When You Work is More Important than Where You Work

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Nearly 131 years ago, on May 1st, 1886, Chicago workers sparked a nationwide strike to end the brutal working conditions typical of the day. Their goal was to institute the long-sought 8 hour work day, which was first proposed to Congress by the National Labor Union in 1866. It wasn’t until June 26, 1940, that the efforts of labor organizers were finally realized with the creation of the 40 hour work week through an amendment of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

This was an important milestone in the history of workers rights, and it set up the norm of a 9-5 workday, at least in some industries.  While the regular schedule of a full-time job is a luxury to many part-time workers, it begs the question if this schedule actually makes sense for the 21st-century workforce. Should we do away with the traditional eight-hour workday that organizers literally fought and died for? To examine this question, we can look to research that aims to understand when we’re functioning at our best.

The study comes from two Cornell researchers, Michael Macy and Scott Golder. In 2011, they aggregated around 550m tweets from two million users in 84 countries from the previous two years. The goal was to uncover the emotional state experienced over the course of the day using an analysis technique called the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (try it for yourself here!). What they found were remarkably consistent trends across cultures that positive affect (enthusiasm, delight, activeness, and alertness) rises in the morning, peaks around nine or ten AM, and then starts a long decline to a low in the mid-afternoon, before rising again in the evening. The figure below from the study details both positive and negative affect over time.


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Graph from the study “Diurnal and Seasonal Mood Vary with Work, Sleep, and Daylength Across Diverse Cultures” by Scott A. Golder and Michael W. Macy

It’s worth noting that negative affect (NA), which includes distress, fear, anger, guilt, and disgust, isn’t a mirror image of positive affect (PA). A low level of PA means that there’s an absence of positive feelings, not the presence of negative feelings. Not surprisingly, Saturday has the lowest level of NA in the morning, whereas Monday has the highest.

All of this is detailed in Daniel H. Pink’s new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, which comes to the conclusion that good decision making happens when our positive affect is highest, such as in the morning and late afternoon/early evening. 

One of the most helpful takeaways from Pink is a reinforcement of the idea that a rigid 9-5 schedule is harming productivity, as the afternoon work suffers from a high negative affect and low positive affect. This sort of data-informed workday is gaining traction at some companies, who are reworking their day to have important work and high-level meetings in the morning and less critical tasks in the early afternoon.

At Emerging Insider, we’ve taken this information to heart. We reworked our schedule to hold company-wide meetings in the morning, and you’ll often find people hitting the gym around two or three in the afternoon to get a quick workout and recharge our positive affect. We’ve always had a flexible company policy in terms of time – when you work and get results like we do it doesn’t matter so much if you’re sitting at a desk for eight hours or working from a coffee shop or at home on your own schedule. Our CEO is also known from time to time to round up the team in the afternoon to take a quick field-trip to our local ping-pong haunt to shake things up (big shout out to Mr. Ping Pong on Chicago Ave., your one-stop-shop for flowers, ping-pong and Uhaul rental in the Chicago area). Rather than fighting your body’s natural clock, work with it to unlock maximum productivity.