metabolism, hormones and key functions fluctuate in peaks and troughs and are not a one-size-fits-all, nor are they are one-time-fits-all either. For instance, the award-winning neuroscientist Sarah Jayne Blakemore uncovered how teenagers’ brains are altered during puberty, making most of the school structure they are forced to operate in wildly unproductive, while recent research from the University of Vigo in Spain has shown that taking blood-pressure medication at night can be more effective than taking it in the morning. 

What I read into all of this emerging evidence about chronobiology and the study of our bodies in relation to time inside us, is that we need to radically adjust the way we manage our time outside of our bodies. You could say that this is an example of where we need to avoid being simplistic in order to reach simple solutions. It is becoming obvious that to say that everyone needs to get up at the same time, go to work at the same time, and eat, drink and sleep in the same rhythm is a simplistic solution society has created. It overlooks what is real, which is, well, complicated. So how does the Simplicity Principle apply to this really challenging question of time? Well, start with KISS and Keep It Simple. If you realize you are more productive at one time of the day over another, work with that to the best of your ability. If this means changing policy so that teenagers can concentrate better, why not? That may be complex in the short term, but remember that short term doesn’t count in my book as much as the long term does. The long-term solution should be based on simplicity. All of the shifts to work, the workplace, the working time zones and the working week are here to stay. The more we know about how humans operate, the more we can both adapt machines to help us — like programmes to help workers communicate across different time zones by logging on and off at times to suit – and the more we can change our behaviours to suit the new realities. In addition to keeping it simple, the Simplicity Principle wants to learn from nature. So let’s learn: the answer to our productivity crisis and stress crisis may be partly solved, simply, by looking at time and body clocks. Our internal time schedule matters as much as anything on the outside.

Past and Present

We know there is no time like the present. Carpe diem is a wonderful Latin phrase which means ‘seize the day’. It’s a Simplicity Principle kind of a phrase. Like Nike’s ‘Just Do It’. It makes sense. It cuts down complexity. But letting go of the past can be hard, especially if you live and work in it. So much of how we live is still governed by the past. We still live and work by an eight-hour office-based day, even though for most of us, our time and our lives is on a never-ending digital loop, where we can live and work in very different ways. The academic Judy Wajcman puts it well when she describes in her book Pressed for Time that the smartphone has become ‘the quintessential time–space compression mechanism’. She points out that digital devices save time but also consume it. When you think that the average internet user is on it for six hours a day, she’s not wrong. So, to be fully in the present, or to imagine the future (which is what humans are really good at doing — imagining) we need to let go of the past. Or at least imagine it doesn’t have to be copied. I contributed to a book of essays about how to transform life at work called Being Present. One of the essays is by the German generations expert Steffi Burkhart who writes:

In the past the availability of capital, technology and resources such as oil and gas were the most important drivers for growth, but next to information, data and knowledge gained in real time, human resources will be the scarcest resource of the future.

What she refers to is human capital, human resource, or what we now call Talent. The simple truth, sweetie, is that talent matters because it is human. You can forget about the machine if you overlook the human. We have to look at ourselves now, as we are, and apply the Simplicity Principle to our lives. This means making decisions now. This means embracing neurodiversity now. This means letting go of old ideas about productivity being about clocking on and off and more about creativity and the ability to be curious. It’s about how we rest and reset, and it is about how we learn and understand our limits. How we curb infobesity. How we build relationships with each other. The past can teach us plenty, but we can only react to now. Do the waggle dance like the bee. Tell each other where the pollen is – and where it isn’t. Not where it was, that was yesterday. But what’s happening right now. My late brother Joss, the one who told me to ‘keep breathing deeply’, is with me even though I completed this book five years after he passed away from lung cancer. He stays inside my heart, and so he is present. When he was alive he ran a theatre company which brought back plays from across history into a contemporary setting. He called his theatre company ‘Present Moment’. That’s a simple instruction: live for today and you want to live tomorrow. But live in the here and now.

TIME

  • Don’t do deadlines. Unless you set them yourself. Always question deadline and timeline. Is it real? Should it be done? Or is there another way? 
  • Keep control of your calendar. Time is a precious resource and needs to be actively managed. Controlling (as far as you can) how you spend it will lead to higher productivity.
  • Sweeten the gig. Prepare for freelance life even if it’s not happening (yet) and make whatever you do work as far and as flexibly as possible in the time available. 
  • Obey your body clock. Understand what your body is telling you about how you spend your time. Don’t be afraid to look inside before you look outside.
  • Offices are for water coolers. Don’t bother with an office unless you have to. Work where you need to work if it is internet-related but have a social scene with your colleagues, often. 
  • Live in the present moment. Focus on what your life and needs are now, and let that be your spur to action, not what has happened in the past.

This extract from The Simplicity Principle by Julia Hobsbawm is ©2020 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

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