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Dan Pink: Timing really is everything

Daniel Pink offers advice on thinking about decisions better, especially about when we do what things.

6 min read


Daniel H. Pink: "When"

How do you make decisions? Sometimes, you might use a planned, scientific process, but you’re probably making many decisions on autopilot, by using your gut or guessing. Maybe your decision-making ability is limited because of situational constraints.

It’s a lot to think about!

Unfortunately, as author Daniel Pink argues, we rarely stop to think, is this the right timing? And even if we did, how would we know what the right timing is?

The author of “Drive” and other best-sellers was a keynote speaker Sept. 23 at the 104th ICMA Annual Conference in Baltimore, Md. His most recent book, “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing,” is an exploration of all the science behind the timing of beginnings, midpoints and endings.

The book is more than a catalogue of random science, however; it is an attempt to connect research into timing from a variety of fields and discover insights that people can apply in their everyday lives.

City and county government officials, Pink said, are an ideal audience for applying the book’s lessons, because they are always asked to “do more with less” and to improve without spending more or hiring additional people. The principles of better timing, he argued, can help local governments (and businesses, and people in their personal lives) be more deliberate, strategic and successful in when and how they take action.

Pink noted the importance of big data in these discussions. The sheer amount of data being collected today – and the computing power needed to analyze it — could never prove useful without modern technology. This is a key lesson, Pink said, for governments looking to analyze situations and make decisions.  

He compared the promise of big data to that of the microscope. Before its discovery, we had a certain view of the world. But the microscope – and big data — revealed a world that always existed but which we couldn’t see. Those discoveries fundamentally change how and what we see – and should change how we approach decisions.

Here are a few of the key lessons he discussed:

Think about decision-making in terms of natural time units

What is the difference between natural and artificial measures of time? For instance, seconds and weeks are human inventions – we choose to define these units in this way. But a day is not, as it reflects the length of time it takes Earth to spin once around. A year is also a natural unit of time, as it recognizes the Earth’s rotation around the Sun.

Our energy and focus modulate throughout the day in general patterns that he calls “peak,” “trough” and “recovery,” though not all of us experience these phases at the same time of day. The patterns of the day affect our mood, performance and decision-making.

Most of us peak through the morning, have our lowest creative and cognitive points after lunch, and then enter a state of recovery in the later hours where we might be slightly less focused but well-suited for creative thinking.

(There are also night owls, who have troughs like the rest of us but flip the periods of focus and creativity.)

Pink mentioned a few studies that reveal this daily ebbing and flowing. One study examined 500 million tweets, while another looked at many thousands of public-company earnings calls. They each revealed that timing alone caused a measurable difference in the mood expressed.

Stock earnings calls held in the afternoon, led to more “negative, irritable and combative” conversations, Pink said, and temporarily hurt the stock price. This effect held even when controlled for company performance and other factors.

And while the maps of mood and energy were not identical, they both showed an early peak, a dip in the middle (the afternoon, for most people) and then a recovery period later on.

Context matters

Our cognitive abilities are not constant throughout the day, Pink argues, and the fluctuations in this ability can be significant. He did a thought exercise with the ICMA audience where he asked them a logic problem and then an “insight” problem. The former was a problem whose answer was essentially found in a mathematical equation, whereas the latter required a shift in perspective. Here’s the insight problem:

“Ernesto is a dealer in antique coins. One day someone brings him a beautiful bronze coin. The coin has an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 BC stamped on the other. Ernesto examines the coin – but instead of buying it, he calls the police. Why?”

The answer – spoiler – is that people in 544 BC couldn’t have known they were in the “before” times if, as Pink said Sunday, “C hadn’t happened!”

Why mention logic and insight problems? Because timing matters here, too. Some people are better at logic problems in the morning (their likely “peak”) and better at insight problems in the afternoon (their likely “trough”), while it’s the opposite for other people.

What can we do about this?

There are several small steps people can take, Pink said, whether in government or elsewhere. One easy step is, whenever possible, to rearrange when you tackle certain types of tasks.

From Pink’s slides at ICMA (Photo by James daSilva)

In your peak hours, work on deep focus, analytic tasks. During the trough, stick to routine emails. And in recovery, you might want to try and tackle bigger-picture problems.

Breaks matter, especially when you truly unplug

Another common workplace habit is lionizing the overworker, Pink says, even if that perception is no longer as in vogue.

Breaks help us reset our energy and focus, as seen in an alarming study of parole hearings where judges were most likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day and after breaks, with that leniency declining as time went on.

Breaks are part of work, Pink argued. His suggestions for making the most of a break:

  • Get up from your desk. Go outside, if possible.
  • Be social. Break together.
  • Don’t do work on your break, and try not to even use your phone.
  • Schedule your breaks into your day.

And, if you work from home like Pink does, consider combining caffeine and a nap, as illustrated here.

Credit: Dan Pink


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other fields. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @James_daSilva or by email.