When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing Book Review

Daniel Pink explores how to become the master of your when. We assume that timing is an art. In When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Pink shows that timing is a science.

He starts this book by describing the fluctuations of our mood during the day. There is a peak, a trough, and a rebound. In the peaks—which for most of us is in the morning—we are at our sharpest. This is when analytical work is best. During this peak, we’re better at analytic work, work that requires heads-down focus, vigilance, attention, batting away distractions – auditing a financial statement, writing a legal brief. Then a trough follows lunch. This is the time to focus on administrative tasks. In the recovery phase, in the late afternoon, we are open to insights involving abstract ideas. This is the time for creative things because we’re in a slightly better mood, but we’re less inhibited. Then our spirits rise again in the evening after work.

There is an exception to this rule, and that is our friends who are “owls.” Those of us who are strong night owls go in the reverse order.  To determine where you fall on the lark-owl chronotype scale, find out the midpoint between when you wake up and when you go to bed. Or you can take this quiz to find out where you land on the scale.

Surgery errors occur much more often in the afternoon. So do parole revocations in front of a judge. If you can avoid matters that require analytical thought in the afternoon, then do it.

Researchers found that quarterly earnings calls were negative when made in the afternoon and positive in the morning, regardless of the fundamentals reported. NYU studied 26,000 quarterly earnings calls to reach this conclusion. I won’t be giving analytical presentations in the afternoon if I can avoid it!

The incidence of handwashing inside of hospitals dramatically drops in the afternoon. You look at colonoscopies – endoscopists find half as many polyps in colonoscopies in afternoon exams versus morning exams even with the same population – doctors more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics in the afternoon than in the morning.

The Start.

How do you start your day? Pink’s research suggests you should get as much sunlight as possible the first thing in the morning, as this is a signal to your body to stop producing sleep hormones and start creating alertness. You should not drink caffeine immediately after you wake up in the morning because it interferes with the production of cortisol. Instead, drink a glass of water to re-hydrate. Drink coffee 60-90 minutes after waking up. In the afternoon, at 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm., drink coffee again.

How do you avoid false starts? Instead of a post-mortem performed when the patient is already dead, it is best to start with a “premortem.” By imagining failure before it happens, we anticipate some of the problems to avoid before the project begins. So before the start of a project, ask your team, “What went wrong?” by assuming it is 18 months from now, and this project was a disaster.

Do you need a fresh start? There are 86 days that naturally provide a fresh start. Use these social and personal temporal landmarks to create new beginnings. For example, the first day of the month, Mondays, a birthday, the first day of school, the first day back from vacation, or your anniversary.

When to Go First?

  • If you’re on a ballot (county commissioner, prom queen, the Oscars), being listed first gives you an edge.
  • If you’re not the default choice—for example, if you’re pitching against a firm that already has the account you’re seeking—going first can help you get a fresh look from the decision-makers.
  • If there are relatively few competitors (say, five or fewer), going first can help you take advantage of the “primacy effect,” the tendency people have to remember the first thing in a series better than those that come later.
  • If you’re interviewing for a job and you’re up against several strong candidates, you might gain an edge from being first.

When NOT to go first?

  • If you are the default choice, don’t go first.
  • If there are many competitors (not necessarily strong ones, just a large number of them), going later can confer a small advantage, and going last can confer a huge one.
  • If you’re operating in an uncertain environment, not being first can work to your benefit.
  • If the competition is meager, going toward the end can give you an edge by highlighting your differences.

You need a break.

Breaks are the answer. The most productive people work for 52 minutes straight, then take a 17-minute break. Pink suggests adding breaks to your calendar, just like any other meeting. Professionals take breaks, amateurs don’t.

Ideal Breaks. The perfect break is moving, with a colleague, outside, and entirely detached from discussing work. The best break is a “nappuccino.” It is a cup of coffee followed by a 10-to-20-minute nap. That time avoids sleep inertia that makes you tired after longer naps. You feel refreshed. Drink coffee before the rest, and the caffeine will kick in 25 minutes later. The best time for your nap is seven hours after waking up. That’s because our worst decisions are made at that time.

Eat. Lunch, not breakfast, is the most important meal of the day. Great lunches have two elements — autonomy and detachment. You must have the opportunity to exercise control over what you do, how you do it, and who you do it with. And you must be detached from work so that you can refocus after lunch. This means staying off your phone.

Timers. Before you start a task, set a timer. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. If you are working at a computer, this short break will rest your eyes and improve posture, thereby fighting fatigue. Pink calls this the 20-20-20 rule.

Move. Stand up for a minute, shake your arms and legs, flex your muscles, rotate your core, and then sit back down.

The Middle.

Sometimes midpoints stall us; other times, they motivate us. Pink outlines how to use the middle to create a spark instead of a slump.

Midlife crises are real. Happiness climbs into early adulthood, and then starts a downward trend in the late thirties, with a low in the fifties. Then people quickly recover from that slump with happiness later in life higher than it has ever been.

When you’re in the middle, publicly commit to your goals. If you’re writing, stop a sentence halfway through it because it will help you begin the next time that you pick it up. Print out a calendar and mark off every day that you’re working towards your goal. With that physical reminder, it will motivate you not to break the chain of the days in the middle.

Be aware that every story has a middle. Don’t let it be invisible. Use the center to wake up rather than rollover. At that midpoint, imagine you are behind, but only by a little bit. And picture one person that will benefit from your efforts in the middle of a challenging project, and it will deepen your dedication to the work.

The End.

We want endings that are poignant, not happy. Good endings discard what we wanted and give us what we need. In fact, adding a small amount of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishing it.

Endings of all types shape our behavior in four ways: by energizing, editing, encoding, and elevating. This is why someone who is 49 is four times more likely to run a marathon than someone who is just one year older. At the start of something, we are energized by how far we have progressed. And at the end, we are excited by the small gap remaining. The most intense moment, the peak is what we remember. But we also remember the ending.

Plan your endings to be unique. End that next vacation with a bang, do something special at the end of the school year, surprise customers at the end of their purchase.

At the end of each workday, take the last five minutes to bring the day to a poignant close. During the first two minutes, write down what you accomplished since the morning. During the next two minutes, make your plan for tomorrow. And use that last minute to send anyone a thank you email.

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

Hammer Time

When is a compelling book with a lot of insight and practical ideas. But it did not keep me as interested as other books by this same author. Ironically, it does not have the unique special ending that he advocates in this book. It just ends. You will learn a lot in this book. But it is longer than it should be. I give it four out of five hammers!

Four Hammers Hamilton Lindley

140 Comments

    • Bruce Wagstaff

      Miranda, timing can be a simple matter or a highly elaborate one. Think of those food delivery workers who fan out across Mumbai each day. They are guided by the careful communication of information that “allows the walas to anticipate one another’s actions and move in harmony.”

  1. Jamie G

    I am fascinated by when people do things. It sounds like this book unpacks a lot of secrets about timing that I did not know existed. Thanks for teaching me something today sir.

  2. Jacob Silverstein

    It’s good to read about timing. Never in history have we had so much timing data to analyze. The things that we learn from it are fascinating, aren’t they? Hamilton Lindley, I would like to see you write some of your own insights though. Book reviews are great, but more personal stories would be even better. Thanks for reading.

    • Charlie Khalil

      Hey Jacob, the answer is that morning are when good things happen, while afternoons are times of flagging energy, surliness, and negativity. Perhaps surprisingly, the afternoon is also the time when ethical lapses are likeliest to occur, with some variation depending on one’s “chronotype.”

  3. Garrick Andre

    I didn’t realize that there were so many similar elements to success, Hamilton Lindley. I thought it was random. Because it sure doesn’t seem like the best get the recognition that they deserve. Thanks for bringing this interesting book to my attention.

  4. Dwight Quentin

    Hamilton Lindley, thanks for putting this article together about perfect timing. When looks like another great book by Dan Pink. I really like him as an author too.

  5. Katie Garrett

    I liked reading about the secrets of perfect timing from you, Hamilton Lindley. Your article was interesting and fun. What did you get from the book that you haven’t already mentioned here?

    • Chris Farella

      Katie: with a group of sixth graders today I read aloud the introduction to WHEN about Captain Turner’s decision on the Lusitania. I asked the students to close their eyes and picture in their heads the sinking of the ship. And it was a very productive exercise about critical thinking. I can’t wait to read the rest of it.

      • Mindy Nix

        I’ve read other studies that debunked some of the pseudo-science in Dan Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The early riser is called the lion; the middle, which is a bear; the late evening people, which are wolves; and then there are the insomniacs, which are dolphins.

        Lions rarely have problems in the mornings because they’re my early risers. They get up around 5:30 and they’re ready to go. Lions should exercise in the afternoon or early evenings. It turns out that if they exercise later, it actually helps them extend their day and they can stay up a little later because, socially, that’s become a problem for lions.

        For dolphins — those late-night loving, problem sleepers — it’s important to eat a high-protein breakfast. An omelet with avocado, for example, would be a good choice.

        For bears, fun-loving people with easy-going attitudes, it’s important to wake up without hitting the snooze button. Bears should then drink a glass of water before they reach for a cup of coffee.

    • James Roberts

      We’re very intentional about what we do,” said Pink. “We’re intentional about who we do things with — that’s why we have HR departments. We’re intentional about how we do things. But when it comes to when we’re kind of loosey-goosey about it.”

  6. Riley Simard

    Timing is something that I have been studying for a long time. I think that Dan Pink has missed a few important parts. But maybe I learn more by reading this book. In any regard, thank you for making me aware of this book for my studies, Hamilton Lindley.

    • Luke Foster

      Pink cited examples of time-of-day effects in the world of medicine:

      Anesthesia errors are 4 times more likely at 3 p.m. than 9 a.m.
      The crucial act of hospital workers washing their hands drops as the day goes on.
      In colonoscopies, they find half as many polyps in afternoon exams as in morning exams.
      Doctors are more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics in the afternoon than in the morning.

  7. Oliver Prebble

    The science of timing is a great study. This will help me assign better work and do better scheduling my own day. Thanks for sharing this article about When we should do things, Hamilton Lindley.

    • Nirav Modi

      Pink’s talk, like his new book, was about the oft-overlooked importance of when we do things. Among the questions he would answer, either at the talk or in his book, were:

      When should you exercise — early or later in the day?
      Why should you never go to the hospital or schedule an important doctor’s appointment in the afternoon?
      Why does beginning your career in a recession depress your wages 20 years later?
      Why do both human beings and great apes experience a slump in midlife?
      Why is singing in a choir good for you?
      When during the year is your spouse most likely to file for divorce? “One of them is next month,” quipped Pink. “Check your email.”

    • Joey Bracewell

      Readers of this book will be able to solve this riddle:

      Ernesto is a dealer in antique coins. One day, someone brings in a beautiful bronze coin. The coin has an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 BC stamped on the other. Ernesto examines the coin, and instead of buying it, calls the police instead. Why?

  8. Mike Ahmed

    I look forward to new books by Daniel Pink so I picked up WHEN as soon as I heard about it. This is the best book I have read this year. I am already quoting it in most conversations and thinking differently about everything. That’s the highest praise I can give any book.

  9. Laura Dix

    Pink supports his points with data and simple, clear graphs. The depth of his research is apparent in every paragraph, and supported by his extremely comprehensive (26-page) notes section detailing references for each chapter. As well as six suggestions for further reading, Pink includes an 8-page index. But the most useful thing about this book is his Time Hacker’s Handbook: salient points from each section are condensed into summaries full of hints and tips and practical exercises that appear after each of the first six chapters.

  10. Shannon Lee

    As a decidedly non-scientific fine arts major, being exposed to “perfect timing” is a good thing when Daniel Pink does the so-called heavy lifting without being “heavy” in his delivery.

  11. Wolf Muller

    This is a fun read. But take it with a significant amount of skepticism. Human bodies and brains are really different from each other. One-size-fits-all recommendations sound like a fun story. But human beings are too complex to be lumped into one. in the reality of human complexity, and if you’re a business, you might not get a good ROI for trying them.

  12. Ken Kumar

    I like it that he distinguishes power naps from longer naps. That looks like it is grounded in good research on how napping affects sleep inertia. It’s great that he points out the role of time of day in test results, trial outcomes, and parole hearings.

  13. Nathan Li

    This book looks at when we should do things to be the most efficient, the most productive, and the most inspired. The “when” he discusses is the time of day, the time of the year, or even the point in a project where we should or shouldn’t do certain things.

  14. Anna Akira

    Pink closes the book by summing up all he learned when writing it, saying the many things he used to believe about time and timing. As he says, “I used to believe that timing was everything. Now I believe that everything is timing.”

  15. Jose Mia

    Baked into the chapters of this book are short sections called Time Hacker’s Handbook, where he gives practical tips for working with these variations in our energy and efficiency. Highly recommend reading those parts. I got the most out of them.

  16. Kim Singh

    Now that I know my personal chronotype I can help better schedule my important meetings, presentations, and even downtime. Thanks for sharing this article. I would have not read the book otherwise.

  17. Melvin Smirnov

    Everyone has different chronotype. Pink says that our “personal pattern of circadian rhythms influences our physiology and psychology.” The author claims that people are classified larks or owls, because of preference for mornings or evenings. Pink says, in reality, most of us are “third birds,” or somewhere in middle.

  18. Zhang Wei

    It was interesting to learn about the science of chronobiology. As Pink explains, that examines how time affects us. Pink references research that looks at how our emotions, feelings, and motivation and different change as we move through the day. We each have a peak, a trough, and a rebound.

    • Interesting. I’ve got kin like that. Regrettably, the workplace is not built for the night owl folks. But thanks to the gig economy, we will likely see better treatment of people that have that daily schedule.

      Sincerely,
      Hamilton Lindley

  19. Aditya Khatri

    If you must go to a hospital, try to get there in the morning. An afternoon visit may prove deadly. Patients who book their operations to occur around tea-time are more likely to die within 48 hours of surgery. WOW!

  20. Tobias Ginchereau

    With having so much content do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright violation? My website has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either created myself
    or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my agreement. Do you know any ways to help prevent content from being ripped off? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  21. Tonya Jaworski

    Whether you’re a Lark, Owl, or Third Bird, you should adjust what you do to match the peak-trough-recovery pattern:

    During the peak, you should do analytic work.
    When in the trough, do rote, mechanical work: administrative tasks and other things that can be done “on autopilot.”
    The recovery period is one where your analytical powers are improved, and your mind is more flexible, which is great for insight tasks.

  22. Morgan Stanislav

    Pink tells us that he and two other researchers analyzed over 700 reports from economics and anaesthesiology, anthropology and endocrinology, chronobiology and social psychology to “unearth the hidden science of timing”.

  23. Mo Chandrayaan

    When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing can help us to know when we should tackle problems demanding a logical or an intuitive approach, take a break or exercise, drink a cup of coffee or even quit our job, get married or avoid a medical examination.

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