Daniel Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (2018) explores how the quality of the decisions we make are correlated with their timing.
Pink is an expert on motivation and management, and an author of such best-selling books as Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) and To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (2012.) He describes When as not so much a “how-to” guide for making the most of our lives, but as a “when-to” manual for individual and group work.
The Best Times of the Day to Make Optimum Decisions
Drawing on scientific research on the science of timing, Pink concludes that the mental acuity, creativity, productivity, temper, and frames of mind for most folks follow an identifiable “peak-trough-rebound” template. Most people get their best work done in the mornings, suffer a trough of mental weariness in the afternoon, and experience a late-evening burst:
Our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the sixteen or so hours we’re awake, they change often in a regular, foreseeable manner. We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others. … [R]esearch has shown that time-of-day effects can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on cognitive undertakings.
Needless to say, this “peak-trough-rebound” phenomenon is fairly universal but differs among individuals. There are “larks” who do remarkably well in the mornings and “owls” who tend to embrace their late night productivity habits.
Optimizing Your Day with Daily Rhythms
According to Pink, “peak-trough-rebound” is attributable to the body’s relatively low temperature when we wake up. The increasing body temperature gradually boosts our energy level and alertness, which consequently “enhances our executive functioning, our ability to concentrate, and our powers of deduction.” As the morning evolves, we become more focused and alert until we hit a peak. Then our energy level wanes and our alertness declines, only to be restored in early evening.
Pink concludes that mornings are good for decision-making and that errors increase in the afternoons. Studies recommend that we schedule surgery in the mornings when surgeons tend to make fewer mistakes and avoid petitioning a traffic ticket in the afternoons because judges tend to be less considerate than in the mornings.
“Breaks are Not a Sign of Sloth but a Sign of Strength”
Pink emphasizes the risks of clouded judgment that characterizes the afternoon “trough.” As an example, Pink speculates that the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 was about the time of day—it’s captain’s ill-fated decisions were made in the afternoon following a night of no sleep.
With case studies of error-reduction in hospital operating rooms, Pink suggests “vigilance breaks” (quick team huddles for reviewing checklists and verifying courses of action) and restorative breaks (naps, short physical activities, or mental diversions) during troughs to “recharge and replenish, whether we’re performing surgery or proofreading advertising copy.”
“Timing is Everything” and “Everything is Timing”
Based on the mentioned studies’ correlations and causations, Pink offers advice further than daily scheduling—from marriage to switching careers and sports:
- The best time to perform a specific task depends on the nature of that task. Identify your chronotype (Pink offers an online survey,) understand your task, and decide on the most suitable time. Do not let mundane tasks sneak into your peak period. Additionally, if you’re a boss, understand your employees’ work patterns and “allow people to protect their peak.”
- Tasks that need creativity and a flash of insight (rather than analytical perspicacity) are best done during the late-evening recovery period when the mind tends to be less inhibited and more open to inventive associations.
- Harness the psychological power of beginnings—New Year’s Days, birthdays, and anniversaries are all natural times to make resolutions and start working on goals. Other opportunities for fresh starts include the first of the month, the beginning of the week, and the first day of spring.
- “Lunch breaks offer an important recovery setting to promote occupational health and well-being”—especially for “employees in cognitively or emotionally demanding jobs.”
- Afternoon coffee followed by 10- to 20-minute naps and leisurely daily walks are “not niceties, but necessities.” Drink a cup of coffee just before a nap—the 25 minutes it takes for the caffeine to kick in is the optimal length of a restorative siesta.
- Morning workouts are best for people aiming to burn fat, lose weight, or build sustainable exercise habits. Folks trying to reach personal bests should seek out the afternoons, when physical performance tends to reach its zenith.
- Studies suggest that people are most likely to run their first marathons at ages ending in 9—but those ages are also when people are most prone to cheating on their spouses.
- According to one survey, switching jobs every three to five years in your early career can lead to the biggest pay increases.
Recommendation: Skim Daniel Pink’s ‘When’ for the Life Hacks
Daniel Pink’s When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing offers little fresh substance. Many of the cited studies’ implications, causations, and correlations are open to debate.
A speed-read of When, especially of the takeaway points at the end of each chapter, can offer some practical tips about when you are likely to be creative, focused, and least error-prone.
Parenthetically, the third and the final section on “Synching and Thinking” is out-of-place to Pink’s principal theme of timing, even if the case study of the synchronized effort that constitutes the Mumbai Dabbawala lunchbox delivery system is interesting. Pink explains that the importance of “syncing up” with people around you through a collective sense of identity and a shared purpose is “a powerful way to lift your physical and psychological well-being.”