When? The small shifts you can make in your timing that add up to a big difference.

What time of the day are you able to concentrate best? And are there times that your concentration levels often slump?

I’ve always been aware that my ability to work well on difficult tasks is affected by the time of day, but till now I’ve not been especially systematic about how to respond to these circadian rhythms. So Daniel Pink’s excellent book When has given more clarity, thanks to the broad range of research findings he shares.

The afternoon trough effect is predictable…and powerful

Here are a few of the research findings that made me realise I can’t afford to ignore these daily patterns:

  • Pink reports a study of hand washing in 2015 that shows nurses and other care givers are 10% less likely to wash their hands in the afternoon than the morning.
  • And in the UK, ‘sleep-related vehicle accidents peak twice during every twenty-four-hour period. One is between 2am and 6am, the middle of the night. The other is between 2pm and 4pm, the middle of the afternoon. Researchers found the same pattern for accidents in France, the U.S., Finland and several other countries.
  • Researchers at Duke Medical Center found a similar effect when reviewing 90,000 surgeries. They found that the chances of ‘anaesthetic adverse events’ – mistakes made by anaesthesiologists – were more likely to happen at 3pm than 9am. And this was not just a small effect, but a three-fold increase.

Similar effects – more errors / worse outcomes – have been found in a broad range of other situations, including classrooms (a Danish study of 2 million children’s test results) and even decisions by judges in court-rooms. As a fundraiser, do you think you’re probably immune to these effects, or could they be harming your results too?

Though Pink’s book includes some interesting information on how individual circadian rhythms (our 24-hour sleep/wake cycle) vary (ie there is a small percentage of people who are ‘owls’ rather than ‘larks’ – who are often at their best at night and worst in the morning – the main conclusions Pink draws from hundreds of pieces of research seem clear:

The ebb and flow of most people’s concentration levels follows the same predictable pattern:

Peak. Trough. Rebound.

What this means is that for most tasks that require will power, emotional balance and problem-solving, most people perform best in the morning. This deteriorates in the afternoon and picks up in the evening.

So the million dollar question is, to increase your chances of being a happy, productive fundraiser, how could any fundraiser make use of these findings?

Here are three ideas that will help you improve your results:

1.‘Eat that frog’ in the morning

Most importantly, whether you are a lark or an owl, Pink advises us to ‘not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period.’ Ie for most of us, this means the morning. So if currently you spend the first part of your morning managing your email in-box, you’re failing to make the most of the precious time when your analytic brain and will power are at their strongest.

For the last six years, at Bright Spot we have taught participants on our Major Gifts Mastery and Corporate Partnerships Mastery Programmes the extraordinary power of the Eat that Frog concept. If you haven’t heard of it before, it’s inspired by the book of the same name by the productivity expert, Brian Tracy. The key idea is that while most of us ease into our work day, handling a few emails and tasks that feel easy, we are frittering away our most productive phase. Tracy shows us that very successful people in any field develop the habit of tackling their most important or challenging tasks at the very beginning of the day.

Most of your colleagues don’t do this. But if you do, you take advantage of your peak concentration levels. Furthermore, we’ve found this habit not only rewards you with more progress on the tasks that effect your results, but also because completing these tasks boosts your self-esteem.

Over the years hundreds of the participants on our Major Gifts Mastery Programme have told us how helpful this concept has been. For instance, Laetitia Webb, who was at that time Director of Development of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival found Eat That Frog had such powerful effect on her own results that she then taught it on to all her colleagues, with a fantastic knock-on effect in the organisation’s productivity and income. She’s continued to use of the concept ever since.

  • And in your peak time, do three supporter tasks first

We combine it with the story of a truly outstanding high-value fundraiser named Pauline, who I was once lucky enough to interview. She told me that a key secret of her success was to ask herself this question every morning:

‘What are three things I can do this morning that will help me start / deepen my relationships with existing / potential donors?’

Crucially, she then followed through and did those three actions first.

If you’re familiar with Bright Spot’s work, you might guess that this included, but was not exclusively about, setting up as many informal conversations with donors over coffee as possible, (what we call ‘test drive focus.’ It also included time spent planning and problem-solving issues to do with relationships with donors.

One fundraiser, Tom Hall, then manager of high value income at Scope, told us this practice led to a gift of £62,000 from a (supposedly ‘lapsed’ donor). The technique prompted him to contact a former supporter, who had appeared to ‘go quiet’ for the last few years. The call led to a coffee and the coffee led to the gift, which would otherwise never have happened.

Whether your area of fundraising is with major donors or not, the key conclusion I take from Pink’s analysis is to be proactive in spending time early in the day on your highest value tasks because they usually require more problem solving and will power.

  • Mitigate for the trough in the afternoon

But how can we succeed in the afternoon when research shows it’s usually harder to concentrate?

Pink describes a large group of hospitals in the U.S, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which took action to improve the quality of surgical procedures and reduce errors, most of which happened in the afternoon. The programme they implemented reduced the rate of errors during surgery by an amazing 18%.

How did they do it? The key concept was encouraging people to make ‘more frequent and more intentional’ breaks. Using simple checklists and wall mounted posters promoting key concepts were also part of the programme.

If you’re not especially surprised by the tactics the VHA used, that, in part is my reason for writing this blog. A key question is not ‘would you have thought of these ways of mitigating for the trough, for those surgeons (or for any or us)?’ but rather, ‘are you proactively using these obvious tactics enough during your daily troughs?

How often do you go for genuine ‘brain breaks’, ideally outside, (and without thinking about work and without draining your concentration levels by checking social media!)? Could you create a simple checklist for a procedure you implement regularly, to free up brain space and reduce slip-ups / wasted effort?

If you found this blog helpful, please share it, and do let us know any techniques you’ve found to help with these daily peaks and troughs.