Everything is Timing

Published by Thriving Erin on

Lessons from “When” by Daniel H. Pink


In an attempt to learn and better myself I have read many books on what to do, how to do them, and why I should. However, I had never before seen a book on when we should be doing things. The subtitle for this book is “The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” and Pink argues that everything comes down to timing.


If we really want to be effective, efficient, and successful, it’s not about what we do, it’s not even about how we do it. Pink argues that it’s all about when we do it. As he writes, timing isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing. Pink uses studies on a wide variety of things from mood, happiness, Twitter analysis, road safety, mistakes by anesthesiologists, school test results, and handwashing in hospitals to identify three parts to each day:


  1. the peak
  2. the trough
  3. the rebound


For most of us, this probably isn’t too groundbreaking. I can definitely relate to feeling productive in the late morning, waning a bit after lunch, and getting a bit of a second wind in the later afternoon. What’s radical is how extreme those daily fluctuations are. Researcher Russell Foster states: “The performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effect on performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol.”



Studies are showing that what really changes is a thing in our brains called “inhibitory control.” It’s essentially the vigilance that helps our brains solve analytic problems by keeping out distractions. For most of us, our sharp-minded analytic capacities peak in the late morning or around noon (right at the height of the peak) and as a result, we find it easier to be productive. It’s interesting to clarify though, that not all tasks benefit from having high inhibitory control.  Most work and problems can be divided into two types: analytic and insight.


Analytic problems require focus and depend on our inhibitory control to keep out extraneous, unnecessary information. Insight problems though, are different, they require less vigilance and fewer inhibitions. They are often solved through innovation and creativity, which many experts believe is greatest when we are not “at our best.” Without our brain being ‘vigilant’ to keep out that extra information we often have “ah ha” moments where we are open to creative solutions using information we may not have considered during our peak period.


So the point then, is not to have an excuse for being unproductive in the afternoon, the point is to understand that, as Simon Folkard says, “the best time to perform a particular task depends on the nature of that task.” When type, task, and time align, we achieve something that social scientists call “the synchrony effect.” So what does this mean for us? Daniel Pink summarizes the application this way:


“If you have even modest control over your schedule try to nudge your most important work, which usually requires vigilance and clear thinking, into the peak and push your second-most important work, or tasks that benefit from  disinhibition, into the rebound period. Whatever you do, do not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period.”


Though the peak, trough, rebound cycle has been observed across cultures, nationalities, and backgrounds, the reality is that human beings don’t all experience a day in exactly the same way and our personal pattern is also influenced by something called our “chronotype.” I won’t get into detail here, but will simply say that it is important that we look at ourselves to see how the peak, trough, rebound cycle plays out in our own lives. For example, are you peaking around noon, or not until 3:00pm? This can be done by tracking your mental alertness and physical energy throughout the day for a week or so. Once you have determined your peak and trough, be intentional to schedule tasks in those time periods. When we plan around these natural rhythms instead of fighting against them, we will see our performance increase significantly.




Rachel · June 4, 2019 at 9:41 pm

This book sounds fascinating Erin. Thanks for telling me about it. My work is often simultaneously analytical and insightful so I have to be able to switch and these ideas resonate with me. What have you applied to your own work as a result of reading this?

    Thriving Erin · June 12, 2019 at 9:07 am

    Hi Rachel, it is a fascinating book and has really shifted how I approach certain things in all areas of my life. I don’t have too much control over my work schedule, but I have really started to be intentional with which tasks I do at certain times of the day. For one example, I’ve been trying to avoid sifting through emails in the late-morning when I’m most focused. That can easily be done later.

Steven Thompson · June 4, 2019 at 1:57 pm

Thanks Erin! I love Daniel Pink and I gifted this book to a friend last year. The summary you wrote was very clear and you did a great job boiling it down to key concepts, like inhibitory control. This is a concept I want to research more. What I thought after reading this is that how can we use this research if we don’t have control of our schedules? Is there a way to gain the benefits? Thanks !

    Thriving Erin · June 12, 2019 at 9:04 am

    Hi Steven, what a great gift this would have been. I hope your friend enjoyed it! For those who don’t have control of their schedules Pink does further delve into ways to counteract the hourly deterioration and downswings. For example, he suggests an hourly 5-minute walking break which researchers have found to be more effective that single 30-minute walking breaks at boosting energy levels, sharpening focus, and reducing feelings of fatigue. I don’t have much control of my schedule, but I find that every hour I can pretty easily get away from my desk for a short five minutes, even just taking the long-way to the bathroom can do this.

Angus · June 4, 2019 at 4:38 am

Thanks for the summary, Erin. I’d heard of — experience on a daily basis — the metabolic cycle. Power naps r us. But … I hiccuped on the analytic vs insight distinction. It’s fine as a first-order observation, but can our work be that neat and tidy? I haven’t thought this through, but did this distinction land with you? I’m always a bit suspicious of binaries and, more generally, sorting things into boxes. If our energy ebbs and flows, shouldn’t we be learning to ride the wave rather than classify?

    Thriving Erin · June 12, 2019 at 9:00 am

    Hi Angus, I definitely agree that in real life things are not as clear cut as I made them sound. In the book, Pink gets more into how we can understand our own “ebbs and flows” as you’ve put it. I think it’s helpful to be aware of these trends so we can be intentional to determine how they actually look in our lives. There are also other factors to consider. Like you mentioned, power naps can go a long way in rejuvenating us and bringing back higher energy in the cycle. Pink discusses rest (both naps and just breaks) and the impact it has on our performance in quite a lot of detail in the book, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to discuss everything in this post. One thing he does say is that “a break causes an improvement [in performance] that is larger than the hourly deterioration.” So it’s definitely up to us to apply this information to our own lives in a personalized way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *