Timing is everything. We’ve heard it our whole lives — but when we talk about timing, we’re often talking about it as though time is something that happens to us, like meeting the right person at the wrong time or putting off starting a new side hustle because “the time just isn’t right yet.” But with his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Dan Pink is here to say that yes, while timing is everything, we’re totally capable of harnessing the foundations of timing to our advantage. While he has lots to say about the timing of big life decisions like marriage, career switches, and even when to schedule surgery, he’s also totally transformed our ideas about the timing of our regular, routine workdays. We chatted with Pink about his findings on productivity in the workplace, Read on to reimagine your nine-to-five timeline.

productivity at work

Brit +Co: Thanks for taking the time (wink, wink) to chat with us. What does “perfect timing” mean to you?

Dan Pink: We make most of our “when” decisions based on intuition, guesswork, and default. That’s a mistake. Across more than a dozen fields — economics, social psychology, endocrinology, chronobiology, cognitive science, and more — researchers are uncovering a huge batch of exciting evidence that allows us to make systematically better “when” decisions. Using that evidence won’t deliver perfect timing all the time, but we can at least make smarter, better choices.

Brit +Co: A big part of your premise on perfect timing revolves around an idea of three distinct parts of a day — the peak, trough, and recovery. Can you walk us through these stages?

DP: Most of us progress through the day in three stages: A peak, a trough, and a recovery. And about 80 percent of us move through the day in that order. But the exception — and it’s a hugely important one — are people with evening chronotypes. These night owls naturally wake up late and go to sleep late. They’re much more complicated. But the key thing to know is that they reach their peak late in the afternoon and through the evening.

During the peak, which for most of us is early in the day but for owls is the evening, we’re highest in vigilance. That makes it the best time for analytic tasks, those that require heads-down focus and attention. During the trough, which for almost everyone is early to mid-afternoon, we’re better off doing mundane administrative tasks — the sorts of things that don’t require massive brainpower and creativity. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, our vigilance is lower but our mood is higher — which makes it a good time for creative, iterative, insight tasks.

B+C: So, we’re most focused in the mornings for detail-oriented tasks and loose in the afternoons for creative endeavors — so what should we be working on during our “trough” periods?

DP: It’s difficult. The trough is a really tough time of time. There’s all sorts of evidence — in hospitals, in schools, and in the corporate boardroom — showing that performance can decline considerably during this period. So the best strategy is twofold. First, where possible, don’t do your most important work during this period. Instead, do work like answering routine email — which we have to do, but that doesn’t demand our full mental acuity. Second, take regular breaks — especially breaks with other people and where you’re moving rather than stationary and outside rather than inside.

B+C: What about meetings and team-related projects? When do you recommend we schedule these during the workday?

DP: It depends. Unfortunately, the only criterion most organizations now use for scheduling meetings is availability. Is there time on people’s calendar and is a conference room available? But scheduling meetings should be a strategic issue. We need to ask two key questions. First, what kind of meeting is this? Do we want people to be locked-down and analytic? Freewheeling and creative? Or is the meeting merely about an administrative issue? Second, who’s at the meeting? Are the participants larks, owls, or in between? Once we have a sense of the type of people involved and the sorts of tasks to be done, we can make better choices about scheduling.

B+C: Are there things we can consciously work on to either help enhance our productivity or switch our mindset/workflow?

DP: Yes. For most of us, the morning peak is good for analytic tasks — but late in the afternoon and early in the evening are better for insight tasks. So the key is to do the right work at the right time. However, if we’re forced to do analytic work at a non-optimal time, several techniques can help. Of course, take regular breaks, as I mentioned earlier. But also consider using checklists to ensure that you do the right things in the right ways and that nothing falls through the cracks. And, if possible, check your work during your peak the next day to prevent slip-ups and mistakes.

B+C: Any advice do you have for those of us feeling burnout or overworked but can’t necessarily take time off. How can we use timing to our advantage to feel better in our current circumstance?

DP: Two suggestions. First, once again, breaks are part of the answer. But in this case, there’s some really interesting research about “micro-breaks” — breaks that are extremely short. Even one-minute or two-minute breaks can help. One of my favorites is called 20-20-20. It’s simple and very effective for those of us who sit at computers all day. Every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. My second suggestion: Ask yourself why you’re doing the work in the first place? How, if at all, does it make a difference in the world? Or how does it simply contribute to a project or a team or another person? Purpose can be restorative.

B+C: It feels like we often try to cram in as much as we possibly can during a workday, but as you mentioned, that can backfire, leading to mistakes, burnout, and mental fatigue. Do you have any tips for us to keep us productive while keeping our sanity?

DP: Here are some general do’s and don’ts:

  • “Do first things first and second things not at all.” That’s a line from Peter Drucker and I try to live by it. One antidote to feeling crammed and overwhelmed is being smart what not to do. The only way to make good decisions about where to direct our attention is to be strategic about what to ignore.
  • Don’t be obsessive about metrics. Metrics and targets — whether related to time or to other topics — can often diminish performance in the long run by eroding morale, encouraging the gaming of the system, and even hurting customers.
  • Do aim for control and challenge. The best jobs are those that combine challenge and control. Jobs in which people have control but no challenge are boring. Jobs in which we have challenge but no control burn us out. Evaluate what you’re doing on these two dimensions and be alert when the balance tips in a dangerous direction.

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(Photo via Getty)

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