The science of timing

“When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H. Pink

Every person in the world has a chronotype, a personal pattern of circadian rhythm that influences our psychology and physiology, where we experience the day in 3 stages: a peak, a trough, and a rebound.

However, only about three quarter of us experience it in that precise order (a chronotype that Daniel Pink refers as larks), while the other one in four people (who Pink refers as night owls) experience their day in the reverse order: recovery, trough, and then peak.

Now it might seem trivial at first, but figuring out our chronotype can be crucial for any individual, as we can then maximize our peak time, manage our down time, and insert some strategic “vigilance breaks” before any important task.

As Pink remarks, “[f]igure out your type, understand your task, and then select the appropriate time. Is your own hidden daily pattern peak-trough-rebound? Or is it rebound-trough-peak? Then look for synchrony. If you have even modest control over your schedule, try to nudge your most important work, which usually requires vigilance and clear thinking, into the peak and push your second-most important work, or tasks that benefit from disinhibition, into the rebound period. Whatever you do, do not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period.”

This is a book about our relationship with timing. Daniel Pink spent 2 years to read and analyse more than 700 studies in anaesthesiology, anthropology, endocrinology, chronobiology, economics and social psychology, to codify what becomes this 268 pages book filled with scientific findings as well as tools, exercises, and hacks to put the knowledge of “when” into action.

The book covers a broad range of analysis of timing, including the James Dean Effect (how the perceived end changes the whole outlook), the duration neglect (how we tend to remember the peak of the experience and how it ended while the entire duration isn’t put into account if the ending is pleasant. And vice versa), why do teenagers sleep later and wake up later, how the introduction of a deadline changes the intensity of any task, why do people prefer to hear the bad news first then the good news, and the most incredible example of a time synchronization by the dabbawalas in Mumbai.

It also provides numerous case studies that demonstrate the direct effects of some of the hacks. For example, on the introduction of more breaks in a Danish school, Pink learned that “[w]hen the Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break “to eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores did not decline. In fact, they increased. As the researchers note, “A break causes an improvement that is larger than the hourly deterioration.”That is, scores go down after noon. But scores go up by a higher amount after breaks.”

This could also applied in a higher stake decision makings, such as in a courtroom after the judges take a break: “Immediately after that first break, for lunch, they become more forgiving—more willing to deviate from the default—only to sink into a more hard-line attitude after a few hours. But, as happened with the Danish schoolchildren, look what occurs when those judges then get a second break—a midafternoon restorative pause to drink some juice or play on the judicial jungle gym. They return to the same rate of favorable decisions they displayed first thing in the morning.”

Moreover, while the 7 chapters all consist of the hypothesis, the scientific testing, and the results, the follow up “Time Hacker’s Guide” for every chapter provides us with the actionable tools to implement the theories. This is where the gems are. This covers everything from the best time to exercise, the goldilocks duration for napping, when to go first, when to go last, to explaining why lunch is the most important meal of the day.

In the end, it’s a fairly quick read for a book with plenty of scientific explanations, as most of the stuffs discussed here are already familiar to us. But nevertheless, it’s like visiting our favourite museum but this time we have a tour guide with us who provides us with more background contexts and explanations that could teach us one or two new important things.