Dan Pink is the bestselling author of six books including Drive, To Sell is Human, and his newest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. In 2019 London based Thinkers 50 named Dan the 6th most influential management thinker in the world.
He has contributed to Fast Company, Wired, The New York Times, Slate and others. And prior to working on his own, he worked in several political positions, including chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore from 1995-1997.
Dan has been writing for around 20 years and a lot has changed in the world of work since he first began. But his first book was actually ahead of the game back in 2001 when he wrote Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. He recognized the trend before the iPhone came out and just a few years after broadband internet.
Now the numbers have risen quite a bit and we are seeing a lot more people go off to work for themselves, thanks to advances in technology and the changing relationship between organizations and individuals. And now with the pandemic and we are seeing a lot of people make career transitions and try to do their own thing.
As Dan shares, one of the interesting things that has come about from Covid-19 is the quick move to remote work for so many people. Companies who pushed back on work from home situations for so long because they thought it would never work were forced overnight to set employees up to work remotely. And Dan believes that is a potentially significant, lasting change that will make remote working much more normalized.
The science of time
Dan’s newest book, When, came about while he was trying to figure out the best way to work from home and be productive. He wanted to know when to do work, when to do certain tasks, when to start a project and when to abandon a project, etc…
And while he was researching the topic of perfect timing he realized there was a lot of information available, but it was all over the place. And he found that contrary to common belief timing is not an art, it is really a science.
He says, “It wasn’t simply, you know, in one domain, it wasn’t simply saying in economics. It was in economics, it was in social psychology, but it was also in anthropology, it was in linguistics, it was in molecular biology, it was–there’s a whole field called pronto biology. It was in epidemiology. It was in anesthesiology. I mean, there’s like, you know, all these different fields and so it took me two years to go through the research.”
But what he found over the course of the two years of research has helped him find the best timing for different tasks and allowed him to find his optimal schedule for productivity.
How to optimize productivity
Through his research Dan found that spread over the various fields that have studies on time was the conclusion that our performance changes throughout the day. The day turns out to be pretty fundamental and our brain power does not remain constant during the course of a day. We all have daily high points and daily low points that we need to pay attention to. Understanding these basics can help us make better decisions about when to do certain tasks during the day.
One example of this change in performance comes from a study of students in Denmark who took a standardized test. They all had to take the test on computers, but the school didn’t have enough for everyone to take the test at the same time. So some students took the test in the morning and others took it in the afternoon.
And the test results showed that the students who took the test in the afternoon scored systematically lower than the students who took it in the morning. Their scores looked as if the students had missed two weeks of lessons.
There are also studies in hospitals that show that handwashing in hospitals deteriorates significantly in the afternoon. And anesthesia errors are four times more likely at 3pm then they are at 9am.
As Dan shares, “I mean, over and over again, just about every dimension of performance, you see systematic differences in performance based on time of day. And so while you might not always be able to control your schedule, most of us don’t have full control over our schedule. It isn’t simply the case that these differences are meaningless or that a cup of coffee can cure it. You actually want to take a much more thoughtful, intentional, systematic approach to when you do things in the course of the day.”
How should we structure our day?
Based on the findings from Dan’s research it appears there are three types of people. Those who rise naturally early (larks), those who naturally sleep late and wake up late (owls), and people who are in the middle (third birds). Most people are in the middle. And there are multiple tests you can take and instruments to help figure out where you are on the scale, but Dan gives one simple way to figure out which one you are.
First, think about when you would ideally go to sleep, if you had a free day and you didn’t have anything that would require you to sleep at a certain time. Naturally when would you like to fall asleep. Then think about when you would ideally like to wake up in the morning, again if nothing was causing you to wake up (kids, work, noise, etc..). When would you ideally wake up?
Then using those two times find the midpoint of sleep. For example, maybe you would ideally like to go to sleep at midnight and wake up at 8am. Your midpoint of sleep would be 4am. Now if your midpoint of sleep is before 3:30am you are probably a lark. If the midpoint of sleep is after 5:30am you’re probably an owl and if your midpoint is between 3:30am and 5:30am you are probably a third bird in the middle. People in the middle tend to be larkey, but not a full fledged lark.
So taking that information you can find out how to start experimenting to get to your ideal productivity. We all move through the day and experience three periods of time:
- Peak–the time when we are most vigilant and productive. We are best able to avoid distractions during this time. This is when you should focus on analytic work that requires heads down focus and attention. For larks and third birds this is early in the day. For owls this is late afternoon.
- Trough–This is a terrible time of day when we see drops in performance. This is when you want to do basic administrative work or work that doesn’t require massive brain power or creativity.
- Recovery–For 80% of us we hit this point in late afternoon/early evening. This is when our vigilance is down, but our mood is up. This gives us a mental looseness that is good for insight tasks. During this time focus on creative problem solving or things that require divergent thinking.
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Even though we can loosely map out the periods of time, not everyone’s daily schedule will be the same. There is no magic routine that works for everyone. There are some out there who say things like you need to wake up at 5:30am to start your morning routine for a successful day. Don’t try to copy and paste what someone else is doing. Experiment with your daily schedule and see where your peak, trough, and recovery happen and work your day around what works best for you.
What to do if you don’t control your own schedule
For those of us who make our own schedules, this can be easy to experiment with and discover. But for a majority of people their schedule is created by the manager or other leaders inside the organization. So what can you do if you don’t control your schedule?
Dan suggests that in this situation you talk openly and honestly with your manager. Let them know these are the hours I am most productive in so I would like to save that time for the most intensive projects.
He gave an example of a guy in Philadelphia who realized he did his best work right away in the morning, but every day the manager had him scheduled in back to back meetings from 9am to 11am. So he talked with the manager and wanting to allow the employee to be productive, they changed things up to make it work.
Also, make the most of the margins you can. Maybe you don’t have full control of your schedule, but maybe there is a half hour during your peak time that you can get good work done. Don’t squander that time using social media, answering routine emails, or talking to a coworker, use it when you can.
How to get over a slump
Another aspect of timing that has an effect on us is beginnings, middles, and ends. And the peculiar thing about midpoints that Dan found in his research is that they can have dual effects. Sometimes they can drag us down and sometimes it fires us up.
Dan gave an example he found from Jonah Berger and Devin Pope based on a study done with the NBA. What they did was they looked at the score of games during halftime and how it worked at predicting the end score of the game. And what they found was teams who were leading at halftime were more likely to win.
But there was an exception. Teams that were trailing by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams who were ahead by one point at halftime. Being just slightly behind gave players more motivation while being slightly ahead allowed players to feel complacent. This is the same way in our work.
So what we should do is acknowledge the midpoints, imagine you’re a little behind and let it fuel your motivation, let it wake you up rather than let you rollover and become complacent.
Advice for leaders who want to be more mindful of employees’ time
So what can leaders do with this information to help employees get the most of their peak time? First of all, Dan says leaders need to recognize that their team’s brainpower doesn’t remain constant over the course of the day. And that when people do certain tasks has a material effect on their performance so you have to be intentional about it.
He says, “These leaders are intentional about what to do, they all have to do lists and strategic plans and all that. They’re intentional about how they do stuff because they have, you know, they have coaches, they have learning and development and training departments. They’re intentional about who does stuff because they have an HR department that hires people. But when it comes to when they do stuff as leaders or when their team does stuff, they think it doesn’t matter. And it matters. Evidence is overwhelming that it matters. So my best advice is to give the “when” a seat at the table.”
Also, be aware that every project has a beginning, a middle, and an end and all of these points have an effect on us. Picking the right date for a project to start gives you a better chance. And pay attention to the midpoint and let it motivate your team instead of letting it discourage them.
Be intentional about timing and the effect of time. Because whether or not you pay attention to it you make a choice. We either make choices intentionally or our timing decisions happen by default.
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