Everything Is Timing

Daniel Pink, bestselling author of Drive and To Sell is Human, has turned his attention to the science of timing. His new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, explores how the time of day affects our productivity and creativity; the psychological effects of beginnings, middles, and ends; and the fascinating consequences of synchronizing our actions with other people’s. Each chapter of When dives into these topics and, in a coda, Pink reflects on what the process of writing the book has taught him in a series of pithy encapsulations of what he used to believe and what he believes now. I asked him to expand a little on each one.  — Dave Nussbaum, Managing Editor

I used to believe in ignoring the waves of the day. Now I believe in surfing them.

One of the most surprising insights I uncovered was that our mood and our performance follow a fairly predictable pattern during the day—in general, a peak, a trough, and a recovery. Scholars have detected this pattern using a range of disciplines and methodologies—from Big Data analysis of tweets to the day reconstruction method. Equally important, the evidence shows that we’re better off doing certain kinds of work at certain stages of the day. We do better on heads-down analytic problems during the peak (which for most of us is the morning) and on more iterative, insight problems during the recovery (which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening.) Based on this evidence, I’ve rearranged my own work—and tried to do the right tasks at the right time. I realize it’s an N of one—but it seems to be working.

I used to believe that lunch breaks, naps, and taking walks were niceties. Now I believe they’re necessities.

Yeah, the science of breaks is pretty compelling. In my view, it’s where the science of sleep was 15 years ago—about to break through the surface and reshape our understanding and behavior in a broad way. I was always someone who powered through, believing that amateurs took breaks but professionals didn’t. But that’s entirely wrong. It’s amateurs who don’t take breaks, and professionals who do. We also know a lot more about what types of breaks are most restorative. The best breaks are fully detached, taken with someone we choose, and involve movement and nature. So now I schedule two breaks every afternoon and try to honor them the way I would honor a scheduled meeting.

I was always someone who powered through, believing that amateurs took breaks but professionals didn’t. But that’s entirely wrong. It’s amateurs who don’t take breaks, and professionals who do.

I used to believe that the best way to overcome a bad start at work, at school, or at home was to shake it off and move on. Now I believe that the better approach is to start again or start together.

Like many people reading this, I’m quite taken by the findings of the “fresh start effect” and the broader body of research on temporal landmarks. But I also write about lesser known (but equally urgent) work by Lisa Kahn of Yale showing the importance of labor-market conditions early in one’s career. In short, take two similarly situated university graduates. One of them graduates in a recession, the other in a boom economy. That first graduate, on average, will have lower wages twenty years later. It’s extraordinary. And it suggests that we need collective solutions to bad beginnings, rather than simply putting the onus on the shoulders of an individual.

I used to believe that midpoints didn’t matter—mostly because I was oblivious to their very existence. Now I believe that midpoints illustrate something very fundamental about how people behave and how the world works.

Yes, I didn’t even know midpoints were a thing until I started this research. But what’s clear is that midpoints can have two distinct effects. They can bring us down or they can fire us up. Take, for instance, the research on midlife. The midlife crisis is total bunk. But what does happen in midlife is a droop—a U-shaped curve of well-being. That pattern has been detected in more than 70 countries and even in great apes. In addition, other experimental research has shown that people often become less likely to comply with standards or act diligently in the middle of an undertaking.

The midlife crisis is total bunk. But what does happen in midlife is a droop—a U-shaped curve of well-being.

Yet Connie Gersick’s research has shown that group projects rarely progress in a steady, linear way. Instead, at the beginning of a project, groups do very little. Then at a certain moment, they experience a sudden burst of activity and finally get going. When is that moment? The temporal midpoint. Give a team 34 days, they get started in earnest on day 17. Give a team 11 days, they get really get going on day 6. In addition, there’s other research showing that being behind at the midpoint—in NBA games and in experimental settings—can boost performance in the second half.

So we need to recognize midpoints and try to use them as a spark rather than a slump.

I used to believe in the value of happy endings. Now I believe that the power of endings rests not in their unmitigated sunniness but in their poignancy and meaning.

I’ve got a whole chapter on endings. And one common effect of endings seems to be that they trigger a search for meaning. What’s more, many of the most meaningful endings aren’t happy in the sunny, smiley sense. Instead, they’re poignant. Poignancy operates by a peculiar form of emotional physics. Adding a few sprinkles of sadness to a happy ending can make that ending richer and more meaningful. The sadness enhances the experience rather than diminishes it. There’s a great book to be written about the emotion of poignancy.

Adding a few sprinkles of sadness to a happy ending can make that ending richer and more meaningful. The sadness enhances the experience rather than diminishes it.

I used to believe that synchronizing with others was merely a mechanical process. Now I believe that it requires a sense of belonging, rewards a sense of purpose, and reveals a part of our nature.

To get a first-hand look at how groups synchronize in time, I went to Mumbai, India, to spend time with a group of lunch deliverers called dabbawalas. These men pick up home-cooked lunches at people’s apartments and deliver them to the desks of those people’s loved ones in downtown Mumbai about 15 miles away. With an accuracy that rivals FedEx and UPS, they deliver 200,000 lunches every day in one of the world’s most congested and chaotic cities. I wanted to figure out how they did it. And once I spent some time with them and saw them in action, I collected some clues. Then I looked at research on choirs and rowing teams and began to get a better sense of the principles at work in group synchronization.

I was especially blown away by the research on choral singing. The benefits of singing in a choir (not singing alone, but singing together) are massive: higher pain thresholds and reduced need for pain medication, increased production of infection-fighting immunoglobulin, reduced symptoms of depression, increased sensitivity toward others, improved mood, and much more. There’s something about synchronizing in time with others that is profoundly human.

I used to believe that timing was everything. Now I believe that everything is timing.

We are temporal creatures. Every cell in our body has a biological clock. We live in a temporal environment—we’re always moving through time. Being awake to those forces can help us work smarter and live better.

Disclosure: Daniel Pink is an advisor to the Behavioral Scientist.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Pink, D. H. (2018). When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. (Link)