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Okay, Daniel H. Pink’s When Won’t Exactly Turn You into One—But It’s a Start

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There’s only one way a book about timing can properly begin—with the famous quote from Miles Davis: “Timing isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” That’s how Daniel H. Pink kicks off When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and the rest of the book follows with similar straightforwardness. It’s a collection of predictable if not quite obvious truths, clearly presented and researched, about how time affects our lives in virtually every facet. When is the follow-up to Pink’s previous books on management and career effectiveness, and it lives in a somewhat nebulous shelf space: not quite self-help, not quite pop psychology, not quite behavioral science, but a conversational, TED Talk-y amalgam of all three.

It’s significant that Pink didn’t call his book The Art of Perfect Timing; putting “Art” in the title would suggest there’s something magical about the cyclical patterns of time—that access to its tricks are restricted to only a small handful of gurus and self-help hackers. Pink’s approach is meant to be ground-level and accessible to all, even as he crunches out the scientific backbones of his studies, including data and statistics—even graphs!—to back up his findings.

Turns out our internal clocks—those circadian rhythms—have more control over us than our conscious brains might suspect. Pink fills the first chunk of When with ways to approach the workday, recognizing that some of us are morning people (“larks”) and others night owls, while most of us fall in the middle. (And those patterns change with age, perhaps due to our biology—children are larks, teenagers follow night owl patterns, and old people gradually evolve back into larks.) Workdays usually begin with productive mornings and then dip in the afternoon, which makes the second half of the day a bad time for most people to get significant work done.

If there’s one takeaway from When, it’s just how bad afternoons can be. Pink calls them “the Bermuda Triangle of our days.” Students perform measurably worse on standardized tests in the afternoon, and later-day surgeries have a disastrously higher propensity for going awry. Corporate earnings calls also go much better if they’re scheduled for the morning, and judges and juries are less likely to convict criminals. Pink doesn’t provide abundant reasons as to why this might be, but the evidence he presents is persuasive.

How can this information help you get your shit together? Each chapter of Pink’s book is followed by an action section, with tools and exercises to apply to your daily life. These sorts of activity pages weren’t really for me, but they might appeal to some. More important is recognizing the power of mornings and accounting for the patterns in your own day. I’ve found that as the day goes on, there’s more on my mind, which usually makes focusing on writing assignments challenging. But early in the day, my brain has less clutter—sometimes it may not even be fully awake—which I’ve personally found is good for writing. There are fewer distractions (particularly if I haven’t checked email or Twitter), so I’m able to focus intently on a single thought at a time—ideal circumstances for getting words onto a page.

But Pink’s book has also given me suggestions for what to do with those seemingly worthless afternoon hours. According to his research and from what I’ve determined about my own chronobiology, afternoons could be good for organizing, scheduling, checking email, and workflow tasks. I usually consider these smaller chores to be low-hanging fruit, and in the past I’ve used the strategy of getting them all out of the way first before tackling bigger projects. Having fewer distractions makes it easier to focus, or so I assumed. But now I’m not so sure that’s the best approach.

When also explores the ideas of beginnings, middles, and ends, but Pink’s findings here seem a little less practical for everyday use. A strong beginning—to the day, to a project, even to your overall career—is vitally important, so much so that if you get off to a bad beginning, it might be worth starting over altogether. Pink uses as an example the earnings of those who graduate during good vs. bad years in the economy; those who graduated during a recession continue to make less money even once the economy’s picked up. I’m not sure how you can fix something like that. And midpoints can be interpreted in different ways: Some are discouraging while others spur us to finish. Pink offers a few inspirational examples: A basketball team that’s down one point at halftime is more likely to rally and win the game, and Hemingway used to stop his day’s writing mid-line, to kick-start the next day’s writing.

There are other useful takeaways from When, such as: Always give the bad news before the good news. Singing in a choir is good for your wellbeing. Immediately take your afternoon nap after drinking a cup of coffee—the coffee will wake you in about 25 minutes, enough time for you to get a quick snooze but not doze off for too long.

But what I found most useful about Pink’s book is his advice in how we structure our days. And getting started on the right foot is perhaps the best single thing you can do to get to the finish line. If these sound like intentionally vague self-help koans, Pink has a lot of information to back them up, and When presents it compactly and efficiently, so that you can get back to making the most of your own time.