Editor's Choice

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

January 05, 2018


Dan Pink's newest book digs into the science of the one thing we all wish we had more of—time—and explains why the question "when?" may be even more important than "what?"

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink, Riverhead Books, 272 pages, Hardcover, January 2018, ISBN 9780735210622

Working on his latest project, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, changed Dan Pink’s mind on quite a few things. He describes himself as “a devout breakfast eater,” and tells us that he hates naps. But, after diving into the science on each, he found that lunch is the most important meal of the day, and that we should probably bring back the idea of afternoon siestas.

The reasons for each comes down to our biological clocks, circadian rhythm, and chronobiology. Though we all experience the day a little differently, we tend to have a period of peak performance in the morning after we wake up, go through a “trough” in the afternoon, and experience a recovery period later in the day. This is not true of all people, or in every period of life. Some people are “larks”—extreme morning people—and some are night “owls.” But the majority—between 60 and 80 percent—of us are what Pink calls “third birds,” somewhere in the middle, and generally adhere to that schedule.

Because we are better at certain types of tasks during different periods of the day (we tend to be better at analytical problems in the peak of the morning, and insight problems in the afternoon), it is important to be attuned to our circadian rhythm so that we can structure our days and the work we need to do accordingly. Genetics, gender, age, and what time of year we’re born all play a role in determining that rhythm. Teenagers, for example, are famously late sleepers, and the science clearly shows that from puberty until our early twenties, we lack energy and mental acuteness in the mornings and gain it later in the afternoon and into the evening. The evidence is so solid, and the harm done to kids’ health from forcing them to adhere to earlier schedules so severe, that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an official policy statement in 2014 advising middle schools and high schools to begin the school day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. Four of five middle and high schools in this country have so far failed to heed that advice, despite the fact that it’s been shown to improve motivation, increase grades and standardized test scores, and reduce depression—one school even saw the number of car crashes its teen drivers were involved in fall by 70 percent when they moved their start time back an hour.

But, for most adults, the afternoon is where our energy drains away and our best intentions go to die. The research indicates that we are not only less productive and more error-prone in the afternoon, we are also less ethical (again, this is reversed for the approximately 21 percent of us that are night owls, so know your own chronotype). For most professions, this is unfortunate. In the medical profession, it is potentially deadly, and the evidence and anecdotes Pink brings to bear to illustrate that reality will make you want to avoid all encounters with medical doctors and institutions after the clock strikes noon. The good news is that there is a way to guard against such lapses: breaks. “Vigilance breaks,” in which deliberate pauses are built into procedures and processes to go over the work you are about to do, for example, have proved to be remarkably effective in lowering incidents of human error at the Veterans Health Administration and the University of Michigan Medical School.

“Restorative breaks,” in which you get away from work, are also extremely beneficial to our work. Taking our attention off of work from time to time, it turns out, is the best way to maintain our focus and do our best work over the course of the day. For instance, research has shown that standardized test scores go down measurably after noon. But, that effect is not only nonexistent when students get a break of twenty to thirty minutes “to eat, play, and chat,” it is actually reversed. Test scores actually go up after such breaks. “Breaks are not a sign of sloth,” Pink insists, “but a sign of strength.” Modern students’ schedules, however, leave little time for breaks, and:


Worse, legions of schools are cutting back on recess and other restorative pauses for students in the name of rigor and—get ready for the irony—higher test scores.


Studies have also found that judges are less likely to grant parole—the mentally easy, default position being to not do so—in the afternoon, yet are more lenient and likely to do so after taking a break. Pink asks us to step back and consider the profound consequences of that on people’s lives:


If you happen to appear before a parole board just before a break rather than just after one, you’ll likely spend a few more years in jail—not because of the facts of the case but because of the time of day.


Which brings us back to one of my favorite topics: naps. Pink confesses that before he began the book, he “considered them the behavioral equivalent of sippy cups—fine for toddlers, pathetic for grown-ups.” It turns out, if done right (the sweet spot is about fifteen to twenty minutes), afternoon naps increase our vigilance, improve our ability to retain information, and expand the brain’s capacity to learn. Napping even strengthens our immune system. And this is all true even if we’re getting enough sleep at night. So you’ll miss less work, and work better, if you put aside work for a quick nap in the afternoon. (And, if you really want a real boost in the afternoon, drink a cup of coffee before you do it, and the effects will be hitting your blood stream right as you’re coming out of it. It’s called a nappuccinno.) With this evidence in mind, Pink makes a case for a modern siesta:


A modern siesta does not mean giving everyone two or three hours off in the middle of the day. That’s not realistic. But it does mean treating breaks as an essential component of an organization’s architecture—understanding breaks not as a softhearted concession but as a hardheaded solution. It means discouraging sad desk lunches and encouraging people to go outside for forty-five minutes. It means protecting and extending recess for schoolchildren rather eliminating it.


The book isn’t just about the time of day, however. It will address how to make a fresh start to recover from a bad stretch in business, and even offers some ideas for how we can help those who enter the job market during a recession, which can depress earning for decades and dramatically affects how much workers earn over a lifetime. It tells us where the idea of the mid-life crisis came from, and furthermore how there is no evidence for it. In fact, if there is a crisis of meaning at any point in our lives, it occurs among the “9-enders,” those in the last year of any decade of life, when people are much more likely—as much as three times more likely—to take up the challenge of running a marathon.

It’s also not only about individual timing. It is about the timing of projects and the unsteady progress, or “punctuated equilibrium” of teams working together. It is about synchronizing ourselves and or actions to the rhythms of others in time. Which leads us to the final chapter, in which we consider the fact that “the time,” and our ability to know it, is a relatively new concept—dating only to the late 1500s, Galileo, and the invention of pendulum clocks. But really synchronizing ourselves with others requires more that a clock. It requires a sense of purpose and belonging. And this is where books like this, that are ostensibly about productivity, become more about our search for meaning—not only about doing better work, but living better lives.

Pink’s ambitions for the book, to determine for himself and others how “to work a little smarter and live a little better,” were not grandiose. But what he got out of it was a different way of approaching the big questions of life:


[W]e often search for solutions in the realm of what. What are people doing wrong? What can they do better? What can others do to help? But more frequently than we realize, the most potent answers lurk in the realm of when.


Yes, working on the book changed Dan Pink’s mind on quite a few things, and one thing in particular: “I used to believe that timing was everything,” he writes, “Now I believe that everything is timing.” Reading it will probably change your mind, as well. 

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