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Why Timing Is — Almost — Everything

It seems modern life has become a 24-hour frenzy of productivity, where to-do lists get longer and sleep is often sacrificed. Night owls and morning larks alike have had to adjust their internal rhythms to match the pace of the world around them. But decades of solid research indicate doing that may not be the best way to reach peak efficiency or make good decisions. Looking for a better way to manage the ‘when’ decisions in his own life, New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink dove into the research and was inspired to write his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Pink, a former vice presidential speechwriter, joined the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to talk about his book and shed some light on why timing “isn’t everything, but it’s a big thing.”

The following is an edited version of the transcript.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did this idea become so important to you?

Daniel Pink: I realized I was making all kinds of “when” decisions in my own life, things like when in the day should I workout, when should I abandon a project that’s not working, when should I consider steering my career in a different direction. I was making those decisions in a totally haphazard way and wanted to make them in a more systemic way. I started looking and realized there is a mountain of research out there on this question of when we should do things. The research is across dozens of fields, some of it done right here at the University of Pennsylvania.

Knowledge@Wharton: What in the research stood out to you on a personal level?

Pink: This book, more than any other book that I’ve written, has changed how I lead my own life. For instance, the research shows pretty clearly that we move through the day in three stages: a peak, a trough, a rebound. Most of us move through it in that order. People who are night owls go in the reverse order. During the peak, we have a rise in mood, rise in our vigilance and are better off doing our analytic work then. For most of us, it’s the morning. That’s when we should be heads down, focused and locked in work.

The trough, which is usually the early to mid-afternoon, is not good for very much. All kinds of terrible things are happening. In fact there’s research out of the University of Pennsylvania showing that hand-washing in hospitals deteriorates considerably in the afternoon. There’s other research showing that anesthesia errors are four times more likely at 3 p.m. than at 9 a.m. Doctors are more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics. Kids’ test scores go down when they take a test in the afternoon. So, that afternoon trough — not ideal.

“This book, more than any other book that I’ve written, has changed how I lead my own life.”

Then we have the recovery, which is usually the late afternoon and early evening. That’s an interesting period because our mood goes back up, but we’re less locked down and vigilant. That combo makes it pretty effective for things like brainstorming and doing creative work. What I’ve done myself, even in writing this book, is try to put the right work at the right time, based not on guesses, not on folklore, but on this rich body of science that tells us when to do things.

Knowledge@Wharton: How does the big data revolution play into this?

Pink: The big data revolution has been huge in unlocking some of these insights. There is a big data study out of Cornell where you can take a program called the Linguistic Inventory Word Count and put text in there. The program will measure the emotional content of words. If the text says “happy,” they know it’s positive. These researchers took 500 million tweets, put them into this program and measured the emotional level of the words based on time of day. What they found was a peak in mood in the morning, a crash, trough in the early to mid-afternoon and a recovery for the rest of the day. Big data is giving us huge amounts of insights into questions of timing.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are companies aware of that down period?

Pink: I don’t think they’ve fully factored it in, and I think that’s a big, big challenge. I think you’re onto something really important there. We’re very intentional about what we do. We’re intentional about how we do it. We’re intentional about who we do it with. But we take this question of when we do stuff and say, “Ah, it’s not that important. Let’s sit it over there at the kids’ table.” But it belongs at the grown-ups’ table. Time of day explains about 20% of the variance in human performance on tasks at work. Timing isn’t everything, but it’s a big thing.

Knowledge@Wharton: You write about research showing that companies’ earnings calls in the afternoon were different from earnings calls in the morning.

Pink: This is just a remarkable piece of research. It was done at NYU and draws on big data. It’s the same kind of method that was used in the Twitter study. Public companies do earnings calls every single quarter. Because they’re public companies, the transcripts themselves are public. These researchers at NYU took 26,000 transcripts from earnings calls, tossed them into this program to measure the emotional content and found that calls in the afternoon were more negative and irritable than calls in the morning.

Here’s the kicker: The findings held even if you controlled for the fundamentals of what they were reporting. You’re going to be irritable and negative if your company’s major factory in Malaysia blew up. You’re going to be irritable if your earnings are down. Control for all of that, and no matter what the earnings reported, calls in the afternoon were more negative and irritable to the point where it had a short-term effect on the stock price. These researchers, who are just looking for hidden truths about how we live and work and very rarely give prescriptive advice, say in this paper, “Hey, you probably shouldn’t have your earnings calls in the afternoon.”

“Big data is giving us huge amounts of insights into questions of timing.”

Knowledge@Wharton: More companies want teams to work together rather than having one person on a project. I would imagine that timing plays into that.

Pink: That’s a huge issue, especially when things are going across time zones. That’s a very hard problem to solve. What do you do if you have some larks in your office and owls in your office? When do you schedule certain kinds of meetings? There’s a whole line of research about how teams synchronize with each other. What can we learn from choirs who are well-synchronized? What can we learn from rowing teams about how to synchronize with others?

Group timing is a really interesting issue. For groups to really synchronize in time, they desperately need a sense of belonging. They need to feel — I’ll call it “synching to the tribe.” Belongingness is fostered by a common language, a common lingo, by touch.

There’s a lovely piece of research on the NBA where they took people who didn’t know what the researchers were looking for, had them watch a few games early in the season and count the number of chest bumps, fist bumps, high fives, low fives, all the time they touch. It turned out that how often a team touched was a predictor of how well the team was going to do because that’s something that fosters belonging, or at least evidences belonging.

Knowledge@Wharton: If you watch an NBA game now, every time a player takes a free throw, you see players intentionally give a fist bump or something like that. It used to never be that way.

Pink: Right? Some old school basketball fans don’t like that, especially giving a fist bump for a missed free throw.

Knowledge@Wharton: What does the science say about taking breaks during the day?

Pink: To my mind, the science of breaks is where the science of sleep was 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, we weren’t fully aware of how important sleep was. We thought people who pulled all-nighters were heroes. Now we know people who pull all-nighters are fools. We don’t want them around. They’re going to deteriorate our performance.

What the science of breaks is showing is we should be taking more breaks and certain kinds of breaks. Breaks end up being a very strong antidote to that dip. I mentioned the study of hospitals and hand-washing; giving nurses a social break gets the hand-washing back up. Kids whose standardized test scores are lower in the afternoon, give them a 20- to 30-minute break to run around before they take the test, and their scores go back up.

What we know about breaks is that social breaks are better than solo breaks, so you’re better off taking a break with somebody else. We know that you want to be fully detached, not semi-detached, so leave your phone away. There’s some remarkable research on the importance of movement, so get up and move rather than sit around. Simply being in nature, being outside, even seeing trees, seeing greenery can be very replenishing.

“Fifteen years ago, we thought people who pulled all-nighters were heroes. Now we know people who pull all-nighters are fools.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Is the upswing toward the end of the day driven by the fact that people have left work and decompressed a bit?

Pink: That’s part of it, although Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman led some research on daily patterns and found that the single-lowest moment in our day — the activity that makes us least happy in the course of the day — is commuting.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned smartphones and being detached. Do these devices have a negative influence on office culture? There must be an impact when somebody is trying to do a project yet is worried about getting a text or a call from their child’s school, for example.

Pink: I think what we have to do is program in time when we are detached. I’m not talking about hours. In the morning, I make a break list. I write down two breaks that I’m going to take during the afternoon. They’re usually 10 minutes, 15 minutes. I’ll use it to take a walk. I’ll leave my phone on my desk and won’t take it with me. Most of us can survive, and certainly our organizations will survive, if we’re not at our phones for a 10-minute segment at two in the afternoon.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you consider taking lunch as one of those breaks?

Pink: Yes, there’s some really good research on lunch. Lunch ends up being a very powerful restorative, in part because it can be social and in part because the nutrition is actually valuable there. It’s arguable that lunch is more important meal than breakfast for our productivity.

Knowledge@Wharton: You once worked for Vice President Al Gore. That’s a different environment than most. Looking back, were you able to understand the breaks and up-and-down flow in that job?

Pink: It was basically the opposite of what I write about in this book because you’re basically head down, locked in, going forward all the time. I was the chief speech writer for Vice President Gore for several years and a few years in the mid-1990s. You think about speech writing, and it seems like we’re sitting around in smoking jackets and thinking great thoughts when, in fact, it’s basically like being in an inner-city Philadelphia emergency room where you’re just stitching up bodies and hope they don’t die on your watch. That’s what the work is like.

Knowledge@Wharton: It sounds like you may not ever want to do that again.

Pink: I didn’t, and I left it over 20 years ago or so. It was exhilarating at the time — especially when you’re young and you feel like you’re doing something valuable. As a sustained path in life, it’s probably not good for your heart or your soul.

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