by Daniel H. Pink

  • Productivity
  • Ashto = 6/10
  • Jonesy = 3/10

What You Will Learn From When 

This week, Ashto and Jonesy discover the art and science of perfect timing and learn how they guide you towards more successful outcomes. Drawn from Daniel H. Pink’s research on psychology, biology and economics, When reveals useful guidance on working smarter and living better by relying on the right timing to build the ideal schedule. How do certain breaks improve student test scores dramatically? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? What is the ideal time to change jobs or get married?

We know that timing is everything, but in this book, Pink shows us that everything is timing. We aim to improve our lives by seeking guidance from self-help books, which teach us how to acquire new skills and knowledge. So why not consider When as the guide to knowing when to apply what you’ve learned in your life?

Timing of the Day: The Hidden Pattern Of Everyday Life

If you wanted to measure the world’s emotional state, you’d need a mood ring big enough to wrap around the globe. If you can’t find a mood ring big enough, perhaps a good proxy is Twitter. Nearly 1 billion humans have a Twitter account, and we pump out 6,000 tweets every second. Two researchers from Cornell University studied more than 500 million tweets across 2.4 million users in 84 different countries in hope of measuring people’s emotions. In particular, they wanted to know how “positive affect” (emotions such as enthusiasm, confidence and lateness) and “negative affect” (emotions such as anger, lethargy and guilt) varied over time.

What they found was a remarkably consistent day-by-day pattern across peoples’ waking hours. Positive Affect generally rose in the morning, plummeted in the afternoon, and climbed back up in the early evening. Regardless of the demographics or the timing, the shape of the curve remained the same. It turns out this discovery does not just apply to our tweets, but to pretty much every element of our daily lives. You can break down the pattern to: Peak – Trough – Recovery.

The Plant Experiment

This pattern was actually first discovered back in 1729 by French astronomer Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan. He noticed the potted plants in his office, the Mimosa Pudica plants to be precise, closed their leaves up as twilight approached, but unfurled their leaves when sunlight streamed through the windows. He decided to do a little experiment. He closed the blinds, sealed off any sunlight from getting into the room and kept the light on all night. Bizarrely, even though there was no change in the sunlight or the amount of light the plants got – they closed up their leaves when it was night outside and opened them up when the sun rose the next day. How did the plant understand when it was day and night.
Of course, the plant wasn’t reacting to external light – it didn’t know it was nighttime outside but it was operating by its own internal clock. Since de Mairan’s discovery nearly three centuries ago, scientists have established that nearly all living things have biological clocks. All living things are governed by a circadian rhythm that sets the daily backbeat of every creature’s life.
Daniel Kahneman conducted a study called the Day Reconstruction Method, where he interviewed participants and got them to reconstruct their day, chronicling everything they did and how they felt while doing it. They measured people’s self-reported happiness, their level of feeling warm toward others and the degree to which they enjoyed their day. While each graph was slightly different, they all took the same shape, and this graph looked eerily similar to the Twitter graph mentioned earlier.

Vigilance, Inhibition and the Daily Secret to High Performance

Countless studies like this have all come to the same conclusions. Our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of the day. During the 16-hour timeframe where we’re awake, we may be faster/slower, smarter/dimmer, or more creative/less creative in some parts of the day than others. These daily fluctuations are more extreme than we realise. One Oxford chronobiologist stated that the performance change between the daily high point and the daily low point can be equivalent to the effect on the performance of drinking the legal limit of alcohol.

Other research has shown that time-of-day effects can explain 20% of the variance in human performance in cognitive tasks. Perhaps the main conclusion to draw from the studies is that the best time to perform particular tasks depends on the nature of the task.

Types of problems that are best done in the morning

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken and very bright. In college, Linda majors in philosophy. As a student, she is deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice and participates in antinuclear demonstration marches.

Which statement is more likely to describe Linda? Linda is a bank teller or Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement. This is the classic Kahneman/Tversky’s conjunction fallacy. Of course, even as a bank teller active in the feminist movement, Linda is still a bank teller. B is technically a subset of A, so A is the correct answer. All of the periphery information about her politics and studies is just a distraction; they don’t provide any relevant details to answer the simple question. In the morning (at our peak), our brains are most vigilant to defend against these unnecessary distractions, so it’s best to complete analytic-type tasks in the morning.

Recovery = Insight problems

There are some tasks that actually require less vigilance and fewer inhibitions in order to produce a better result. Later in the day, you’ve used up most of your focus time; you’re far less productive on the hard-core full-focus types of tasks, and you’re more easily distracted. When our mind is wandering, we’ll struggle with analytical type problems, but we can often come up with new and insightful ideas.

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 stamped on the other – 544 BC. Ernesto examines the coin, but instead of buying it, he calls the cops.

Why? The key was the date, 544BC. In the year 544 BC, they didn’t call it 544 BC. How did they know someone called Christ would be coming in 544 years and that would be the reference point for all dates? Any date in BC is only in BC because we have retrospectively called it that. So it turns out that when we’re in the trough period, we’re much better at performing tasks that require creativity and insight such as design, creative writing and more.

The Larks, Owls and Third Birds

So far we’ve been talking about the Peak – Trough – Recovery pattern and saying that it’s the same for everyone (peak in the morning, trough in the afternoon, recovery in the evening). While this is true for the bulk of the population, there are some differences based on what is called chronotypes. There is The Lark, which refers to the early risers, The Owl, which is more nocturnal, and then there is the Third Bird, which sits in the middle. The Third Bird category makes up about 65% of people and matches what we’ve been speaking about so far.

Third Birds are probably most optimal between 9 am to midday, have an afternoon trough between 1 pm to 4 pm, then recovery between 5 pm to 7 pm. Larks (19%) are more likely to experience their peak between 7 am to 10 am, the trough from 11 pm to 2 pm, and a recovery period from 3 pm to 6 pm. Then there are The Owls (21%) – they have the same shape as other categories, but in the opposite direction. Their recovery period stays between 11 pm to 2 pm. then They have their normal afternoon trough, from 3 pm to 6 pm. Then their peak actually starts from 7 pm to 10 pm.

Conclusion of When 

So, the essence of the advice for achieving optimal performance throughout the day is simple.

  1. Figure out if you’re a Lark, Third Bird or Owl

    You should be able to understand yourself pretty well – whether you like to stay up late or get up early or something in the middle. If you’re not sure, there are tests you can do, or just monitor your energy for a week to see when your peak/trough/recovery lands.

  2. Work out what is involved in each task

    Work out the types of thinking that are required for different types of tasks that you face throughout the day.

  3. Look for synchrony

    Scheduling your work day with start and end times that best line up with your optimal cognitive performance. Try to tackle the big important tasks during your peak performance times, and whatever you do, don’t let the boring and mundane tasks waste your prime hours. Let those things tick over in the troughs, so you can focus on the important stuff during your peaks and recoveries.

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