Learning About the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing with Author Daniel Pink

Many of us at Sourcetoad are “obsessive optimizers” — the kind of people who try to find ways to get the most of what we do, whether in our day-to-day work or lives outside the office (and yes, we have got them!). So when Daniel H. Pink, the bestselling author of books on work, management, and behavioral science, announced that he was coming to Tampa to promote his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, we had to be there. Pink’s previous work includes A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and To Sell is Human.

Sourcetoad product managers, Justin Downey and Joey deVilla, arrived in time to snag front-row seats to Pink’s talk at Oxford Exchange, Tampa’s combination bookstore, fancy gift shop, restaurant, coworking space, design studio, and event venue.

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.”

“When we talk about units of time — things like seconds, and minutes, and weeks — you realize that most of them are completely made up,” he said. “They’re not natural in any sense; they’re things that human beings have created to corral time. But there are units of time that are natural, like the day… and that has a big effect on us.”

With that, he introduced a key idea from his book: that during the day, we experience a pattern that in turn affects the way we feel and how we perform.

Pink talked about a Cornell study using software called LIWC — Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count — to analyze 500 million tweets (“None of them written by the President,” he joked) for emotional content. The researchers of the study wanted to find out how emotional content varied through the day. This kind of study is called sentiment analysis, and in performing it on a large corpus of tweets, they found a pattern:

  1. In the early part of the day, they saw that “positive mood” has a peak.
  2. In the middle of the day, around the early afternoon, that general mood entered a trough.
  3. And finally, as the afternoon wore on, positive mood rose again, in a recovery.

He then pointed to research by Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman (a specialist in the psychology of judgement and behavioral economics and author of the must-read book Thinking, Fast and Slow). Kahneman has a process called the “Day Reconstruction Method,” in which he gives people diaries to track what they were doing and how they were feeling for every hour they are awake. Its helps to determine what activities make people feel better or worse (commuting was the daily activity that makes people feel the worst), but it also provides a look into whether time of day affects “net good mood.” According to the data, it does — “net good mood” experiences a peak in the morning, a trough in the afternoon, and a rebound in the evening.

The peak-trough-recovery pattern occurs in many places in our lives. While the pattern is hidden to many people, its effects are decidedly not.

In a review of students’ performance on standardized tests in Denmark, it was found that the later in the day a student took the test, the worse they performed. The effect of time-of-day was so pronounced that it was written up this way:

“For every hour later in the day, scores decrease… We find that an hour later in the day causes a deterioration in test score that is equivalent to slightly lower household income, less parental education, and missing two weeks of school.

Pink cited similar 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.

“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.”

One way to help mitigate the effects of time of day on how we perform is to determine your chronotype, which is a fancy way of saying whether you’re a morning person or a night owl. It’s simple to do: make a note of the time you go to sleep on “free days” (that is, a day when you don’t have to go to work the next morning) and when you wake up, and calculate the midpoint between those two times.

  • If the midpoint is before 3:30 a.m., you’re a Lark or morning person. 15% of people are Larks, and a disproportionate number of educators are in this category.
  • If it’s after 5:30 a.m., you’re an Owl or night person. 20% of people are Owls.
  • It it’s between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., you’re a Third Bird — something in-between.

Larks and Third Birds follow the pattern of peaking in the morning, going through a trough in the early afternoon, and experiencing a late afternoon recovery. Owls go through the pattern in reverse: their recovery is in the morning, followed by a trough in the late afternoon, and a peak in the evening.

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.

To prove the bit about the recovery phase and insight tasks, Pink presented the audience with a brain-teaser that many people get wrong, and when they get it right, it’s during the recovery period, when our powers of insight are at their best. We hadn’t heard this one before:

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?

As this audio recording will show you, the evening is our insight time, and some of us are thinking about reworking our schedules to capitalize on that fact.

Since attending the talk, we’ve been giving more thought to the ways in which we schedule our days. We’re scheduling tasks that require analysis and vigilance during the morning, moving rote, “turnkey” work to the early and mid-afternoon, and saving creative and learning tasks for the late afternoon and evening, when the combination of elevated mood but lower vigilance lend themselves well to insight.

We’ve also been thinking about how when can apply the lessons of When to the design of our applications. Most software is built with considerations of what it will do, how it will be used, and who will use it, but not about when it will be used. As we make our software, we’re going to keep in mind that our applications’ user experience affects, and is affected by, the daily peak-trough-recovery pattern.