A new book explains the psychology of time and how to harness it for greater well-being.
Are you a morning person or a night owl?
You probably instinctively know this about yourself—you may even joke about it from time to time. But you probably don’t give it much import or consider the implications beyond your sleep schedule.
But, according to author Daniel Pink, that would be a mistake. In his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, he argues that timing is everything, and that when we perform tasks can matter as much as how we perform them. When we don’t pay attention to how time affects us—whether we’re talking about the time of day or our emotional experience of time—we end up making bad decisions, hindering our creativity, and leaving important projects incomplete. His book points to ways to use time to our advantage, while providing some provocative research supporting his argument along the way.
How our internal clock affects us
We all have a natural rhythm in our moods and our energy levels. Studies suggest that people’s moods tend to rise during the morning hours, then dip in the afternoon, and continue to rise again later in the evening until just before bedtime. That’s why some researchers suggest you shouldn’t make important decisions or take tests late in the day. When you are less energetic and happy, you have trouble separating out peripheral information to get to the right answer.
On the other hand, if you need to solve problems that entail insight rather than logic, the afternoon may be better, for opposite reasons. Being less focused might leave your mind more open to making creative leaps.
For a natural night owl, this pattern may shift to later in the day. But the key is that timing makes a difference, and we should perform important tasks at the peak time for us—and ask our employees to do the same.
“Whatever you do, do not let mundane tasks creep into your peak period,” warns Pink. “If you’re a boss, understand these two patterns and allow people to protect their peak.”
Of course, many of us have work schedules that don’t allow for this—we don’t have that much flexibility. That’s when Pink suggests we find ways to mitigate our inevitable dips in energy.
One clear way is taking regular breaks. Research has shown again and again that taking short time-outs and even naps can reduce attention fatigue and recalibrate our brains—if they’re the appropriate length, that is. (For naps, it’s about 15-20 minutes, writes Pink.) Taking a true break at lunchtime—free of cell phones and work tasks—also helps, as does adding time in nature or a little human contact during that lunch.
Why breaks? Consider the risks of not taking them. Research has found that anesthesiologists and colonoscopy doctors provide poorer care at the end of their shifts, creating risks for their patients. But, with small breaks and check-ins for surgical doctors, some of these problems seem to diminish. The same is true for school kids, who perform much better with regular breaks.
Beginnings, middles, and endings
Not only does Pink explore how to take advantage of our personal time clocks, he also cites compelling research on how markers of time impact our thinking about what we’re doing—and how we can leverage that for our benefit.
People often look at projects as linear, meaning that the best way to get them done is to make incremental progress over time. But life doesn’t work like that, in part because we give special attention to beginnings, middle periods, and endings.
Consider beginnings: A false start can be hard to overcome—so, Pink argues, we should pay attention to start off right. He suggests tying new projects to a marker of time, like the first of the month or the beginning of fall, to give them added significance; or finding other ways to call attention to a beginning. For example, when starting a new job, you can visualize yourself in the position before the first day, allowing yourself to start inhabiting the role prior to taking it on. Or, if you’re an employer, you might make a new employee’s first day of work special in some way—perhaps taking them to lunch or making sure others come by and say hello. A warm welcome early in the job can inspire new employees, leading to greater motivation and job loyalty down the road.
And, Pink says, when research suggests ways to make beginnings better, we should seek institutional changes—like starting the school day after 8:30 a.m. for middle and high school students, who benefit emotionally, physically, and cognitively from later start times.
“Armed with the science, we can do a much better job of starting right—in school and beyond,” he writes.
After the excitement of a new beginning, midpoint project slumps (or midlife emotional dips, for that matter) are pretty much universal, writes Pink. We could all use strategies to overcome them, such as:
Setting interim goals—to reduce worry about getting everything done at once.
Committing to your goals publicly—to give you accountability and help you stick to them.
Picturing someone your project would help if it were completed—to increase your motivation.
Prioritizing your top goals and ignoring the rest—to fight overwhelm and help you focus.
Showing yourself compassion—to stop you from beating yourself up, which kills motivation.
Lastly, endings also tend to impact us, writes Pink. Think of a basketball team who, nearing the end of a game, makes a special push to win. Just knowing you are close to finishing something may change your view of what needs to happen, in a few ways:
1. Energizing you. A person who is 49 years old is about three times more likely to run their first marathon than someone just one year older. The end of a decade has significance that may motivate people to push themselves in new directions—for good or ill.
2. Helping you remember experiences later. If you end a meal with a great dessert or kindness from a waiter, you will see it in a more positive light, even if the rest of the meal was only ho-hum. This can lead to inaccurate memories, of course, but it is a part of human nature worth understanding. You could use it to your advantage by planning a vacation that ends with a bang—something novel and extra special. That way, you’ll remember it more fondly later, no matter how badly it may have started.
3. Helping you focus on what’s most important. That’s why endings to books are often inspirational or contain some twist or message that resonates long after the book is over. To take advantage of this, you might consider ending your work day by taking a few minutes to write down your progress since the morning. You might also top that off with a quick note of gratitude toward a coworker or friend. This helps keep you motivated and feeling closer to others.
4. Elevating you emotionally. Especially if you consider them as poignant events in your life—like graduating from high school or retiring from a job—endings can feel uplifting. Adding a special event or celebration can capture this meaningful feeling.
Other “time hacks”
Pink’s book is full of research-based tips for handling many of the temporal challenges we face—“time hacks,” as he calls them, that help us with everything from knowing when it’s best to go first (or last) in an interview, to what’s the best time in life to get married, to when to quit a job. Though mostly focused on individual hacks, Pink does also tap into the research on synchronicity—timed, coordinated movements, like rowing or singing together—showing how these kinds of activities can benefit groups and providing fodder for employers who want to create a more unified team.
He ends with some provocative findings about how our experience of time is influenced by emotion and how that can impact our behavior. For example, studies have found that time tends to slow down when we’re feeling awe, that nostalgia for our younger selves can bring meaning to our present, and that we are more likely to save for the future if we can empathically imagine ourselves at an older age.
Though the sheer number of studies he covers and suggestions he makes is overwhelming, the big take-home from Pink’s book is that by understanding time and how it impacts us, we can find more success and enjoy our lives more.
“Shifting our focus—and giving when the same weight as what—won’t cure all our ills,” writes Pink. “But it’s a good beginning.”
BY JILL SUTTIE