Updated: Jan 26
Written by Samuel Liberant & Nate Holland
Have you asked yourself lately: How can we be more effective while working apart in the future as individuals and in teams? As designers we are always looking to improve conditions that make the world a better place. When considering these powerful and relevant questions from a scientific perspective, two principles rise to the forefront: Executive Function and Arousal Fatigue. Executive Function is your brain’s ability to regulate itself and is involved in creativity, focus, and emotion. Arousal Fatigue describes the accumulation of emotional and physical stresses that leave you feeling drained or “burned out”. During this pandemic stresses have amplified, and let’s be honest, who hasn’t felt drained at some point!
Unsurprisingly, the two are related, Arousal Fatigue erodes Executive Function. Also unsurprisingly, many of the things that boost Executive Function, help with stress control and reduce Arousal Fatigue.
As we began making sense of it all, the questions quickly evolve:
What motivates me to extract myself from a really important activity for a break?
How can I convince myself to still feel productive so that the guilt won’t haunt me?
What environment might motivate me to operate differently?
With these questions in mind, we set forth armed with experimental curiosity and peer-reviewed research. We wanted to explore how we could boost Executive Function in search of a happier, more focused, and productive team. We discovered that if we worked to develop a process that increases Executive Function and reduces Arousal Fatigue then we could generate a more effective, equitable, and humane “daily operating rhythm” through changes in physical space and team dynamics. We coined the process, Rhythm of the Day.
What We Did
Earlier this year, we decided to test the Rhythm of the Day process ourselves within NBBJ Consulting and became the “makers” of the evidence. Response rates were high and initial survey results were met with surprise and skepticism, "…there is a large range of alertness throughout my day", or "…[I’m] literally in my living room all day long.” During the dialogue, the conversation quickly turned strategic, specifically around when to focus on challenging tasks and what overlapping rhythms could mean for collaboration. Overall, our goal was to understand the science and then hold up a mirror to allow ourselves to come up with better daily operating rhythms to our days.
In the spirit of experiential learning, we divided into small groups for small conversations, challenging each other to pick one thing to change as a team or as individuals. Not surprisingly, everyone chose individual challenges – it is easier and our brains crave what is easy. Alas, change is still hard, but we met with people daily to encourage them and hear about their progress. Some completed their challenge, others did so partially, and some had day-to-day life struggles that interfered – we’ve all been there, and this is expected in group life.
Here are some of the case studies that emerged from our research participants:
“I took a purposeful pause…”
While personal drive and ambition are strengths in the workplace, they can lead to overwork and uncertainty about prioritization. One of our healthcare planners began a new breathing and relaxation ritual to help infuse stillness and self-compassion during their workday. They used an app for brief meditations twice a day, five to ten minutes in the mornings and just three minutes later in the day. In addition to being able to decompress, the ritual is allowing our colleague to recognize and ease into what matters most, by just being present and aware of internal feelings. Mindfulness is a powerful gift that allows our brains to focus and prioritize.
“I leaned into a mid-afternoon siesta…”
The body has a natural rhythm as the melatonin and cortisol hormones ebb and flow. In addition to waking you up in the morning and putting you to sleep at night, this cycle leads to the mid-afternoon slump. One of our team members chose to lean into the rhythm and opted for a short 30-minute nap mid-afternoon. As long as the nap was timed right, our colleague reported feeling refreshed and engaged when returning to work, much like the productivity boost experienced first thing in the morning, they stated: “this brought the morning to my afternoon, and no need for added coffee – amazing!” In addition to the discipline, and a bit of a guilt-free mindset it required to take daily naps, our colleague acknowledged there were cultural and leadership shifts required to support this practice widely.
“I chose to stroll through nature…”
One of the more inspiring success stories came from a workplace strategist, who felt anxious before a major meeting with client leadership. Instead of cramming more stats and figures for the presentation, our colleague simply went for a walk. Their head cleared instantly, and upon returning they knew what to say in the meeting and nailed it. Movement, fresh air, sunlight, and green foliage are all proven winners in reducing stress and boosting mental function. While most of us already know this, the big win in this case is that our colleague felt emboldened to take those few minutes because of these discussions and knew that the team (and research) supported it.
During our final dialog, we asked our group to reflect on the process. When asked how much they were hoping their mental performance would improve, over 40% said they expected to see significant improvement. However, after attempting to implement these new habits, their optimism waned with only one employee reporting significant improvement. Most reported some improvement, but not much.
Immediately after the previous question, we asked if they continued for another three weeks, how much improvement would they expect to see? The results were higher than their initial optimism. They had experienced enough either personally or through others that they knew continuing would show additional benefits to their stress levels and mental performance.
Remember, change is hard. Lasting personal change is harder. Not only do we need to feel able and willing to change, but we also need to generate goal enriching environments to support a richer version of ourselves.
Care To Try It?
According to the research on Executive Function and Arousal Fatigue, the organizations and teams that invest their energy in a refined Rhythm of the Day will, over the long run, outperform those that fail to make sense of how they operate. Now, consider yourself and your teams. How equitable is your daily rhythm? Is your physical, digital, and human environment supporting the long-term success of you and your team? Consider taking a quick break and allow yourself to step outside for just ten minutes before beginning your next task. We would love to hear what comes up for you! We encourage you to comment on this blog.
If you are interested in implementing the Rhythm of the Day tool in your workplace, email our Director of Design Innovation at NBBJ, Nate Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org).