Are you an early riser or a night owl? Do you know when you should be doing your programming to have the optimal flow in your work? When is your best time of the year to start something new?
These questions matter. I started working my Mullet Method because it helped me get so much more done and have less distractions in my day. The timing of your work matters, and that is where When by Daniel Pink is here to help us.
The purpose of When is to show us when we should be doing things and how the timing of our decisions and the events in our lives matters.
Pink breaks up the discussion of timing into three main sections.
- Part One: The Day – as in how we feel throughout the day
- Part Two: Beginnings, Endings and in Between – when is the best time to start or stop something
- Part Three: Syncing Fast and Slow – how time and timing keeps us is sync at work and with others we interact with
We’ll tackle this book using these three sections as a framework.
Part One: What are the optimal times in the day
It’s important to remember that Pink is a researcher so much of the book goes back to research that has been done in many fields. One of the first studies is on positive affect and Twitter.
Positive Affect – language revealing that tweeters felt active, engaged, and hopeful — generally rose in the morning, plummeted in the afternoon, and climb back up again in the early evening.
This finding held true across a number of other studies and shows that we usually feel good at predictable times (morning) and poor at predictable times (afternoon). Our positive emotions and motivation rises after that afternoon slump peaking at some point in the early evening.
Knowing this we must recognize that much of the afternoon may be a waste since we don’t have the mental abilities to stay focused on our work. That means that we need to recognize a few things if we want to do good deep work.
First our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day. During the sixteen or so hours we’re awake, they change — often in a regular, foreseeable manner. We are smarter, faster, dimmer, slower, more creative, and less creative in some parts of the day than others.
Second, we need to acknowledge that even if you think that this isn’t you and you can work creatively all the time, your wrong. Third, we need to plan our day to match our cognitive cycle so that we can perform the optimal tasks at the optimal times.
While I didn’t have the research to back this up when I started, this is why I work 3 hour blocks from around 6am – 9am when I’m strongest. Then I take a break for 2 – 3 hours where I run, hang with my kids, do something else. Then I come back to work from around 12 – 3.
The key is that long cognitive break where I get to refresh my brain. We’ll come back to this idea later, but it serves as the zamboni for my brain. Leaving the “ice” smooth and refreshed, ready to tackle the next tasks.
Pink also offers some other highly interesting research in the realms of schooling. If you want kids to do way better on tests, give them a 30 minute break before the test. If you want them to excel, don’t start high school before 9am.
For the office worker, take a break every hour for 15 minutes. Don’t get up and check Twitter or talk shop with a coworker. Do a lap around the office and get coffee. Even better, find a quick walk outside in some green space1.
Pink echos Rest here, be intentional about the rest you take in the day.
Many of us are interested in how to work better, but we don’t think very much about how to rest better. Productivity books offer life hacks, advice about what CEOs or famous writers do. But they say almost nothing about the role of rest in the lives or careers of creative productive people. When they do mention rest, they tend to treat it as nothing more than a physical necessity or inconvenience. – Rest
Pink even strongly recommends naps in the day. He says this after saying that he thought naps were lame when he started the book. He can’t argue with the evidence though.
Done right, naps can be a shrewd response to the trough and a valuable break. Naps, research shows, confer two key benefits: They improve cognitive performance and they boost mental and physical health.
This is where Pink uses the zamboni reference. The nap, particularly the 20 minute nap where you drink a cup of coffee first2. That nap if done right cleans your brain leaving it ready to work again. The huge creative benefits of naps was also key in Rest:
Sleep scientists have found that even a short nap can be effective in recharging your mental batteries. Naps can even provide an opportunity to have new ideas. Their work shows that you can learn to time your nap to increase the creative boost that it provides, make it more physically restorative, or probe the traffic between the conscious mind and unconscious. Napping in other words, turns out to be a skill. – Rest
If you’re not scheduling naps and regular sleep, you’re shortchanging every single one of your clients.
This is all leading to the unsurprising result of no longer idolizing those that pull all-nighters, because they’re idiots.
Until about ten years ago, we admired those who could survive on only four hours of sleep and those stalwarts who worked through the night. They were heroes, people whose fierce devotion and commitment revealed everyone else’s fecklessness and frailty. Then, as sleep science reached the mainstream, we began to change our attitude. That sleepless guy wasn’t a hero. He was a fool. He was likely doing subpar work and maybe hurting the rest of us because of his poor choices.
If you want to do awesome work, then build a schedule that fits into life and into when you’re working at your best. Pulling long hours only means that you can’t plan and that you’re giving your clients some of your worst time. They’re not paying for your worst time, they want A grade super awesome time.
Part 2: Beginnings, Endings and In Between
This section is where Pink hammers hard on the typical work day and school day that we have. School mostly starts when it does because it’s easy for parents. Adults are more likely to be able to function well early, so their kids must get up early and function early.
This is terrible particularly for teenagers. Yet we insist that they operate totally outside how their body tells them to work, because it’s not convenient for the adults.
Pink also cites a bunch of research showing that when you finish college and start your career can have 20 year impact on your income. If you start in a weak economy, there are less choices. You’re less likely to move around to find better pay, because there is less opportunity. There is less room to move up and earn more.
That’s a 20 year affect on your income because of the external factors that happened to be around when you started work.
3 Principles of Successful Beginnings
To give readers the best opportunity to start well, Pink gives us three principles to help.
1. Start Right
While younger students score higher on standardized tests scheduled in the morning, teenagers do better later in the day. Early start times correlate strongly with worse grades and lower test scores, especially in math and language.
We need to start our day at the optimal time. For younger kids, it’s early. For teens and 20’s its later. We generally all creep earlier until older age when most of us are firmly morning people like we were in our childhood.
In episode 22 of Hurry Slowly, Jocelyn K. Glei and Tami Forman talk about the idea of core hours. This is the idea that everyone must be in the office from say 10-3. All meetings are booked during that time. That lets early people come in early and late risers come in later. They all get to work at their optimal times.
My wife has not been a morning person. It’s a bit of a running joke that she needs coffee to jump start her brain to make coffee. The kids sometimes confirm that she’s had coffee before they start asking things.
Despite this, she is up at 0430 with me and while she doesn’t love the early mornings as a time, she can’t deny that she loves how the day runs when she gets up early and gets some time to work on stuff she wants to. Even just getting to sit quietly in the morning makes her day go better.
I guess I conned her into being a morning person by showing her how productive she could be.
2. Starting Again
Certain dates function like that Shell station. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days, and their prominence helps us find our way.
There this Big Orange Bridge (BOB) that tells you the next unnamed gravel road is the turn you need to get to a local climbing area. It’s a landmark just like the Shell station that Pink is mentioning above.
We have these temporally as well. January 1st is the start of a new year, so we try to start stuff3. Still, the most successful time to start things is the beginning of a week, month, year.
There is nothing special about them outside of it being a start date for…something. Your birthday can be the same thing, some date to start. The birth of your first child is the same, just a date that works as a start date.
Picking when you start something well, can increase your success at the endeavour so make sure you pick well.
3 Starting Together
The third item is where Pink brings us the depressing research that says if we started work in 2008 or 2009 in a down economy we’ll likely suffer decreased wages until at least 2029.
I already talked about why, so we’ll look at Pink’s suggestion for combating this. Pink suggests a premortem. A postmortem, looks back at a problem and helps figure out why it happened. The premortem is the same thing, we just look forward at the problem we’re facing and try to plan around the issues that will arise.
You imagine failure, and the things that happened to get you to failure, and you build a plan to counteract them.
Do it now. Look 2 years into the future of your work/life. What is going wrong? Why is it going wrong? What are you going to do to help ensure that these things don’t happen to you?
Next up is midpoints. Pink tells us that while there is a midlife slump, it’s hardly the crisis that many would have us believe.
Mainly, we dreamed so wildly in our 20’s about all the smooth sailing we’d have and the number of 6-packs we’d have on the beach tanned and toned. When we hit our fourth and fifth decades we realize how much of it was so fanciful as to be a fairy tale.
We spend some time lamenting that and then we reset our expectations. In this we spend the next number of years getting to be okay with the new normal and almost always end up being way happier in our later years than we were with our fanciful dreams in our twenties.
Michael Hyatt speaks of this as well in our goal setting. He says that we often set goal so far ahead as to be a pipe dream. This is the severely overweight out of shape person thinking they can win the Boston Marathon in 12 weeks. It’s likely a stretch to even complete the distance, let alone win.
With that mindset we have all but given in to failure. We set the bar so high we can’t meet it. Midpoints don’t have to be this depressing resetting though, they can be a boost.
When we reach a midpoint, sometimes we slump, but other times we jump. A mental siren alerts us that we’ve squandered half our time. That injects a healthy dose of stress — Uh-oh, we’re running out of time! — that revives our motivation and reshapes our strategy.
When we realize it’s time to get our shit together…many of us get our shit together. Pink cites a bunch of team research that shows most teams only get on the ball at the midpoint. Little happens before, but when they hit the midpoint between start and the deadline, everything comes together as if by magic.
They meet the deadline, and did most of the work in the last half. The time you give a team doesn’t matter, it’s the midpoint between start and end that matters.
A final significant time is our endings. The ending of a decade in our life is important. You’re more likely to run a marathon at 29, 39, or 49, than any other year in the respective decade.
You’re more likely to cheat on your spouse as well. It’s some sort of proving to yourself that “you’ve still got it” with a random partner before you turn over to the next decade.
What the end of the decade does seem to trigger, for good and for ill, is reenergized pursuit of significance.
We’re searching for significance and that isn’t always a good thing. This should be a point of discussion in a marriage. Not to make in normal and “okay” behaviour, but so that both parties can acknowledge the potential and help each other guard against it.
The final (ugh) ending Pink examines is the ending of our lives. He contends that the common wisdom is that when we’re old we live sad lives with fewer and fewer friends.
This isn’t a good thing, luckily it isn’t true.
Yes, older people have much smaller social networks than when they were younger. But the reason isn’t loneliness or isolation. The reason is both more surprising and affirming. It’s what we choose. As we get older, when we become conscious of the ultimate ending, we edit our friends.
While older people may have a smaller close social circle, it’s by choice. They stop spending time with the people that don’t matter. The people that take huge amounts of energy, become not worth the effort. They prune their friends and are happier for it.
Part 3: Synching and Thinking
The final section feels just a bit like a departure from the theme of the book. Not that there isn’t great utility in the writing. But I struggled to figure out exactly how it fit with the theme of When/timing.
Pink says that as a group with cohesion we need to sync with three things to work.
…groups must synchronize on three levels — to the boss, to the tribe, and to the heart.
The ‘boss’ is not literally someone in particular. Pink cites the train schedule for meal delivery people in India. If they miss the train to town then they can’t deliver the lunches they are paid to deliver in time for their customers to have lunch.
The train schedule is their boss.
The first principle of synching fast and slow is that group timing requires a boss — someone or something above and apart from the group itself to set the pace, maintain standards, and focus the collective mind.
It can be a literal boss as well. Someone that sets out the standards we must adhere to in our work/life.
With it’s emphasis that a clock can be a boss, I can see how this fits into the book. The next two items are the ones I question more in the context of Pink’s established purpose at the beginning.
According to Pink, the second place we need to be in sync is with our tribe.
Belongingness, they found, profoundly shapes our thoughts and emotions. It’s absence leads to ill effects, it’s presence to health and satisfaction.
This is the group of friends that has shared beliefs and desires. They congregate around them and build closeness and single purpose around the ideas.
We use this synchronization to anticipate the reactions of others. I’ve seen it on the river during a whitewater rescue. Working with a crew that knows each other means that there is so little discussion because everyone knows their job.
Often the discussion that happens is in such shorthand that many people would never even understand what was communicated. But because we were synchronized over many days on the river and much communication, we needed little communication. Sometimes a single hand signal from 50 feet away conveyed the whole rescue plan.
Again, I believe that this knowledge has so much utility, but I’m not sure how I see it fitting within the purpose of Pink’s book on timing. But he used the word synchronize, so that’s a time word…right?
The final way we sync is at the heart. Feeling good helps the wheels turn more smoothly.
Synchronizing makes us feel good — and feeling good helps a group’s wheels turn more smoothly. Coordination with others also makes us do good — and doing good enhances synchronization.
I’ve seen this at home as my wife has got back to figure skating. She loves it and the house can feel it. Not that she’s a bear if she doesn’t get to skate, but she’s just a bit happier and has more spring in her step when she does get to skate for herself and not spend all of her time on the ice coaching.
We also see the advantage of being in sync with each other coming out of The Happiness Advantage.
the heart of Principle 7 — that when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go. – The Happiness Advantage
If we’re in sync with those around us, we have more social support. More social support means that when things suck, we’re more likely to recovery quickly. Those around us, those that are in sync with us, are available to be held tight to so that we can survive the storm that’s coming our way.
Recommendation for When by Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink is a renowned researcher and it shows in this book. It’s not a collection of his thoughts on timing. When is a look at what the research says about when we should do things and why timing matters.
It’s a coherent look at it with actionable things for readers.
My only beef with it is that the final section on synching and thinking seems out of place in the book. It has much to learn, but I’m not sure exactly how it fits in the greater scheme of what Pink is trying to get at in When.
In fact, I think that it could stand alone as a book. It feels a bit “grafted in” when it comes to the originally stated purpose of the book as described by Pink.
But, yes you should read it anyway. In fact, I think it’s a must read book.
Photo by: lydiaxliu