The Science of Good Timing

They say timing is everything — and research actually seems to back that up, to some degree. But we still fumble with decisions about when to do things both basic and big, from when to go to the gym to when to quit a job or buy a house. While external factors place a lot of life’s “whens” outside our control, there are adjustments we can make to our daily routines to better take advantage of good timing.

That’s why Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, works according to his peak cognitive functioning times for different tasks, and schedules two breaks an afternoon into his calendar. He also makes sure to plan for a lunch break and, when he doesn’t sleep well, a coffee-then-20-minute-nap combo he calls the “nappuccino.”

But he hasn’t always done so.

“I was making all kinds of ‘when’ decisions in my own life and work, everything from, ‘When in the day should I do certain kinds of work?’ to, ‘When should I start a project? When should I abandon a project?’ and I was making them in a pretty haphazard way,” he confesses. “I figured there was a better way to make them and started looking around for some help; there wasn’t much help out there.”

The lack of ready resources pushed Pink to dig deeper—and he was blown away by the amount of research he found. Two years and 700 studies later, he’s written a new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, in which he takes all that research and offers up a lot of practical advice based in science.

Three of the categories Pink focuses on in his book are beginnings, midpoints, and endings. We spoke with Pink about how these areas in particular impact personal finance, jobs and careers, and productivity.


Pink says one of the most startling pieces of research he found, based around the work of economist Lisa Kahn at Yale, was that the labor market conditions when people graduate from college have a huge effect on their wages — even two decades later.

“In particular, what she showed is that if you take two people who are fairly similar—you know, similar major, similar ability—and you have one person who graduates in a recession and one person who graduates in a boom, that the person graduating in the boom is going to be earning more money 20 years later. I find this quite alarming, and I’m surprised that hasn’t gotten more attention because I think it’s a big, big, big issue,” Pink says.

Of course, there’s nothing an individual can do about the labor market conditions when she graduates except be aware, he adds — so what it means is that there needs to be a solution that’s broader than one person. Mechanisms to mitigate the effect could include a student-loan-payback program or federal funds assistance for new-graduate career counseling when the unemployment rate hits a certain level.

“In terms of individual advice for people beginning their careers, I think that people have to be just conscious that the initial economic conditions are going to have a role in their earnings over the long haul,” Pink says. “And if they start out in a down economy, I do think that they’re going to have to work a little harder and hustle a little more than they would if they were in a more buoyant economy.”

But, he adds, don’t be too alarmed.

“We’re talking about big trends and it doesn’t mean that every individual who graduates in a down economy is going to suffer and every individual who graduates in an up economy is going to flourish. But what I was trying to do with that, by talking about that research, is shine a light on just how important some of these beginnings are, and how much some of these beginnings are well beyond our individual control and need to be looked at more systemically.”


“If anything — a project, or a savings plan, or a debt repayment — if anything has a beginning and it has an end, by its very nature it has a midpoint, and to simply be conscious of that is a really important step,” Pink says.

When it comes to reaching personal or professional goals—paying off debts, for instance—midpoints can have two general effects, Pink adds. Sometimes they make us slump and lose motivation, and other times they can actually enhance our motivation.

As with beginnings, what’s already past is beyond your control – but awareness, and how you respond to the situation, is not.

After you’ve recognized the midpoint, you can use it to trigger what Pink calls the “uh-oh effect,” which is looking at the midpoint and saying, “Oh, my God, this is halfway done. I’m not where I need it to be. I better get going.”

“If you think about something like debt repayment, I mean, if you’re really, really far behind on paying back a debt at the midpoint of the term… that can be demoralizing. But if you’re just a little bit behind, that can get you maybe to tighten your belt a little bit, to motivate yourself a little bit more to get going.”


Some endings are out of our control, but some are not: One of the “endings” Pink writes about in Drive is when to change jobs. The research shows that there’s a sweet spot if you want to up your pay.

“One of the things that surprised me in looking at some of this research is how moving jobs, especially early in the career, can actually increase your salary. And there seems to be a sweet spot between three and five years,” he says.

“So, if you’ve been at a job for three years, between that third year and your fifth year, that seems to be the ideal time, according to some data, to switch jobs and maximize your chance of getting a significant salary increase,” Pink explains.

“If you do it before three years, your skills might not have fully ripened,” he says. But after five years, prospective employers might see you as too deeply entrenched or committed to your current organization to be an intriguing hire.

Improving Your Day-to-Day Timing

Pink admits that the research has had a big impact on his day-to-day life, and if he could recommend two basic things for people to consider about the “whens” of their lives, the first would involve re-architecting their days based on individual patterns of circadian rhythms.

Some of us are what Pink calls “larks” (morning people), some of us are “owls” who thrive in the evenings, and some of us are the “third birds,” or the in-betweeners. This holds the key to how you should schedule your work day.

For most people, Pink says, performance and mood follow a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a recovery. He suggests doing analytic work — your most important tasks, or those that require sharpness, vigilance, clear thinking, and focus — during your peak period. Insight work, meanwhile — those less-taxing but still important tasks that may even benefit from a wandering mind, such as brainstorming or creative work — are better done during your recovery period.

“Move your analytic, head-down work to your peak time,” Pink says. “So, if you’re a lark or in between, do it in the morning. If you’re an owl, do it in the evening. Move your analytic work to the peak and then your other work, your insight work, to your recovery period.”

The troughs in your day aren’t much good for any kind of work, so that’s when you want to try and eat lunch, take a nap, get outside for a walk, go grocery shopping, and so on.

As an example, most students in school will be more successful taking standardized tests and having classes like math in the morning, while art and creative writing classes are better suited to afternoons. And lunch and recess are crucial trough activities to rest and reinvigorate the body and the mind.

Beyond that, Pink recommends that we all simply take time, timing, and questions of “when” more seriously.

“We are very intentional about what we do and how we do it, who we do it with, particularly in a work setting. We’re very intentional about those kinds of things, and yet, when it comes to when we do stuff, we just don’t take it seriously,” he says. “We treat it very cavalierly. We think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t really matter when I do certain kinds of work, as long as I do it. It can’t matter when we have a meeting, just that we have a meeting.’ And that’s just wrong!”

We can’t control some good or bad timing, like whether we graduate into a recession. But often we can control how break up our day — whether we dive into the day’s analytic tasks over morning coffee or wait until after lunch — and whether we’re working with or against our own natural productivity cycles.

“Questions of ‘when,’ I’m not saying they’re more important than ‘what’ or ‘how’ or ‘who,’ but they’re as important and they need to be taken seriously and treated strategically.”

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Kirsten Akens
Contributor for The Simple Dollar

Kirsten Akens is an award-winning journalist and editor based in Colorado Springs, Colo. In addition to her work for the The Simple Dollar, her bylines can be found in a variety of online and print publications, including O - the Oprah Magazine, People, and Lifehacker.

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