One of the world’s foremost thinkers on business and social science, Daniel Pink is the author of several bestselling books on business, work, and behavior. He recently sat down with world-leading business thinker Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A-Team and host of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, to discuss why “when” matters as much as “what,” “how,” “where,” and “why.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to Daniel and Whitney’s full conversation on the Disrupt Yourself Podcast, click here.
Whitney: [Your] new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, is an absolute pleasure to read. What’s the big idea?
Daniel: The big idea is that we think the timing is an art. We make our timing decisions based on intuition and guesswork, but it’s actually very much of a science. There is this enormous body of research out there across many, many fields that allows us to make systematically smarter, more evidenced-based decisions about when to do things. So, in this book, I try to crack the code of good timing.
Whitney: In any given day, we have peaks and troughs. For most human beings, the peaks come in the morning, troughs in the afternoons. What are some of the implications of this?
Daniel: We generally move through the day in three stages; a peak, a trough, [and] a recovery. For most of us, the peak is in the morning, the trough is in the early afternoon, and the recovery is in the late afternoon or early evening. For people who are strong night owls, it’s the reverse order, but the implications are significant. Time of day explains about 20% of the variance in our performance on cognitive tasks—on things that require our brain. So, this question of “when” is material to our performance and to our mood. It has huge implications.
Let’s take health. Based on this research, I would not let a loved one go to the hospital in the afternoon if that was avoidable. Anesthesia errors are four times more likely at 3:00 p.m. than at 9:00 a.m., for example. Looking at colonoscopies, doctors find half as many polyps in afternoon exams than in morning exams, even if it’s the same population. There is some great research showing that doctors, nurses, orderlies, hospital personnel [are] much less likely to wash their hands during the afternoon than in the morning. So, when we think about our experiences, as customers, as patients, as people doing jobs, we focus [on the] “what,” “how,” and “who” of our days, but the “when” of what we’re doing has a huge effect.
The other big idea [here] is that we don’t take these “when” questions seriously enough, and they have a material effect on our mood, on our well-being, on our performance, on what we learn, on healthcare delivery, on a whole range of things.
“This question of ‘when’ is material to our performance and to our mood. It has huge implications.”
Whitney: In the book, you talk about the larger arc of our lives—the beginnings, the mid points, and the ends. You quote Cervantes and say, “To be lucky at the beginning is everything.” What do you mean by that? And specifically, what have been some of your good beginnings?
Daniel: What the research shows is that beginnings matter more than we realize and have a greater impact over the long haul than we realize. You see this in a whole range of interactions. If you look at something like school start times for teenagers—the American Academy of Pediatricians says, “Do not start school for teenagers before 8:30 in the morning,” and yet the average school start time is 8:03 a.m. in the United States. Simply, the time of day of the school starts is increasing the dropout rate, increasing teenage depression, increasing obesity, and leading to more teen accidents.
I found this really alarming. There is some research from Lisa Conn at Yale showing the following: you take two people who graduate from the same college, [have] the same major, [and have] similar ability five years apart. One graduates in a recession, one graduates during a boom time. The person graduating in a boom time, will earn a little bit more money straight out of the gate. What is surprising is that the wage difference shows up 20 years later. It’s unbelievable.
Whitney: How do you correct for that?
Daniel: I set out three principles of beginnings: start right, start again, start together. As much as possible, it’s important to start right. This is why you have more companies paying attention to what happens in the first week, in the first year of somebody’s tenure on the job. Chip Heath and Dan Heath write a lot about taking these moments and making that beginning meaningful and useful to people so that they get off on a good trajectory.
“Beginnings matter more than we realize and have a greater impact over the long haul than we realize.”
At an individual level, there are times when sometimes we need to start again. There’s some research from the University of Pennsylvania about what’s called the “fresh start effect,” which shows that we’re more likely to make behavior changes on certain dates of the year rather than other dates of the year. You’re more likely to make a change on a Monday, rather than on a Wednesday. On the day after a Federal Holiday, rather than the day before a Federal Holiday. There are certain dates in the year that operate as temporal landmarks, and we can use them to make a fresh start.
On a policy level, let’s take the issue of the people graduating from college, through no fault of their own, at an inopportune time. Maybe we need to treat recessions akin to how we treat natural disasters. There’s an earthquake, you’re going to get some help because through no fault of your own, the ground erupted underneath you and destroyed your property. We’re going to help you out. Your neighbors are going to help you, the public authorities are going to help you. Maybe we need to do something like, if the unemployment rate hits a certain level for that year or for that certain period of time, people’s student loans are forgiven, or they’re reduced.
Whitney: Before we move on from beginnings, do you have a single tip that you would give to people to either get off to a good start or actually, more importantly, starting again?
Daniel: Pick the right date. Not all dates are created equal. If you have dates that are personally meaningful, that can be great. So, if you want to start a behavior change of some kind, let’s say…
Whitney: For me, [it’s to] stop eating sugar.
Daniel: I would begin the new regime on a day that has some special meaning to you. Maybe the day after your birthday or the day after your anniversary, the day after one of your kid’s birthdays or something like that.
“Start right, start again, start together.”
Whitney: Let’s go to midpoints. What do we need to know about these? In particular, could you [talk] about the “Uh-Oh” effect?
Daniel: Sometimes midpoints bring us down, sometimes they fire us up. There’s some great research from Connie Gersick at UCLA and Yale where she followed these teams around and recorded what these teams did. These are teams who are coming up with a new advertising campaign or rolling out a new product for a bank or you know, just the basic stuff that goes on in the workplace. She found something really peculiar. We have this notion that there’s this fairly steady linear process by which teams do their work. What she found is that it didn’t work that way at all. Teams begin by doing very, very little, [mostly] posturing and status-seeking. But there was a moment when they started really working in earnest, [which] came at the midpoint.
So, you give a team 34 days to do something and they get started in earnest on day 17. You give a team 11 days to do something, they get started in earnest on day 6. That midpoint had this galvanizing effect—it had this “Uh-Oh” effect. People look at the calendar and they say, “Whoa! We we wasted half of our time. We better get going!” It’s just eerie how often it happened. She created experiments where she would give teams an hour to do something. And they would really get started in earnest between the 29th and 31st minute. That is something really useful for bosses and project leaders to know how projects really unfold. They can make these midpoints salient, and use it to get people to move.
Whitney: Now, you talk in midpoints about a U-curve of happiness, a midlife slump, an American male slump at an estimated 52.9 years. By my calculations, you are right about at 52.9 years.
Whitney: How have you noticed that for you? What has that midlife slump looked like for you? And, excitingly, if publishing When is your slump, then what do we have ahead?
Daniel: You know, I actually have felt that slump on a couple of different dimensions. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing now for 20 years, and in the course of writing this book, I was like, “Hey, this is my last book. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t take it anymore. This is really hard.” If you were to chart my overall well-being, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I’m lower than at other points in my life. It’s not a big dip for me though—the U is fairly flat.
Whitney: But it’s a slump nonetheless
Daniel: I think it is. I wish I would’ve tested that. That analytical part of me wishes I would’ve tested that, basically taken a mood reading twice every year for my whole life and see where I was today.
People my age typically have parents who are getting older, and kids you need to assist in making their way into the world. There’s no question that there are certain disappointments that you have when you get to my age. The odds of my being on a 40 Under 40 list are pretty much nil. My odds of winning a Pulitzer Prize are almost nil. I think we have to reckon with those kinds of things. The good news though, Whitney, as you say, is that things begin to tick up a little bit.
Whitney: Do you have one or two suggestions for people to effectively combat that midlife slump?
Daniel: One of the meta takeaways of this book is just simply being aware of some of these phenomena. For instance, midpoints [were] basically invisible to me. It’s something that I never even thought of. And now, I’m like “Oh, okay. This is a midpoint of a project.” Now, I understand that midpoints have these kinds of effects, and so I’m going to be aware of these things and make sure that they don’t bring me down too much.
Warren Buffett has this great technique that I think can combat a midlife slump. He [asks,] “What are your 25 goals? What are the 25 things you want to achieve?” Here’s where it gets interesting: You look at that list, and you cross out number six through 25 and focus only on those five. So, I have begun doing that exercise, and I find it very clarifying. In focusing and really being intentional about the things that matter most, that creates the most meaning. That’s who you really are.
“In focusing and really being intentional about the things that matter most, that creates the most meaning. That’s who you really are.”
Whitney: What’s a goal that’s in your top five?
Daniel: I have alway wanted to make a movie. Not like Star Wars, but a documentary.
Whitney: So, are you going to do it?
Daniel: I think I’m going to try to do it.
Whitney: That is fantastic. I’m so excited for your documentary.
Daniel: Now, I have to do it Whitney!
Whitney: That’s right. Isn’t that wonderful? So it’s fascinating that you said that, because one of the things that you wrote about endings is, “The most powerful endings deliver poignancy because poignancy delivers significance. Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it.” When I read that, I thought, “Oh, that’s why I liked the film La La Land so much, because it had that element of poignancy.”
Daniel: Endings have some really, really incredible effects on our perception, our behavior, and our mood. One of the things that endings seem to do in many cases is trigger a search for meaning. And poignancy is, I think, a really under-studied emotion, but profoundly meaningful and profoundly human. You see this at graduations. I happen to love the ritual of graduations, the “Pomp and Circumstance”—I find them poignant. It’s exciting because someone has achieved something, they’re moving onto a new stage of their life, but they’re also leaving something behind.
That mix of happy and sad creates a sense of meaning. Life is about these passages. Life is about somebody you love making their way through life and entering a new chapter where you are a peripheral character.
“That mix of happy and sad creates a sense of meaning. Life is about these passages. Life is about somebody you love making their way through life and entering a new chapter where you are a peripheral character.”
Whitney: So what are some tips or suggestions for our listeners to have better endings?
Daniel: Be intentional—recognize that endings are a thing. All of this comes back to this idea that we need to be aware of the temporal aspects of our life and not just dismiss it as something that’s not important or something that we can’t have a role in shaping.
Endings are a source of meaning. So, you should use endings as meaning makers. People prefer endings that elevate, they prefer rising sequences to declining sequences. This is one reason why if you have good news and bad news, you should always give the bad news first and end with the good news.
This is true for more mundane things. Like the end of customer experiences are really, really important, and I don’t think a lot of businesses are intentional enough about that. Endings disproportionately affect how we remember entire experiences. Most important of all, be aware that endings are going to be a huge part of how someone remembers an encounter with you, how someone remembers a transaction with your business, how someone remembers a talk that you gave. Endings stick with us for a very, very long time.