When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

By: Daniel H. Pink

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

SYNOPSIS

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 the late afternoon, and traffic accidents peak between 2:00pm and 4:00pm. One way to survive the trough is by scheduling vigilance breaks—some hospitals have reduced afternoon errors by making teams take a time out to check the specifics of the surgery before beginning.

In other cases, restorative breaks can make all the difference. 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.

For adults, short breaks from any task can make us more effective, and frequent breaks are the most effective. Moving, rather than sitting, is important—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.

Don’t skip lunch

Most people believe that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” but there’s little scientific evidence to back this up. Much more important is the meal we often skimp—lunch. If you want to minimize the afternoon trough, do not eat lunch at your desk. Walk away, preferably outside, and eat lunch with others.

Nap

Naps are like Zambonis for our brains, smoothing the rough edges and boosting our memory and vigilance. 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. The optimal nap-time is 10-20 minutes. Any longer and we wake up feeling sluggish and disoriented.

To really excel at napping, 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.

Living with your chronotype

Think about your behavior on “free” days, when you don’t have to wake up at a specific time. What time do you go to sleep and wake up, and what is the mid-point of those two times? For most of us, the sleep mid-point falls between 3:00am and 5:00am. If it falls between midnight and 3:00am, you’re a lark; if it falls at 6:00am or later, you’re an owl. To be even more granular, track your behavior every 90 minutes for a week; make a note of what you are doing, and how mentally alert and physically energetic you feel.

Most of us should schedule analytic tasks and tough decisions in the early- to mid-morning, but owls should wait until late afternoon or evening. For tasks involving insight, owls perform best in the morning and everyone else in the late afternoon to early evening.

If you don’t have control over your time (and most of us do not), being aware of your sub-optimal time of day can at least allow you to compensate. 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 an hour or two after you wake up when the cortisol levels start to dip.

 

Starting, ending, and in between

In all areas of life, we tend to focus on what: what could they do better, what should be improved or replaced? But often, the most important factor to consider is when. When we begin something—the school day, a career—can have a huge impact on the outcome. Midpoints can be confusing, becoming either a period of sloth or of renewed energy. Endings can affect how we view an entire event, for better or for worse.

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. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do about this as individuals—policy changes like forgiving student loans for an age cohort that enters the job market during a recession could go a long way to alleviate the effects of this poor start.

Starting right

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

One way to avoid a false start is to conduct a “pre-mortem” before beginning a new project or venture. Imagine it’s 18 months from now and the project was a disaster—what went wrong? By imagining the problems in advance, you can avoid them once the project actually gets underway.

Mid-point malaise

Sometimes, hitting the midpoint of a project, a career, or a semester causes us to stall. Other times, it stirs us into action. Interestingly, scientific studies have found no concrete evidence for what we tend to think of as the quintessential mid-point slump, the midlife crisis. What they have found is that, 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. A lot of this mid-life dip seems to be the result of the unrealistic expectations we tend to harbor in our youth.

Conversely, the mid-point can also galvanize us to take action: “We’re running out of time!” 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.

The best way to turn a mid-point slump into an energizing spark is to be aware that it exists. Use the midpoint as a wake-up call—imagine that you are behind but only by a little. Set interim goals, to help maintain motivation during a lengthy project, and commit to them publicly.

Powerful endings

Endings shape our behavior. Approaching the end of a temporal landmark can energize us to focus on something significant. For example, first-time marathon runners are most likely to be in the last year of a life-decade, i.e., aged 29, 39, or 49.

Endings also help us to encode an experience, that is, to evaluate and record it. 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. On the downside, endings can also twist our memory and cloud our perception, overweighting the ending and ignoring the whole.

We also seem to have an innate preference for happy endings: whether a patient getting test results or a student awaiting a mid-semester evaluation, people invariably want to hear the bad news first, and the good news at the end.

Successful endings

Many “when” decisions are about endings—when to leave a job, for example. If you answer yes to two or more of the following, it might be time to quit:

Do you want to be in this job on your next work anniversary?

Is your job both demanding and in your control?

Does your boss allow you to do your best work?

Does your daily work align with your long-time goals?

It is possible to create more meaningful and memorable endings in many aspects of our lives. For example, instead rushing home at the end of the work day, take five minutes to write down what you accomplished since the morning and your plan for tomorrow. This will give a sense of positive completion and reenergize you for the next day.

On a vacation, schedule something particularly memorable for the final day, to leave you with a positive and elevating experience.

 

Secrets of group timing

Our ability to survive depends on coordinating with others in and across time. Managing our own individual timing—the beginnings, midpoints, and endings—is crucial, but so is group timing. The first step is synchronizing our actions with others using tools like the clock. But beyond that there are three principles of group timing, whether we’re talking about a choir singing in harmony or the famous dabbawalas of Mumbai, who collect and deliver thousands of home-cooked meals to workers across the city every day: synchronizing to the boss, to the tribe, and to the heart.

The boss

The first principle in successful group timing is having an external standard to set the pace—a boss such as a choirmaster or a coxswain. The choirmaster doesn’t sing, and the coxswain doesn’t row—rather, they are above and apart from the group, maintaining standards and focusing the collective mind.

The tribe

Belonging to a group conferred an evolutionary advantage back when humans were roaming the open savannah. Today, this desire to belong helps to cement groups. However, getting social cohesion to emerge can take some work. One way to encourage tribal connection is the use of codes, a shared language and heritage. Another is the use of clothing—a hat, a chef’s jacket, a uniform. Touch also helps to bolster a feeling of belonging; researchers have found that NBA teams that touch each other a lot (fist bumps, high fives, huddles, etc.) perform better as individuals and as a team.

The heart

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. It becomes a virtuous cycle: feeling good promotes social cohesion which in turn makes it easier to synchronize, making us feel even more positive. It also makes us more likely to treat others in an open and positive manner. 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.

Coordinating and synchronizing with others is a powerful way to lift your physical and psychological well-being. Some ways to do this include signing in a chorus; running in a group; rowing crew; dancing; and cooking with others.