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Book Notes: “When” by Daniel Pink


When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink (2018) is a book about timing. The author writes, “Many books explain how to do various things (how to win friends and influence people, for instance) but there aren’t any books that tell you when to do things. Think of this book as a new genre altogether—a when-to) book.”

If the measure of a book is being presented with a new perspective that forces me to consider new ideas or a new perspective, then this book was a resounding success. Pink’s book forced me to consider the issue of time and how it influences my daily life both on a microscopic and macroscopic level in several new ways.

I give the book high-marks for two other elements: the anecdotes and the practical takeaways. Like other gifted non-fiction writers—Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell and David Epstein—Daniel Pink is a master of the anecdote. The stories he uses are always interesting, novel and effectively illustrate his point. You’ll learn about the fateful decisions made by the Captain of the Lusitania in 1915, the dabbawala delivery bicyclists of Mumbai India and the usage of Hanukkah candles. More important than the varied anecdotes are the number of practical takeaways from this book. I finished this book with a newfound appreciation for my day-to-day circadian rhythms, my personal chronotype, and an appreciation for how to approach beginnings, middles and endings of things.

While I’m skeptical that this book represents a “new genre” as Pink boldly proclaims, “When” gets high marks for being a worthwhile read for anyone looking to understand the impact of time in their life.

Pros: Well-written book that balances interesting anecdotes with citations from academic research and practical, useful advice. I gleaned a number of useful ideas from this book which is the most I can expect from a good book.

Cons: Each chapter has an addendum of sorts called the “Time Hacker’s Handbook.” I found this part of the book distracting and, owing to the cliched recommendations, unnecessary. I’d have preferred he put these tips at the end of the book in a proper addendum.

Verdict: 8/10

Notes & Highlights

Introduction: Captain Turner’s Decision

  • Regarding the sinking of the Lusitania (passenger liner) in 1915 and the Captain’s questionable decisions that failed to elude the German submarines: “More than one hundred years of investigative reporting, historical analysis, and raw speculation haven’t yield a definitive answer…Maybe Captain Turner just made some bad decisions. And maybe those decisions were bad because he made them in the afternoon.”
  • Many books explain how to do various things (how to win friends and influence people, for instance) but there aren’t any books that tell you when to do things.
  • Miles Davis quote: “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”

Part One: The Day

Chapter 1: The Hidden Patterns of Everyday Life

  • Research has identified a predictable daily pattern for mood and energy in the lives of individuals: a morning peak followed by a midday trough (usually in the afternoon) followed by an early evening rebound. This pattern is seen across continents, time zones and cultures.
  • Circadian rhythms are the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. While they generally respond to light and dark, examples from the book (de Mairan’s plant experiments) show that there is an internal clock governing these rhythms.
  • An earnings call study (26,000 calls from 2100 public companies) discovered that time of day influences the emotional tone of the earnings calls. Morning calls tended to be upbeat and positive. Afternoon calls tended to be more negative (even after accounting for negative internal and external factors).
  • Conjunction fallacy: A thinking fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one. The famous example is the “Linda problem” (Kahneman and Tversky) where subjects select option 2 (which is LESS probable):
Which is more probable?
1. Linda is a bank teller.2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
  • Experiments that test cognitive tasks (like the above “Linda problem”) see better results when performed in the morning and poorer results in the afternoon.
  • “Alertness and energy levels, which climb in the morning and reach their apex around noon, tend to plummet during the afternoons.”
  • “Human beings don’t all experience a day in precisely the same way. Each of us has a “chronotype”—a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influences our physiology and psychology. The Edisons among us are late chronotypes. They wake long after sunrise, detest mornings, and don’t begin peaking until late afternoon or early evening. Others of us are early chronotypes. They rise easily and feel energized during the day but wear out by evening. Some of us are owls; others of us are larks.”
  • Multiple factors determine individual chronotypes and chronotypes are not fixed (i.e. your individual type may change over time). Key factors: birth date (time of year), genetics, age.
  • Puberty sees a significant shift from the lark (morning) chronotype to an owl chronotype (night).
  • High school and college-aged people are disproportionately owl (late chronotype).
  • People over 60 and under 12 are disproportionately larks (early chronotype).
  • Most people experience the standard pattern of peak=>trough=>rebound (75% of the population)
  • Some people (25%), particularly night owls, experience the reverse: recovery=>trough=>peak

Chapter 2: Afternoons and Coffee Spoons

  • “Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.”
  • Example of adverse anesthetic events from a Duke Medical Center research paper that reviewed 90,000 surgeries: “The probability of a problem at 9 a.m. was about 1 percent. At 4 p.m., 4.2 percent.”
  • “We expect important encounters with experience professionals like physicians to turn on who is the patient and what is the problem. But many outcomes depend even more forcefully on when is the appointment.”
  • “One British survey…found that the typical worker reaches the most unproductive moment of the day at 2:55 p.m.”
  • Take breaks to reduce the effect on the “trough” on our behavior.
  • “When 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.”
  • Harvard’s Francesca Gino: “If there were a break after every hour, test scores would actually improve over the course of the day.”
  • Danish study concluded that: “Longer school days can be justified, if they include an appropriate number of breaks.”
  • Study of parole hearings bears the same conclusion: mornings are better for prisoners than afternoons. “Early in the day, judges ruled in favor of prisoners about 65 percent of the time. But as the morning wore on, that rate declined. And by late morning, their favorable rulings dropped to nearly zero. So a prisoner slotted for a 9 a.m. hearing was likely to get parole while one slotted for 11:45 a.m. had essentially no chance at all—regardless of the facts of the case.”
  • Restorative breaks are the antidote to our daily troughs. Key characteristics for an effective break: Short and frequent is best. Moving is better than stationary. Social breaks are better than solo breaks. Outdoor breaks are better than indoor breaks (nature is particularly effective). Breaks should be fully detached from work or other cognitively demanding activities.
  • The peak=>trough=>rebound pattern elevates lunch to new importance. Rather than breakfast, lunch, along with its restorative effects, can make a strong claim for “most important meal of the day.”
  • The “sad desk lunch” where office employees eat and work at their desks is NOT a sufficient restorative lunch break. Avoid this habit.
  • Afternoon naps are an effective type of afternoon break. Naps should be under 25 minutes but longer than 10 minutes. “Sleep inertia” kicks in after 20 minutes of sleep (but people typically take 7 minutes to fall asleep so factor that into your total “nap time”).
  • “With brief ten- to twenty- minute naps, the effect on cognitive functioning is positive from the moment of awakening.”
  • To supercharge your naps: drink a cup of coffee prior to the nap. The caffeine will kick in upon waking up from the nap.
  • Write down and schedule your daily breaks to ensure that they get done.

Part Two: Beginnings, Endings and In Between

Chapter 3: Beginnings

  • “Beginnings have a far greater impact than most of us understand. Beginnings, in fact, can matter to the end.”
  • The three principles of successful beginnings: start right, start again, start together.
  • Start right example: Changing school start times to 8:30am or later. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC have suggested that starting school later has significant impact in well-being and successful learning of teens and young-adults (since their chronotype shifts from morning lark to night owl).
  • Start again example: Using temporal landmarks creates psychological “fresh starts” which are useful for gaining momentum for important goals and projects. Examples of this include the first of the month, the first of the year or dates that we have imbued with meaning.
  • Start together example: Medical schools “July effect” where fresh medical students significantly impact the quality of medical care for their patients is a phenomenon that can be managed by actively integrating the new students into larger groups of experienced peers.

Chapter 4: Midpoints

  • Midpoints are prone to either the “slump” or the “spark.”. The slump is when a project or activity stalls halfway through. The spark is when the midpoint stimulates and remotiviates.
  • Concept of a “midlife crisis” was promulgated by a Canadian psychoanalyst named Elli Jacques in 1965. There is no scientific basis for this phenomenon.
  • Well-being slumps in midlife: “People in their twenties and thirties were reasonably happy, people in their forties and early fifties less so, and people from about fifty-five onward happier once again.”
  • One explanation for midlife slump: Unrealized expectations.
  • “We dip in the middle because we’re lousy forecasters. In youth, our expectations are too high. In older age, they’re too low.”
  • Alternative explanation: The midpoint slump might be more biology than sociology (e.g. an immutable force of nature). This is based on a study of primate behavior.
  • The Hanukkah Candle Example: Boxes of Hanukkah candles contain right amount for 8 nights of lighting but seldom are used up by the end of the holiday. Reason: Majority of celebrants only light the candles at the beginning and end of the holiday. Many skip the middle.
  • “Researchers surmised that what was going on was ‘signaling.’ We all want others to think well of us…for some people, the lighting of Hanukkah candles, often done in front of others, is a signal of religious virtue…celebrants believed the signals that mattered most…were those at the beginning and end.”
  • People are more likely to cut corners in the middle. Results from an experiment in which participants cut shapes out of paper showed that mid-sequence shapes were cut less accurately than beginning and ending shapes.
  • Goal of this knowledge is to mitigate the impact of midpoints on our personal performance.
  • “The Uh-Oh Effect” is a phenomenon noted by researcher Connie Gersick in looking at group work projects. Management thinkers once thought teams moved gradually through a series of stages. Gersick found that teams did not move linearly through stages. Teams were idiosyncratic and often would not accomplish much until the midpoint when the team would panic and redouble their efforts when they realized that time was running out.
  • “Think of midpoints as a psychological alarm clock. They’re effective only when we set the alarm…the most motivating wake-up call is one that comes when you’re running slightly behind.”
  • In sports, an analysis of basketball game scores showed that teams that were behind only by a little (e.g. 1 point) would win the game 58% of the time. The conclusion was that being behind by a little could be seen as a midpoint spark.
  • Tips for turning a slump into a spark involves three steps:
First, be aware of midpoints. Don’t let them remain invisible.
Second, use them to wake up rather than roll over—to utter an anxious “uh-oh” rather than a resigned “oh, no.”
Third, at the midpoint, imagine that you’re behind—but only by a little. That will spark your motivation and maybe help you win a national championship.

Chapter 5: Endings

  • Arbitrary markers like decade cause alterations in behavior. Example: 9-enders (e.g. 29 year-olds, 39, 49, etc.) are overrepresented among first time marathoners by nearly 50% (according to research by Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield). Someone who’s 49 is 3x more likely to run a first marathon than a 50-year old.
  • The suicide rate is higher among 9-enders than other ages (per Alter and Hershfield).
  • “What the end of the decade does seem to trigger, for good and for ill, is a reenergized pursuit of significance.”
  • The Goal Gradient Hypothesis: Behavioral phenomenon noted by psychologist Clark Hull which observed that “animals in traversing a maze will move at a progressively more rapid pace as the goal is approached.”
  • “At the beginning of a pursuit, we’re generally more motivated by how far we’ve progressed; at the end, we’re generally more energized by trying to close the small gap that remains.”
  • Practical tip: Impose hard deadlines to motivate completion.
  • Endings alter our perception of events. Consider the “James Dean effect” and the “peak-end rule.”
  • The James Dean effect: People rate short lives that end on an upswing (James Dean) more positively than a longer life that ends on a relative downswing (or simply isn’t quite as spectacular as the early years).
  • The peak-end rule (Kahneman We assign the greatest weight to the most intense moment (the peak) and how it culminates (the end). Short colonoscopies with more painful ending is remembered as being worse than a long colonoscopy that ends less unpleasantly even if the latter delivered more cumulative pain.
  • “Duration neglect” (Kahneman) is the phenomenon of downplaying the duration of an episode and magnifying the ending.
  • Peak-end rule alters our perception in other situations. For instance character arcs in which a person moves from bad=>good and good=>bad are treated very differently even if the net “goodness” resulting from each individual is identical. The former is accepted as morally good.
  • People are willing to override a relatively long period of one kind of behavior with a relatively short period of another kind just because it occurred at the end of one’s life.”
  • Laura Carstensen’s theory of “socio-emotional selectivity”:
Our perspective on time shapes the orientation of our lives and therefore the goals we pursue. When time is expansive and open-ended, as it is in acts one and two of our lives, we orient to the future and pursue “knowledge-related goals.” We form social networks that are wide and loose, hoping to gather information and forge relationships that can help us in the future. But as the horizon nears, when the future is shorter than the past, our perspective changes. While many believe that older people pine for yesteryear, Carstensen’s body of work shows something else. “The primary age difference in time orientation concerns not the past but the present,” she wrote.
  • When time is constrained and limited we focus better on the now. The contrafactual is true as well: when we expand our time horizons, our ability to edit or be more selective is also impaired.
  • “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Lead with the bad news and finish with the good. People prefer happy endings.
  • Meaningful endings: The lesson from storytellers and screenwriters shows that endings imbued with meaning and complexity are ideal. “Every Pixar movie has its protagonist achieving the goal he wants only to realize it is not what the protagonist needs..this leads the protagonist to let go of what he wants (a house, the Piston Cup, Andy) to get what he needs (a true yet unlikely companion; real friends; a lifetime together with friends).”
  • “Researchers found that at the core of meaningful endings is one of the most complex emotions humans experience: poignancy, a mix of happiness and sadness…poignancy delivers significance…adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it.”
  • “The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer—a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence…”

Part Three: Synching and Thinking

Chapter 6: Synching Fast and Slow

  • Much of what we do at work, in school and at home is done alongside the efforts of others. Our ability to effectively coordinate and manage time in a group context is critical for individual and collective productivity.
  • Pointed examples include: The coordination of activities in a hospital Emergency Room, political campaigns, sports teams, restaurants, etc.
  • Galileo Galilei’s experiments with pendulums in the late 1500 led to a key breakthrough in human productivity: synchronized and standardized timekeeping.
  • The three principles of group timing: 1) An external standard sets the pace. 2) A sense of belonging helps individuals cohere. 3) Synchronization requires and heightens well-being.
  • “Group timing requires a boss—someone or something above and apart from the group itself to set the pace, maintain the standards, and focus the collective mind.” Example: A 100-voice choir and a semi-despotic choral director or a competitive rowing team and its coxswain.
  • Entrainment: The phenomenon whereby our internal clock is synched with external cues like the sun rising or an alarm clock.
  • “Social cohesion [and belonging]…leads to greater synchrony.”
  • Group coordination comes in the three forms: codes, garb, and touch. Codes are shared knowledge. Garb is the uniform or clothing. Touch is physical ease and comfort (think of basketball’s high-fives and fist bumps).
  • Studies have found that group activities, like choral singing, have significant psychological and physical benefits: lower heart rates, boosted endorphin levels, increased production of immunoglobulin and improvements to self-esteem and reduced stress levels. These effects come from singing in a group, not just the act of singing.

Chapter 7: Thinking in Tenses

  • “The benefits of thinking fondly about the past are vast because nostalgia delivers two ingredients essential to well-being: a sense of meaning and a connection to others.”
  • “Like poignancy, nostalgia is a bittersweet but predominantly positive and fundamentally social emotion.”
  • “Research has shown we plan more effectively and behave more responsibly when the future feels more closely connected to the current moment and our current selves.”
  • “Across multiple experiments, people underestimated the value of rediscovering current experiences in the future.”
  • “By recording ordinary moments today, one can make the present a ‘present’ for the future.”
  • “Awe lives in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear. It is a little studied emotion…central to the experience of religion, politics, nature and art.” Awe has two main attributes: vastness (something bigger than ourselves) and accommodation (the vastness forces us to reconsider our beliefs).
  • The experience of awe slows time down and expands it. Research shows that this experience increases our well-being. Examples: Seeing the Grand Canyon, witnessing the birth of a child.
  • “The path to a life of meaning and significance isn’t to ‘live in the present’ as so many spiritual gurus have advised. It is to integrate our perspectives on time into a coherent whole, one that helps us comprehend who we are and why we’re here.”’
  • “The challenge of the human condition is to bring the past, present and future together.”

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