book cover of 'When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing' by Daniel H. Pink
Pursuits | From Pivot Magazine

It pays to punch the clock

Business thinker Daniel H. Pink says science proves that, when in pursuit of peak performance, timing really is everything

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Western civilization’s obsession with time has been building for a long, uh, time now. The mere fact that the thing we all used to wear on our wrists, back before smartphones started ticking down the minutes, has been called a “watch” for two centuries shows just how long we’ve been staring at it. Our fixation has produced groaning shelves of books on how we can utilize and control time to our benefit. Few of them deliver answers as intuitively practical and easily achievable as those in Daniel H. Pink’s When, a book more about timing than time, a when-to rather than a how-to advice manual.

Pink, 54, the author of such previous bestsellers as Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is a prominent figure in popularizing the workplace findings of behavioural science. This time around, aware of how much worry and stress people pour into the big “when” decisions of their lives—when to switch jobs, ask for a raise, pop the question—Pink argues timing is not a matter of luck or even art. It is, or can be, a science.

In the era of Big Data, Pink points out, social scientists can observe in action, over huge population distributions, the daily behavioural implications of what physical scientists have long known. Humans of whatever age, sex, country and ethnicity live their lives by circadian rhythms that powerfully affect emotions and cognition. Twitter, of all things, provides a window into what that means to the collective global mood. Almost a billion people post 6,000 tweets per second, and two American sociologists ran 500 million of them, sent over two years, through software that analyzed each word for its emotional feel. The results, replicated in other studies among mountains of newly available data, form the spine of When: timing is everything.

We start our days positive and focused, grow increasingly so until midday, slide into sluggish negativity over the afternoon and recover somewhat in the early evening. (That pattern holds true whether an individual wakes with the dawn or is a night owl: we all race to our peak performance over the first half of our day, whether we arise at 6 a.m. or noon, and hit the trough around eight hours later.) The key point, writes Pink, is that everyone is sharper and smarter before the inevitable afternoon trough. So keep your analytic decisions—the ones that need to be based on logic, numbers, hard facts—to the morning. And any medical procedures, too: while mistakes of all kinds spike, the odds of a medical error quadruple over the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Make sure lunch break is a real break: workers need to get out of the office and stop thinking about the job

What matters individually also affects us collectively. Consider the quarterly corporate-earnings call between a publicly traded company’s CEO and stock analysts. Pink cites a study of 26,000 of these over six years: the later in the day the hour-long conference calls were held, the “more negative, irritable and combative” the exchanges were, with real, harmful effects on share prices. Something else to do in the morning: explaining your business plans, rallying your own troops and winning over crucial outsiders.

Then cut them loose—your troops, that is, and yourself. The afternoon slough can’t be beaten, but its effects can be mitigated. (Nor is it all bad. The same natural focus that keeps our attention from wandering before lunch can also hamper our intuitive understanding, which opens up later in the day: schedule art classes for the afternoon.) Make sure lunch break is a real break: workers need to get out of the office and stop thinking about the job. Go for a walk in the park or to the art gallery; talk to fellow employees about anything other than work. Studies show that workers, as individuals and as team members, will perform much better afterwards. In Toronto, notes Pink, the large commercial real estate firm CBRE has banned the desk lunch.

But nothing beats a nap. The good side of napping is essentially endless, from increased ability to learn afterwards to reducing the odds of heart disease by more than a third; its main downside—waking up groggy—is why Pink used to hate naps. But that, he learned, was because he was doing it all wrong: 10 to 20 minutes mid-afternoon is optimal, especially in the workplace, and start it off with a coffee. Yes, with caffeine—because it won’t enter your bloodstream for about 25 minutes, meaning the so-called “nappuccino” provides a double boost while you are re-engaging with the world: the benefits of sleep and of liquefied anti-sleep, together at last.

Pink clearly wrote this book in the morning, because he rarely meanders off point and he’s happy to provide detailed advice when the science allows. Studies show we are all innate numerologists—that’s why Y2K was such a big deal—and we are energized (or depressed) by beginnings, midpoints and endings. Pink provides a list of 86 good days in the year for a fresh start, times that resonate with us psychologically and keep us committed, from the first day of the month to an anniversary or religious feast day. But he can’t say which of these is best for any individual seeking a new beginning, or identify which is tops when it comes to asking for a raise. The best plan, When essentially argues, is to refresh your mind and the better angels of your nature with a nappuccino, and then see what you think.