Your Brain’s Ideal Schedule

by Ron Friedman, Ph.D.

SARAH GREEN: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green. Today, I’m talking with Ron Friedman, a psychologist and author of, The Best Place to Work- The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. He’s also a regular contributor to Ron, thank you so much for talking with us today.

RON FRIEDMAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SARAH GREEN: So Ron, a lot of your writing for HBR has focused on becoming more productive and especially around some smart ways to structure our daily routines. And I thought we could just start at the beginning. It’s first thing in the morning, you’ve just arrived at work. What do most of us do wrong at this point in our day?

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, in many cases, most of us start out day by checking our email, or listening to our voice mail. It’s kind of the default. And I think we do it for some really well intentioned reasons. We want to be responsive to our clients, we want to be responsive to our colleagues, but being responsive first thing in the morning is really cognitively expensive. And for one thing, it’s because it prevents us from leveraging our best hours.

Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused. We’re able to have some strong contributions in terms of planning, in terms of thinking, in terms of speaking well. And if we end up squandering those first three hours reacting to other people’s priorities for us, which is ultimately what voice mail, or email is, is a list of other people’s requests for our time, that ends up using up our best hours and we’re not quite as effective as we could be.

The other a major reason being response first thing is not a good idea is because it puts you in a reactive mindset. So you’re looking outward for direction, rather than looking inward. And switching from a proactive to a reactive mindset is easy, but doing the reverse is much, much harder.

SARAH GREEN: So let’s then talk about maybe some ways to be more proactive and to get our day off on the right foot.

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, I think one solution to this problem is developing a habit at the beginning of every workday. When you first come to the office and sit down at your desk, to start with a brief planning session. I think you see a great example of this in the world of cooking, in a practice called, mise en place, which is French for, everything in its place. If you look at the way that chefs operate, they don’t rush into the kitchen and immediately start cooking. Instead, they very deliberately take time at the beginning to picture the perfect execution of a dish and then they work backwards.

They identify the steps they need to perform, they select and gather the right tools, they prepare the ingredients in the right proportion, and then they arrange everything they’ll need in their station. So in short, they’re strategizing first, but then they’re executing second. And I think we can all learn from that approach and apply a similar technique by devoting the first few minutes of each day to a strategic planning session.

SARAH GREEN: So that sounds like a great way to start your day, but I’m wondering also about what happens in the middle of the day. I’m specifically thinking of that maybe 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock lull where suddenly, you just want to take a nap, or check Facebook, or you’re just having trouble focusing. I think a lot of us have that little lull in the middle of the day. Is there any way to salvage that time and make it more useful?

RON FRIEDMAN: Yes, I think there is and I think it’s by recognizing, first and foremost, that you’re not the same person at 3 o’clock that you are at 9 o’clock in the morning. So our energy levels fluctuate over the course of the day. We’re a lot sharper first thing in the morning. And again, that window lasts maybe two to three hours and we really need to leverage that time. But then the reality is, at 2 or 3 o’clock, we tire. We function as human beings and our level of energy fluctuates. We’re just not as focused.

And so what I would urge people to do is to take those fluctuations of energy into account and plan some of the less taxing work, the work that requires less will power, less concentration, focus on doing those types of tasks at 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Or take a meeting that maybe is a lower level priority meeting. The other thing that I talk about in my book, The Best Place to Work is how we’re actually better at being creative when we’re fatigued, which is kind of an interesting and counter intuitive insight.

And it’s partly because in order to be creative, sometimes you need to consider some ideas that don’t necessarily feel like they’re on track with what you’re trying to achieve. And so having all of these ideas come into your mind, because you’re not quite as good at putting them off when you’re tired, can actually make you more creative. So scheduling a creative task for the time in your day when you know you’re a little bit tired can actually be beneficial.

SARAH GREEN: That’s really interesting. And actually that’s kind of a nice segue way to the next thing I wanted to ask you about, which was the importance of fitting exercise into the day. That’s something you wrote about a lot in your book, just the cognitive benefits, all kinds of mental benefits from being physically tired as well. So tell me a little bit about why that’s so important because I think a lot of us think of it as something– well, it would be great to go to the gym, so I could look better in my bathing suit, but we may not necessarily be connecting it with the mental benefits. And then, how do we fit that into our schedules? Is there an optimal time to do it?

RON FRIEDMAN: This is one of the more interesting things that I uncovered when I was doing the research for the book is that the benefits of exercise– most of us, as you said, think of it as something that we do to look good, or maybe even to feel good, but what research is starting to show is that some of the strongest impacts of exercise are the immediate benefits it has for the way that we think.

When we exercise regularly we get more blood flowing to the brain, which enables us to focus better. It activate memory regions of the brain, which enables us to soak up information more quickly. And it puts us in a better mood, which is critical if you’re looking to create teams that are more collaborative, or if you want employees who are in a good mood and therefore influence the mood that their customers are in.

So I think what we ultimately need to do, both on the organizational level and on the individual level, is really re-frame exercise not as something that we do for ourselves selfishly, but rather something that we do to be more productive, and to better, and more effective at whatever it is that we’re doing. On the organizational level, I think more companies need to realize that there’s a business case for creating the conditions that allow their employees to get more exercise.

Whether that’s by giving them the flexibility to come in a little late, or leave earlier, or maybe take an extended lunch, or taking out a gym membership near the office, or even just something as simple as modeling the behaviors, such as taking walking meetings, if you’re a manager. And encouraging your employees to do that as well because that’s an easy way of getting exercise over the course of the day.

SARAH GREEN: So can I just interject there and ask a clarifying question? So a lot of people then are talking about things like treadmill desks. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?

RON FRIEDMAN: That’s a little bit more provocative because there’s research showing with treadmill desks is that when you first start using it, there’s a dip in performance. And that dip typically lasts about six months.


RON FRIEDMAN: You’re going to making typing errors. You’re multitasking physical activities is what you’re doing. Multitasking, you can get better at that over time and typically people do. Over the course of the year, first they recover their performance and sometimes it gets a little bit better, but I’m not convinced that we should be attempting to multitask physical activities.

SARAH GREEN: So then to go back to what we were talking about, sort of scheduling it into your day, is there an optimal time, or does it just matter that you do it, at some point at all?

RON FRIEDMAN: I would urge for people to find a time where it feels the most fun. So in other words, if getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning is going to be really, really stressful for you the night before and first thing in the morning, that’s going to eat up your will power. And if you have less will power, I don’t know that it’s going to benefit you at your job. And in fact, there’s research showing that having less will power as a function of doing unpleasant exercise makes you worse at saying no to fatty foods later in the day.

So I don’t know that that’s really beneficial. What I would urge people to do is to find an activity that makes exercise fun. And it’s important to think of exercise not just as standing on a treadmill, or going on a walker, but rather playing tennis, or going dancing, or even playing the drum. Anything that’s going to get your heart rate going and is going to strain your muscles is going to be good for you.

SARAH GREEN: OK. Great. Now, I’m sort of following the chronology of the average day here. So you’re coming home from work and you are maybe still thinking about what’s going on at work. I know a lot of our readers have trouble disconnecting from work when they get home. And anecdotally, I’ve heard from a lot of people that they have trouble falling asleep. Some of them listen to the IdeaCast when they’re having trouble following asleep. I hope that does not actually result in them sleeping, though. So I’m just wondering, if people are having trouble disconnecting, falling asleep– these things seem important to cognitive functioning. So what are some better habits that we can develop here at the end of our day?

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, first of all, I think we need to re-frame why it is we’re disengaging at the end of the day. And again, this is much like exercise where it’s something that you’re doing not just for your own personal, selfish benefit, but rather something that can help you be more effective at work. And there are studies showing that people who don’t disengage, the people who are constantly checking their emails on evenings and on weekends, those people tend to be less engaged a year later. And it’s because they’re burnt out.

So if we don’t fully log off, we just can’t fully recover. So to the extent that you are interested disconnecting and you feel supported in that endeavor by an employer, I think there are some things that you can do to make that easier. And these are some things, frankly, that I’ve been experimenting on my own because I feel like it’s hard for me to do it as well. And in part, it’s because we use our devices not just for checking email, but for lots of other things, too.

So in my home I’ll use my phone for Spotify to listen to music during dinner and then that leads me to look at my phone. And then sometimes if I have a good idea, I’ll email it to myself, or to my Evernote account, and that’s another reason to look at my phone. So every time you look at your phone, there’s another incentive to want to look and check your email.

So a few things that I think you can do to try and disconnect after work hours. One is to place your phone in different room to the extent that that’s possible, if you’re not using your phone for multiple purposes. Not having it in the kitchen, for example, so that every time you pass it, you’re not tempted to go and check your email. That’s something that can be a valuable tool. And then to the extent that you have the financial means to do this, and this is something, again, that I have found to be personally effective, is to use different devices for distinct purposes.

So I have a phone, but I also have an iPad. And so what I’ve started to do is put Spotify, for example, on the iPad. And I don’t have email on my iPad. So the iPad becomes a device that I use for pleasure, whereas the phone is a work tool. And so it’s easier for me to put my phone away because I still have all the things that I want to do, but it’s not related, or associated to work in that way.

And then finally, if you’re in an organization and you find yourself emailing after hours, what I would strongly urge you to do is to find a tool that enables you to write the email, but then have it either go out, or arrive in other people’s inboxes first thing in the morning. And that’s a means of still capturing all that good information that comes after you’ve had your beer, or glass of wine after dinner– sometimes you can have those really creative insights. But not necessarily getting involved in a back and forth with colleagues at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. And that’s really critical if you’re a manager because your behavior is setting the tone for how others are expected to behave.

SARAH GREEN: And it’s funny, too, because as we’re talking here, I’m remembering we’re sort of focused today on what individual people can do, but in the book you have a lot of interesting examples of companies going to extreme lengths to actually force people to disconnect. So paying them to take a vacation, but they only get the money if they don’t check their email. Or shutting down the email server after a certain time of night and stuff like that. So it seems like something companies maybe are trying to take a little more seriously.

RON FRIEDMAN: Yes. And I think if we’re looking at the future of work, I think you’re going to see more and more companies recognizing that it’s in their interest to not have employees work 24/7. We work and live with these devices that make everything feel urgent and it’s become neurologically addicting. We’re having a really hard time with these tools.

Sarah, you and I have talked about this in some of the pieces that I’ve written and that you’ve edited, on how recent some of these devices really are. And we often forget that the iPhone was introduced in 2007. That gives it eight years. And so these are really, really new tools that we’re incorporating into the workplace and some of us aren’t using them in the most effective way possible.

SARAH GREEN: Well, and to go back to something that we were talking about a little bit before, I think when you’re disconnecting from work, you’re not just necessarily meditating, or staring at the wall. It’s important to actually do other things. One of the things you’ve talked about being actually really important is play, which it sounds kind of fun, but I have to say, I’m slightly skeptical. I’m like, OK, I understand that exercise is important, but why is play so important?

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, first I think it’s important to define play. And play is anything that’s something you do for fun, but without necessarily having a goal, or a purpose behind it. So that could be playing video games, it could be reading, it could be looking through magazines, it could be anything that you’re doing that’s not necessarily something that’s involved with your work. And as it turns out, making time for play can make you more successful at work. Particularly if you’re work involves creative thinking.

So when we’re engaged in play, we’re rewarded for taking risk. Like in a video game, or playing sports, that puts you in a risk taking mindset, which could be beneficial. Oftentimes, we get really conservative in the way that we do our work. It helps us cultivate an attitude of curiosity and interest and that spills over to other aspects of the work that we do in all aspects of our lives. And it opens us up to alternative ways of thinking.

What’s really interesting is that I think many workplaces have misinterpreted this to mean that they need a ping pong, or a billiards table in the break room. And that’s what’s going to take care of putting people in a playful frame of mind. But the reality is that play is more of a mindset than it is a particular activity. So I think it’s less about having a ping pong table, or billiards table in your office, but rather promoting this idea that it’s OK to occasionally pursue your curiosities even if they don’t necessarily have an immediate reward.

SARAH GREEN: It’s funny because even as you’re sort of talking about some ways that companies have gotten it maybe a little bit wrong there with the foosball tables, I’m also thinking I have a lot of very high achieving acquaintances who take their hobbies and turn them into work in a way. It’s like, I used to love traveling, and so I started this travel blog, and now that’s the thing that I do outside of work. But that almost becomes its own kind of job. So I know a lot of people who have passion projects outside of work, but I’m almost wondering if that’s, in a sense, taking your play too seriously?

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, that’s an interesting question. And I think that a lot of times games that we play outside of work become really, really engaging to us because they have a lot of the elements that we desperately seek in our work and we just don’t get. And I’ll give you an example of this. I talk about this in, The Best Place to Work. The example of video games, and how much we can learn from the design of video games in terms of why they’re engaging for people, and how we can make work more engaging as well.

Here’s some of the features of video games. One is they provide immediate feedback. And I guess that would apply to your friends blog as well. Whereas in work, a lot of times you write a memo and you don’t know, was that a good memo? I don’t know. You get your feedback in six or 12 month intervals, which is not necessarily a recipe for engagement. But in video games, you get that immediate feedback. And your friends blog, perhaps she posts it right away and gets that feedback from readers, so that’s nice.

The other thing that video games have that often work doesn’t is recognition when we succeed. So when you do well at a video game, you get to the next board, you get points, you get all kinds of new tools, you’re expanding your skill set. And then finally, progressive difficulty. So video games get harder the longer we play them. Every board is more difficult. And in work, It’s often the opposite trajectory. We don’t have that progressive difficulty.

When you first enter a job, first six months, or first 12 months, it’s really, really interesting. You’re constantly learning new things, you’re being challenged. And then a year or two later, It’s the same thing again and again. And I think all organizations can learn from this is incorporating some of these elements of immediate feedback, recognition and progressive difficulty to make jobs more interesting.

I think what happens for a lot of us is when we don’t have these elements, that’s when we start looking to video games and to tangential interests. If you’re not growing on the job, you’re looking to grow elsewhere.

SARAH GREEN: That’s really interesting. And that sort of gets to the bigger picture here, which is that a lot of people are interested in developing these better routines and better habits to feel happier at the end of the day. That’s the big goal. But one of the points that you’ve made in your writing is that we don’t always know what makes us happy, which I find kind of interesting, and puzzling, and philosophical. So tell me a little bit about why is that the case?

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, human beings are terrible at predicting their future happiness and this been well documented in a number of recent books. What I try to do here is talk about how relevant that is to making good decisions about where we should work and what we should focus on at work. And I’ll give you just some examples of why we’re not very good– or rather, how we’re not very good at predicting our happiness.

One is, I think we would all assume that salary and job satisfaction would have a very high correlation. So to the extent that you’re making more money, you’re going to be happier with your job and more satisfied. But as it turns out, that relationship is not quite as strong as we would imagine. It’s a very, very, very small correlation. And it’s because what impacts your satisfaction with your job is more of the conditions that are either present, or not. So are you getting to grow on the job? Are you feeling connected to your colleagues in a meaningful way? Do you feel autonomous in the way that you do your work? Those are the things that determine job satisfaction, not necessarily salary.

Another example of this, and I wrote a blog about this recently, is how we all kind of assume that success at a very difficult undertaking can lead us to happiness, and lead us to be euphoric, and feel like we can take on the world. But oftentimes, it’s not that. It leads to burnout. And finally, at an example that I talk about in the book is how daylight impacts our happiness on the job.

Again, not one of those things that we would typically think of, but there’s research showing that you can actually predict the level of satisfaction of employees by the amount of sunlight entering the workspace. And it’s because daylight is healthy for us. When we’re around daylight, our bodies are producing more serotonin, which puts us in a good mood. It’s producing more melatonin, which enables us to sleep better at night. And it lowers our blood pressure. And so there’s research showing that telemarketers who rotate seats, when they’re seated near a window, they tend to do a lot better at their jobs than when they’re seated further indoors without access to daylight.

SARAH GREEN: So I wanted to finish up by talking a little bit about the flip side of happiness, those negative emotions that we sort of wish would just go away. What’s the proper role, as we’re pursuing happiness, what is the proper role for some of those negative feelings? And why is important not to discount them necessarily, or see them as a sign of failure?

RON FRIEDMAN: Well, emotions really serve as guideposts in terms of whether or not we’re doing the right things both for our physical and mental health. And so when you’re experiencing negative emotions, there’s a temptation to want to sweep those negative emotions under the rug and kind of power through. And what I talk about in the book is that there’s a lot of research showing that by acknowledging negative emotions, we can actually make improvements in our lives that ultimately lead us to be happier.

And I talk in the book about this story, my first encounter with Ed Deci who’s the founder of self determination theory, which is the basis of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. And I was applying to work with Ed at the University of Rochester, this was my graduate school interview, and I’d written this application essay about how I felt it was really important to study happiness. And I felt like happiness was one of these things that we can all achieve. And so what’s more important than happiness?

And so in my interview with him, Ed said, can you tell me a little bit about this essay? And I said exactly what I just told you. And he said, well, I think happiness is a bunch of crap. And that was really startling for me because this was a guy who has spent his career talking about psychological well being. And I said, well, why? And he said something that was really enlightening for me, which is that if you’re ignoring your negative emotions, then you can’t live a full life. And there’s been research in recent years looking at what are the benefits of negative emotion?

And so if you look at why we feel angry, it’s because that serves as a signal that we’ve been slighted by someone else. Or why do we feel guilty? It’s because that’s a signal that we’ve damaged an important relationship. Or why do we feel embarrassed? That’s because it’s a the signal that we violated a social norm. So I think the reality is if you’re working to create something of value, not every day is going to be a picnic.

There are going to be periods of struggle, and occasionally frustration, and that’s useful information. That means you need to make adjustments, or that maybe you’re heading down the wrong path. And so I think it’s better to acknowledge and respond to your negative emotions than again, to just to simply sweep them underneath the rug in an effort to feel happy.

SARAH GREEN: Well, Ron, thank you so much for talking with us today.

RON FRIEDMAN: It’s my pleasure.

SARAH GREEN: That was Ron Friedman. The book is, The Best Place to Work – the Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. For more of Ron’s writing, visit

To see the original article at HBR, click here.

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