Everything is Timing
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:
- the peak
- the trough
- 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.