When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing — Breakfast with Daniel Pink

Last week, on Friday 26th January, I was lucky enough to be invited to a breakfast book launch of Daniel Pink’s newest book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. The event was arranged by Harrington Starr, a recruiter I’ve worked with over a number of years. Harrington Starr have always organised great events with top-quality speakers and this was no exception. Hosted at The Vintner’s Company in the City of London, a grand place to start your day.

For those of you who haven’t yet come across Daniel Pink, he’s an author of many other books, but is probably most famous for Drive. Dan is also famous for his 2009 TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, which has nearly 20m views on the TED website.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Thinking

In his latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dan looks at how we can use the timing of events to get the best outcomes. All his advice is backed up by scientific proof, showing exactly why there is a perfect time for everything. In his introduction to the talk Dan gave high level examples including the two months of the year when most people file for divorce.

Aside from leaving the event knowing I needed to read the full book, I left with three main takeaways:

1. We all have a daily rhythm that should dictate when we do certain types of work

Dan used a number of scientific studies to show that all humans have three stages of energy / motivation during each day.

  1. An initial peak of energy where you should carry out your highest priority, most difficult tasks. This is the best time to carry out tasks requiring high focus.
  2. A pit, around 7 hours after waking where your energy levels are lowest. This is a great time to carry out low-skill admin tasks.
  3. A recovery period towards the end of the day where you energy levels start to move upwards. This is a good time to carry out tasks requiring creative thinking. During this period the mind is capable of deep thinking but is easily distracted due to the later time in the day.

2. Everyone is either a lark, an owl or a ‘third bird’

Dan provided us with a formula to work out exactly what type of person you are. This dictates the order of the three energy states described earlier. The formula states:

  1. Calculate the time you would normally go to bed if you had nothing the next day i.e. you could choose your bedtime
  2. Calculate the time that you would normally wake up if you don’t set an alarm i.e. you could choose when to get up
  3. Take the mid-point between these two-times

If the mid-point is before 3.30am then you are a lark. If the mid-point is after 5.30am then you are an owl. Anything in-between for the third-bird (no-one has given this a name, so he just referred to it as the third-bird!).

Larks see their initial period of high energy first thing in the morning whereas owls see this period at the end of the day. Third-bird is somewhere in-between. The recovery period for larks is in the evening as opposed to the morning for owls.

3. How we take breaks is key to managing our energy

Dan noted that most people are poor at taking breaks. Most of us feel that pushing through and continuing to work is a sign of success. Dan noted this is actually making us less productive overall. In his talk Dan didn’t have many details of exactly when or how to take breaks, but he did suggest booking these into our schedule to ensure we take them. His view is that we plan important meetings into our calendar, so why shouldn’t we plan important breaks?

What Dan did have to say about breaks was that the best breaks are spent with other people (not alone) and doing something that is not linked to your work i.e. a distraction.

Finally Dan finished by explaining to everyone how best to ‘nap’. He referred to this as a napucchino. This goes as follows:

  1. Drink a cup of coffee
  2. Set your phone alarm for 25 minutes
  3. Settle down in a quiet place and relax
  4. Once you get good at this you will probably fall asleep in about 8–10 minutes. This leaves 15 minutes to sleep until the alarm goes off.
  5. After 25 minutes the caffeine from the coffee will kick in, just as you are waking. This provides a ‘kick’ of energy after your nap.

Dan left us by saying that naps are like most things — the more your practice, the better you get!

Thoughts

Overall I was really interested by Dan’s talk and I’ll definitely be following up by reading the full book. I tried, unsuccessfully, to ask a question during the Q&A session, which I’ll summarise here.

As someone who manages software engineering teams I’m interested in how this theory around the time you have most energy works with teams, and not just individuals. Most modern software engineer teams use a methodology such as Scrum that promotes a daily stand-up. For most teams this happens the first thing in the morning. I’m questioning how to get the most from a team made up of a combination of the three types of bird. This is especially important if your teams use collaborative practices such as pair-programming.

For larks the best time to do work that requires deep concentration would be the morning. This would be totally different to owls when this would be towards the end of the working day (or even later into the evening). Deep concentration for programmers is generally heads down writing code. Consequently for the more creative work, larks would be better in the evening and owls in the morning. This could be work such as technical design or architecture sessions or even story refinement.

It certainly feels that no matter what time you choose you will always be putting some members of your team into areas of weakness. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave me a comment below.