When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

By: Daniel H. Pink

26 MINUTE AUDIO / 3,500 WORDS (10 PAGES)

SYNOPSIS

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Why is it so hard to concentrate in an afternoon meeting? Why do some people do their best work in the middle of the night? Are there ways to counter the post-lunch dip?

We tend to focus on what: what could we do better, what should be improved or replaced? But often, the most important factor to consider is when.

Timing is not an art, it’s a science—and the science shows that our biological clocks, personal circadian rhythms, and even the time of year, have a profound impact on every aspect of our lives, most noticeably our productivity.

TOP 20 INSIGHTS

  1. Numerous studies have shown that, across all cultures and countries, there is a “temporal affective pattern” that causes people to be more energized and positive in the morning, plummet into a trough in the afternoon, then rebound in the evening.

  2. Time-of-day has wide implications: earnings calls held in the morning tend to be more upbeat and positive, with negativity deepening in afternoon calls and only recovering after the closing bell. The time of the call, and the mood it engenders in participants, even influences the companies’ stock prices.

  3. For analytic tasks, humans perform better in the morning—a University of Chicago study found that scheduling math classes in the first two periods of the day rather than the last two significantly boosted students’ math GPA.

  4. Innovation and creativity are actually higher in the afternoon, when our energy levels and focus drop; we are less constrained during the afternoon “trough” and more likely to make leaps of insight.

  5. About 21% of us are owls—like Thomas Edison, who was more likely to be found in his laboratory at midnight than at midday. Another 14% are larks who function best in the early morning hours. The rest of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes.

  6. One of the worst afflictions impacting middle- and high-school age students is classes that start before 9:00 am. Younger students score higher on standardized tests scheduled in the morning, but teenagers are owls who score better later in the day.

  7. The late-afternoon trough is the most perilous time of day; surgical errors and traffic accidents are more likely in the late afternoon. Some hospitals have reduced afternoon errors by scheduling vigilance breaks that force teams to take a time out to check the specifics of the surgery before beginning.

  8. A study of Danish schoolchildren found that those taking a test in the afternoon scored significantly worse than those taking it earlier in the day. However, taking the afternoon test after a 20- to 30-minute break led to scores that were the equivalent of the students spending three additional weeks in the classroom.

  9. A series of five-minute micro-bursts of activity improves concentration and motivation. Social breaks with others are more effective than time alone, outside is better than inside, and totally detaching from the work is key.

  10. A large study in Greece found that people who napped were 37% less likely to die from heart disease, while a British study found that just anticipating a nap lowers blood pressure.

  11. The optimal nap-time is 10-20 minutes. Any longer and we wake up feeling sluggish and disoriented. Take a “nappuccino,” a cup of coffee right before sleeping—the caffeine will kick in and wake you up after about 20 minutes, leaving you refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the afternoon.

  12. If you need to have better mornings, hydrate with a glass of water and wait 90 minutes before grabbing a coffee—cortisol levels are higher first thing in the morning, so the caffeine will not have much of an impact until after the cortisol levels start to dip.

  13. Yale Economist Lisa Kahn discovered that people who enter the job market in weak economies earn less than those who started in strong economies—not just in the early stages of their careers but for as long as twenty years afterward.

  14. Humans navigate time using “temporal landmarks” like the first day of the year, the month, or the week; or, anniversaries of important events like marriages and births. If you get off to a rough start in a new venture, use a temporal landmark to start over.

  15. Across socioeconomic and demographic circumstances, happiness climbs in early adulthood; begins to slide in the late thirties; reaches a trough in the early fifties; then recovers quickly so that most of us are happier over the age of 70 than we were at 18.

  16. Mid-points can galvanize us to take action. A study of NBA games over a 15-year period that focused on half-time scores found, not surprisingly, that teams that were ahead at half-time tended to win more games; but teams that were behind by just one point were more likely to win.

  17. Endings help us to encode an experience. Several studies have shown that we tend to evaluate the quality of a meal, a movie, or a vacation not by the full experience, but by certain moments, particularly the end.

  18. The three principles of group timing in any setting are synchronizing to the boss, to the tribe, and to the heart.

  19. A study at the University of Oxford found that children who played a synchronized clapping game were more likely to help their peers later on, than children playing a non-synchronized game.

  20. Coordinating in a group engenders positive feelings, and in some cases can have a profound physiological impact. Choral singing calms heart rates, boosts endorphin levels and lung function, and even increases the production of infection-fighting immunoglobulin.

SUMMARY

All living things have a biological clock that affects how we function at different times of day. The impacts are much more wide ranging than we realize, with the afternoon trough a potentially dangerous time to schedule surgery or drive. Map out your own chronotype to figure out if you are an owl or a lark, at what time of day you are at your most analytical and productive, and when you are more likely to be creative and open to ideas. Use “temporal landmarks” to start new projects or restart ones that are flagging. Recognize that the mid-point of anything can bring a slump or a renewed sense of purpose. Endings help us to encode our experiences; focus on creating happy endings. Working together as part of a group—singing in a choir, or rowing—can be profoundly physically and psychologically beneficial. With a clear leader, and a  sense of belonging and commitment, a synchronized group activity not only makes you feel good, it makes you want to do good for others.

Getting through the day

What we think of as natural units of time were really invented by our ancestors; and the one universal time unit is the day. Numerous studies have shown that there is a rhythm to the day that holds across all cultures and countries—a “temporal affective pattern” where people are more energized and positive in the morning, plummet into a trough in the afternoon, then rebound in the evening.

Start the day

Nearly all living things have a biological clock—in humans, it resides in a cluster of cells in the hypothalamus that control the rise and fall of our body temperature, regulate our hormones, and help us fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning. Our built-in clock also uses social cues like schedules and timetables, as well as environmental cues like sunrise and sunset, to bring our personal and external cycles into synch.

The rhythm of the day has wider effects than just tending to feel happier in the morning and less so in the mid-afternoon. Three American business school professors analyzed earnings calls from over 26,000 public companies and found that calls held first thing in the morning tended to be more upbeat and positive. Negativity deepened in the afternoon calls and only recovered after the closing bell. The time of the call, and the mood it engendered in participants, even influenced the companies’ stock prices. Another study found that the same pattern affects juries judging legal cases—people are more likely to judge someone to be guilty and are more likely to revert to stereotypes in making their judgement, later in the day.

For analytic tasks, humans perform better in the morning—a University of Chicago study found that scheduling math classes in the first two periods of the day rather than the last two significantly boosted students’ math GPA.

On the other hand, when our energy levels and focus drop in the afternoon, we are less constrained and are more likely to make leaps of insight. Innovation and creativity are actually higher when we are not at our best.

Larks and owls

Each of us has a “chronotype”, a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that affects our physiology and psychology. About 21% of us are owls—like Thomas Edison, who was more likely to be found in his laboratory at midnight than at mid-day. Another 14% are larks who function best in the early morning hours. The rest of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Research indicates that owl-tendency people are more open and extroverted than larks, with higher levels of creativity and better performance on intelligence tests. Larks are more likely to be pleasant, productive, and conscientious. 

While genetics is a big contributor to your personal chronotype, so is the time of year when you are born—people born in the fall and winter are more likely to be larks while those born in the spring and summer are more likely to be owls.

Your chronotype also shifts according to your age: young children are generally larks, morphing into owls around puberty. One of the worst afflictions impacting middle- and high-school age students is classes that start before 9:00am. Younger students score higher on standardized tests scheduled in the morning, but teenagers score better later in the day. This “owl-ness” peaks around the age of 20 and in subsequent years shifts back toward lark-ness.

These chronotype differences also impact when in the day your biological clock is at its peak or trough. Most of us, including larks, have a morning peak, an afternoon trough, and an evening recovery. However, owls experience a recovery in the morning, when they are less productive but also less constrained and more insightful, followed by a trough in the afternoon, and a peak in the evening. 

Surviving the trough

The late-afternoon trough is the most perilous time of day. Researchers have found that surgical errors in hospitals are more likely to occur in…

 
 

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