When by Daniel Pink: Book Overview & Lessons

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "When" by Daniel H. Pink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Daniel Pink’s When about? What’s the key message to take away from the book?

When is a handbook for those who want to harness the natural rhythm of their day and their lives to work and live more intentionally. Daniel Pink offers guidance on how we can use our natural patterns to be strategic about our time.

Below is a brief overview of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink.

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing

In When, Daniel Pink argues that timing is, in fact, everything. Drawing on his extensive research on the science of timing, Pink shows how our daily lives and experiences follow predictable patterns with three phases: a crest, a slump, and a recovery.

In this guide, we’ll begin with a discussion of the importance of time, and its impact on people, on a sociological and biological level. We’ll then go on to explain how predictable patterns—a crest, a slump, and a recovery—impact our daily lives, and how we can take advantage of those patterns to live our lives more intentionally. We’ll end with discussion of synchronicity and the value and importance of group timing. Throughout the guide, we’ll expand on the science behind Pink’s recommendations, and supplement his recommendations with advice from other researchers in the fields of well-being and productivity. We’ll also highlight studies that challenge some of Pink’s assertions.  

The Daily Rhythm

In this first section, we’ll discuss the importance of time in our daily lives—not only the human inventions of clocks and calendars, but also our innate biological rhythms. We’ll also explain how you can learn about your own biological clock in order to take full advantage of the natural rhythms of your day.

According to Pink, time is the unspoken (and often underestimated) force that runs our lives. We set alarms, schedule flights, celebrate annual holidays, and mark our aging year to year. Many of these conventions of time have been invented by humans as a way to organize our lives. 

Your Internal Clock

However, time isn’t entirely a human invention. Every organism on earth has an internal biological clock that controls a collection of circadian rhythms—psychological and physiological patterns that follow a 24-hour cycle of light and dark. Research has shown that our circadian rhythms impact everything from mood to cognitive ability. These fluctuations in mood and ability aren’t only more impactful than most people think, but also more predictable. 

Over the course of a day, most people experience a predictable pattern: a crest (what Pink calls a peak), a slump (a trough), and a recovery (a rebound). In the beginning of their day, at the crest, most people are at their happiest, most alert, and most optimistic. Some time in the middle of the day, people often experience a slump. They feel more negative and more lethargic, and they struggle to be productive. Then, as their day draws to a close, people experience a recovery. Their mood improves, and they often excel in tasks that require more reflection or insight. 

Pink cites several studies that reinforce this pattern, but perhaps most interesting is the Twitter study. In 2011, a global sociological study found a consistent pattern of behavior across 500 million tweets and 2.4 million users. Regardless of race, nationality, or age, there was an increase in tweets with a “positive affect” (active, engaged, hopeful language) in the morning. That number dropped sharply in the afternoon, before rising again in the early evening—a crest, a slump, and a recovery. 

Your Chronotype

Pink clarifies that while this pattern of crest, slump, and recovery is common to all people, the time of day that the pattern begins varies depending on our chronotype. Your chronotype is the individual expression of your circadian rhythm; it impacts when we wake and sleep and when we’re most alert. Pink outlines three common chronotypes:

  • Morning Types (referred to as “larks”) tend to rise early. They hit their crest mid-morning, their slump mid-afternoon, and their recovery in the early evening.
  • Night Types (referred to as “owls”) are the opposite. They’re most alert at night, lag in the morning, then gain momentum in the afternoon.
  • Intermediate Types (referred to as “third birds”) are the most common, and their ideal schedule falls somewhere in between the first two categories.

Pink goes on to explain that our chronotypes are influenced by several variables, including genetics, season of birth, age, and sex, and are therefore largely out of our control. 

According to Pink, knowing your chronotype will give you greater insight into your own daily rhythm (crest, slump, and recovery) and allow you to be more strategic about how you use your time. After learning more about your chronotype, Pink recommends adjusting your schedule accordingly. You can learn more about your chronotype here

To take full advantage of your innate chronotype, Pink recommends scheduling tasks based on the time when you’re most equipped to tackle them. Because chronotypes impact our mood, energy, and cognitive ability, we’re better-suited to different tasks at different times of day. Pink recommends protecting your “crest period” for important work, and saving more mundane, repetitive, or surface level-tasks for the midday slump. 

For example, if you’re a morning type, Pink recommends focusing on deep analytical work first thing in the morning, answering emails in the early afternoon, and saving creative work for your recovery period. However, if you’re an evening type, it makes more sense to postpone your deep thinking until the evening when you hit your peak focus period.

Pink also recommends that, regardless of when your slump occurs, you can mitigate the decreased focus and productivity of the slump by using it as an opportunity to pause—whether that be through a restorative break, a real (non-working) lunch, or a well-timed nap. 

The Crest: The Potential of Beginnings

In the previous section, we discussed how there are predictable patterns within a day. In this next section, we will show how those same patterns (crest, slump, and recovery) can apply in other contexts, whether it be a school schedule, a work project, or a relationship. 

Pink argues that beginnings are full of potential. Just as people feel more optimistic and capable at the start of a day, they also feel more optimistic and capable when they’re at the beginning of a project or a new job. 

Pink cites a study that describes this phenomenon as the “fresh start effect.” Beginnings give people the opportunity to draw a line that mentally separates the past and the future. By distancing ourselves from past mistakes, or habits, it becomes possible to picture a different (improved) version of ourselves. Furthermore, because beginnings naturally follow endings, they’re opportunities for reflection. When people step back to take a broad view of their lives, they’re more likely to consider bigger aspirational goals that may have previously fallen by the wayside.

In order to take full advantage of the optimism and energy of new beginnings, Pink recommends being intentional about “when” we start something.

First, Pink suggests taking advantage of temporal landmarks as built-in opportunities for a fresh start. Temporal landmarks are moments in time that hold more meaning than others, often signaling the end of one thing and the start of another. This might be the start of a new year, a birthday, or even just a Monday. These temporal landmarks provide people opportunities to reflect and set goals.

Temporal landmarks can be further broken into two categories: social and personal. Social landmarks, like calendar dates and national holidays, are shared by many people, while personal landmarks, like birthdays, anniversaries, and job changes, are unique to the individual. When we consider the accumulation of social and personal temporal landmarks, there are hundreds of potential new beginnings within a year. Each of these new beginnings offers an opportunity to reflect and set goals.

Pink also argues that we can’t take full advantage of beginnings if we aren’t primed to do so. Returning to our previous discussion of chronotypes, this means that we’re less likely to be successful if we tackle a challenging project in the middle of the day when our focus and energy wane. 

For example, Pink points to research about school start times. Despite young people’s sleeping patterns shifting later in their teens, school hours have remained largely unaffected, with some high school classes beginning as early as 7:00 a.m. However, numerous studies have shown that later start times not only improve student motivation, well-being, and mental health, but also result in improved standardized test scores and graduation rates. This example shows how one small change in when the day starts can lead to dramatically different outcomes. 

The Slump: The Struggle of Middles

In the previous section, we discussed the power of beginnings and how to take full advantage of their potential. In this section, we’ll discuss the middle. Just like the slump we experience in a day, there’s also a lull in the middle of an experience. However, this lull can have two possible outcomes—it can leave you feeling listless or inspire you to take action. We’ll explore the potential causes of the slump and discuss strategies to avoid getting stuck. 

Pink writes that our happiness and motivation decrease in the middle of an experience. Research tracking people’s level of well-being over the course of their lifetime shows an increase in happiness when people are in their 20s and 30s, a decrease in their 40s and 50s, and an increase after the age of 55—following the familiar pattern of crest, slump, and recovery. There’s no definitive cause for this slump. Pink suggests that it could be the disappointment of unrealized expectations or perhaps that middles seem less important than beginnings or endings. There are also studies in primates that indicate that the slump may be a biological phenomenon. Regardless of why it happens, the effect of middles is ubiquitous. 

Pink argues that there are two possible responses to the middle of an experience. You can allow the middle to leave you in a rut, or you can use it as inspiration. He offers the following strategies to ensure that you don’t lose momentum at the midpoint: 

First, recognize midpoints when they’re happening. Calling attention to midpoints can help ensure you don’t get stuck in them. If you’re aware of your tendency to lose motivation in the middle, then you can recognize the feelings as temporary, or anticipate the loss of momentum and implement strategies to counteract it. For example, if you set a goal to drink two liters of water every day, you can anticipate that you’re most likely to fall out of the habit in the middle of the week. Knowing this, you can make sure you keep a water bottle on your desk every day, or give yourself a reward if you don’t miss a day the whole week. 

Second, take advantage of the deadline effect (what Pink calls the “uh oh effect.”) The deadline effect is the internal fear that we haven’t done enough, or are running out of time, and is a powerful tool of motivation at the midpoint of a project or experience. Citing a study by Connie Gersick, Pink explains that at first people working in teams often make little progress toward their goals until a sudden burst of productivity when they become aware that a deadline is approaching. Regardless of the timeline of the collaboration, Gersick found that this leap of progress almost always occurred around the midpoint.

The Recovery: The Power of Endings

Just like beginnings and middles, endings matter and have a powerful, often invisible, influence over our behavior.

Pink argues that the end of something, whether that be a period of time or an experience, can impact our life in four ways. 

First, endings disproportionately shape our memory of an experience. How an experience ends often determines how we remember it. The “peak-end rule,” proposed by psychologists Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) and Barbara Frederickson, explains that when people remember something, they imbue the greatest meaning to the “peak” of the experience and to the end of it. 

While the disproportionate power of endings can solidify the memory of an experience, it can also distort our perception. An experience that’s overwhelmingly positive but ends poorly is more likely to be remembered negatively than a mediocre experience that ends on a high note. For example, if a family vacation ends in a heated argument, you’re more likely to remember that vacation in a negative light, even if the rest of the holiday was wonderful. 

Awareness of the disproportionate power of endings can help ensure that when you reflect back on an experience, you think about it holistically, and avoid putting too much weight on the ending without taking the rest of the experience into consideration.

Second, endings can motivate us to take action. The end of a time period or an experience, whether literal or symbolic, often inspires people to take action or set goals to accomplish. Consider the flurry of activity that happens as a school or work deadline approaches. With the end in sight, we’re suddenly more motivated to get things done. For example, as the end of the year approaches, charitable giving increases dramatically. About 31% of total giving for the year happens in December, with 12% of giving occurring in the last three days. 

You can take advantage of the motivating power of endings by setting deadlines for yourself or using the end of a year or a decade as a natural time to finally get started on that big aspirational goal you’ve been putting off. 

Third, endings help us determine what really matters. As people approach the end of an experience, or more poignantly, the end of their life, they become increasingly focused on what’s most important to them. For example, psychologists have found that as people approach the end of life, their social network shrinks. They have fewer acquaintances or casual friends but a more stable inner circle of their closest friends and family. This theory of “socioemotional selectivity” explains that as people age, they become more selective about how and with whom they spend their time.

Knowing that endings naturally cause you to be more selective about how and with whom you spend your time can give you permission to become more intentional about how you spend time—guilt-free.

Finally, endings often hold greater emotional weight. People tend to cherish experiences more when they know the experiences are ending. For example, in addition to narrowing their social circle, people facing the end of their life deeply value their physical comfort. While many people may have taken their comfort for granted in their earlier years, simple things become more valuable when we recognize we might lose them soon.

But Pink also goes on to explain that the most meaningful endings are in fact bittersweet. For example, consider the beloved ending of the classic film Casablanca when (spoiler alert) Rick helps Ilsa, the woman he loves, escape Casablanca with her husband, knowing that it means the end of their relationship. Other endings, like graduations, the end of summer camp, or the marriage of a child, precipitate a similarly complex range of emotions. The “poignancy” of endings, according to Pink, lies in this complexity—a happiness that’s often tinged with sadness. 

You can take advantage of the poignancy of endings by embracing the mix of emotions that come with them. Even though we might think we want a happy ending, Pink reminds us that happy endings are rarely the most meaningful.

Working Together

Up until now, we’ve focused largely on how time affects the individual. But group timing, or synchronicity, is crucial to a functioning society. In this next section, we’ll elaborate on how you can apply what you know about the principles of timing when working in groups.

Pink argues that our survival depends on our ability to collaborate and coordinate with other people. Think about the level of synchronicity it takes to build a house or distribute food to grocery stores. We can’t function without synchronicity. Therefore, while managing individual timing is important, the art of group timing is even more important. 

According to Pink, to be successful, groups must synchronize on three different levels: around a leader, within the group, and around feelings of goodwill.

First, people must synchronize around a guiding force or leader. Pink argues that successful group timing requires the existence of a leader, whether that be a person—like an air traffic controller, guiding planes on landing and takeoff—or a thing, like a computer game, dictating when a game starts or whose turn is next. 

Next, people must synchronize with each other, effectively working together toward a common purpose. Pink argues that for people to willingly, and successfully, synchronize with other people, they must feel a sense of belonging. Belonging is an intrinsic human motivation, but Pink outlines three tools that can further elevate our sense of belonging: shared language, symbols of affiliation, and physical connection. 

  • Shared language can be a shared native language, slang, or jargon commonly understood within a specific field. 
  • Symbols of affiliation could be anything from a school uniform to a Superbowl ring, a visual cue of belonging.
  • Physical connection includes informal gestures of affection, like a hug or a pat on the back, to more formal examples of physical contact like a handshake.

The final stage of synchronization is synchronizing with others. At this stage, people don’t just work together because they’re told to, or because everybody else is working together, but because it feels good to work together. This level of synchronization is particularly strong when people are acting in unison, like playing in an orchestra or ballroom dancing. 

When people enter this final stage of synchronization, they create a self-reinforcing cycle of goodwill that comes when we coordinate with others. Pink argues that working in coordination with others contributes to our sense of well-being, which makes us want to work with others more, which in turn makes us better at synchronizing, which again increases feelings of well-being—a cycle that improves collective well-being and group synchronicity simultaneously. 

When by Daniel Pink: Book Overview & Lessons

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Here's what you'll find in our full When summary:

  • How our daily lives and experiences follow predictable patterns
  • How to harness this daily rhythm to work and live more intentionally
  • Why the middle of an experience is the hardest part

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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