Understanding the Secrets to Perfect Timing with Daniel Pink

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Are there really secrets to the best timing for activities and events in our lives? Best-selling author and behavioral science expert Daniel H. Pink asserts that there are. At the 72nd CFA Institute Annual Conference, hosted by CFA Society of the UK, Pink shared some of the secrets that he gleaned from analyzing research on the timing of life.

According to Pink, research on timing has been siloed in many areas. Social psychologists, economists, linguists, anthropologists, and even endocrinologists have all conducted their own inquiries, looking at different aspects of similar problems. Pink sifted through the research to find evidence-based ways of informing the timing of our activities, work, and decision making.

Pink’s frustration with his own decision-making abilities led him to write When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He said that he was making all kinds of decisions about when to do things “in a sloppy way,” and he was looking for guidance that didn’t really exist.

The science of timing spans a whole range of human experience and questions, covering things like whether you should exercise early or late in the day and when you should make doctor’s appointments. Pink even found that beginning your career during a recession can depress your wages for decades; those who graduate during economic booms will earn more.

Our moods change throughout the day, which should be considered when making plans. Cornell researchers looked at 500 million Tweets issued by 2.4 million users in 84 countries, measuring the emotional level of the authors over the course of the day — Pink explained that their conclusions show the average person’s mood rising in the morning, dipping in the afternoon, and rising again in the evening.

Pink highlighted some important findings about timing that show our cognitive abilities changing during the day. Research in Denmark, as well as work done by Dr. Francesa Gino at Harvard, regarding standardized tests taken on computers, found that the later in the day a child was tested, the lower their test scores. The time of the day can affect our performance by as much as 20%.

Considering the performance of others is also important. Pink urged the audience to keep the time of day in mind when scheduling medical procedures, stating that handwashing in hospitals drops as the day goes on and that anesthesia errors are four times more likely to occur at 4pm than at 8am or 9am. He joked that if the audience took no other information from the presentation, it should be his advice about seeing doctors.

Each person is different, and Pink recommended Daniel Kahneman’s “Day Reconstruction Method” as a way to track the time of day, what we are doing, and how we feel. It can offer insights into the way that our own mood changes over time.

Our chronotypes are an important part of our biology. Pink divided people into three groups, saying that about 15% of people are decidedly “larks,” or clear morning people; 20% of us are “owls,” or clearly night people; and the remaining 65% of people are what he calls “third birds,” neither larks or owls. People who fall into the owl or lark category need to plan when they engage in activities that require a great deal of focus.

During the day, we all experience a peak, a trough, and a recovery in our performance. Pink stated that we should use our peak time for analytical work that requires vigilance. Owls, for example, should perform this work during their peak time in late afternoon or early evening. During troughs, we should do administrative work. The recovery period is best for work that allows mental looseness.

Pink also recommended that managers change how they plan certain types of work meetings. If they want peak performance during brainstorming sessions, they should take their team’s natural chronotypes into account. A study of 26,000 earning calls in 2,100 companies over six years revealed that afternoon calls were decidedly more negative, suggesting that client communication should be handled earlier in the day. When our work schedule is out of our control, then using checklists becomes more important.

What else can we do to be more effective? Taking more breaks or time-outs from working. Pink stated that breaks are best when they are social in nature, when they involve physical activity, when they are taken outside, and when we are fully detached from the projects we had been working on. It helps to clear our heads completely, allowing us to sharpen our focus when we return to work.

Pink’s final advice discussed how we should approach “endings.” He told the audience that a 29-year-old person was twice as likely to run a marathon as a 28- or a 30-year-old person. A 49-year-old person was three times more likely to run a marathon than a 50-year-old person. In the year before a “milestone age,” runners are more likely to engage in extreme activity. Pink explained that when the end of something becomes visible, whether it is a decade or a task, we “kick a little harder.”

Endings, according to Pink, can help “energize and elevate.” He noted that most people in the audience preferred to hear bad news first when there was positive and negative information to be shared — ultimately, we should make the most of our preferences for finishing strong and ending on a positive note to wind up with a better experience.

Watch highlights from the 72nd CFA Institute Annual Conference online with Conference Live. It’s an insider’s perspective with live broadcasts of select sessions, exclusive speaker interviews, discussions of current topics, and updates on CFA Institute initiatives.


All posts are the opinion of the author. As such, they should not be construed as investment advice, nor do the opinions expressed necessarily reflect the views of CFA Institute or the author’s employer.

Image courtesy of Harry Richards

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