Daniel Pink on how to find your peak performance time—and make every workday count
Time is a luxury, and on busy workdays it’s so easy to complain about how there’s a shortage of minutes. But what if you could find strategic ways to make the most of the hours in each day? How can teams also benefit from mastering the art of time management? There’s no one better to answer this question than Daniel H. Pink, author of the New York Times bestseller When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Pink is a prolific writer, and his books about work, management, and behavioral science have won multiple awards, and have been translated into 38 languages. Read on to get his insights on finding your peak performance time, why handwriting meeting notes is better than typing, and the powerful benefits of an afternoon break.
Why do you think now is the right time to study the secrets of perfect timing? What are some easy ways for all of us to master this in our everyday work lives?
DANIEL PINK: Because we’ve gotten to the point where there's a deep and coherent science of timing. Most of us make our “when” decisions based on intuition and guesswork—or simply by default. That’s a mistake. Across two dozen fields—from economics to social psychology to molecular biology to the entire field of chronobiology—scientists have amassed a body of evidence to help us make these decisions in a smarter, shrewder, more evidence-based way.
There are lots of ways to bring this into our everyday lives. For instance, we know that our cognitive abilities don’t remain the same throughout the day, so doing the right work at the right time is critical. In particular, we should be doing work that requires vigilance—the ability to bat away distractions—during our peak. For most of us, that’s early in the day. But for people who have evening chronotypes—that is, they go to sleep late and wake up late—that’s late in the afternoon and into the evening. What’s more, we know that beginnings, middles, and endings—of projects, experiences, even lives—have different effects on our behavior. So understanding those effects and responding to them can make a world of difference in how we feel and how we perform.
In researching When, which scientific insights surprised you the most? Also, tell us about the specific scientists who really made an impression on you. Did any become somewhat of a mentor for you while you were working on the book?
DP: I was surprised by many findings: from just how influential time of day is on our cognitive abilities, to why midpoints both drag us down and fire us up, to how endings reshape our memories. And I was really inspired by the work of many of these scientists. For instance, Katy Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania has done some great work on both time-of-day effects and on temporal landmarks. Keith Chen has a brilliant paper on how the verb tenses we use shape our future behavior. Francesca Gino at Harvard led a hugely important piece of research on how standardized test scores change at different times of day. One of the great things about writing about scientists is knowing that there are all these people out there working their butts off to deepen our understanding of the world.
Describe the distinction of how perfect timing works for a group versus an individual, and how we could translate it into a team-building scenario.
DP: One of the really interesting areas of research is how groups synchronize in time. I looked at choirs, rowing teams, and lunch couriers in India. And I found that the best groups synchronize at three levels. They synchronize to a boss—a person or standard who sets the rhythm and enforces the norms. They synchronize to the tribe—using an array of cues and practices to foster belonging. And they synchronize to the heart—in the sense that a shared purpose both fosters group timing and is a product of it.
“We need collective solutions to bad beginnings, not simply putting the onus on the shoulders of an individual.”
Why do beginnings matter more than we realize? Why is a first impression at work, or even that first day at work, so important?
DP: Beginnings matter to the end. I didn’t look much at first impressions, though it’s clear they carry disproportionate weight. But I did look at topics like the work of Lisa Kahn at Yale, who showed the alarming importance of labor market conditions early in one’s career. In short, take two similarly-situated university graduates. One graduates in a recession; one graduates in a boom economy. That first graduate, over average, will have lower wages twenty years later. It’s extraordinary. And it suggests that we need collective solutions to bad beginnings, not simply putting the onus on the shoulders of an individual.
You make the case for what you call the "modern siesta." Sounds like a rare luxury. And even if we need it, or sometimes crave it, is it really practical for most people in today’s 24/7 workforce? How could someone achieve this—or a semblance of this—during a busy workday?
DP: I don’t think we should return to the southern European tradition of taking off a few hours each afternoon for a plate of paella, a few glasses of wine, and a 90-minute snooze. But there is a strong scientific foundation for a modified version of this practice. In fact, the science of breaks is where the science of sleep was 15 years ago. Back then, people who pulled all-nighters or who went around sleep-deprived were seen as heroes. Now we know they’re fools. The science of breaks is following the same trajectory. We should be taking more breaks. And we should be taking particular kinds of breaks: breaks where we’re moving rather than stationary, outside rather than inside, with other people rather than alone, and fully detached from our work and our devices.
“ We should be taking more breaks.”
You write that there's a peak, a trough and a rebound in everyday life—and that this pattern is as predictable as the ocean tides. Tell us more.
DP: Yep. That’s right. Most of us progress through the day in three stages: A peak, a trough, and a recovery. During the peak, which for most of us is the morning, we’re at our most vigilant. We’re better at batting away distractions. That makes it the best time for analytic tasks, those that require heads-down focus and attention. During the trough, which for most of us is during the early to mid afternoon, we’re better off doing mundane administrative tasks. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, we’re better off doing creative tasks. The reasons for all this are somewhat complicated, but that’s the basic structure. However, if you’re a night owl—that is, you wake up late and go to sleep late—it’s much more complicated. The 20 percent of people who have evening chronotypes reach their peak of vigilance much later in the day: late afternoon and into the evening. That’s when these folks should be doing their most focused work. Trouble is, the typical world of work doesn’t accommodate them very well.
How did a Yale-trained lawyer, editor of the law review no less, make the jump to being a writer of a string of bestselling nonfiction books spanning a vast variety of topics? How did the art of timing play into your evolution from lawyer to bestselling author?
DP: I’m not sure timing in particular—or any strategy at all—played a role. It just took me longer than most people to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up!
A few quickies…
Subject that you’ve been dying to write about:
I’d love to write a book about sports some day. I’m a fan, but I also think sports—why we play, why we care about the home team, why some teams cohere and others collapse—reveals something fundamental about the human condition.
How do you recharge during a busy workday?
I schedule an afternoon break—usually just 10 or 15 minutes to take a walk—nearly every day. It helps a lot. Also, I try to run most days, which clears my head and boosts my mood like nothing else.
Advice you’d give your young self?
Assume less, question more. And don’t worry about what other people think. They’re thinking about themselves, not about you.
Analog or digital watch?
I no longer wear a watch and rely mostly on digital clocks on my computer and phone. I’m not sure there’s any advantage in digital over analog, but I’m anal-retentive enough to believe there’s a material difference in knowing that it's 4:14 instead of 4:15.
Favorite hour of the day?
Any time it’s quiet.
Percentage of books you read in print form, electronic or on tape? Favorite medium?
I probably read 70% of books in print, 20% electronically, and 10% on audio.
You produce 90-second videos with quick tips for working smarter and living better. Which tip do you use most often?
I did a Pinkcast last year about research showing that it’s more effective to take notes by hand than on a computer. Why? When we take notes on a computer, we tend to transcribe what we’re hearing. But since we can’t write as fast as we can type, when we take notes by hand, we summarize and synthesize, which deepens understanding and memory. As a habitual notetaker—a guy who tries to carry a paper notebook with him all the time—I found that quite affirming.