Tap Into the Science of Perfect Timing: A Q&A with Daniel Pink

Best-selling author Daniel H. Pink says leaders can optimize organizational performance by focusing on when employees get work done.

By Kathryn Tyler February 21, 2018

​If a project fails or a presentation falls flat, managers often wonder "What went wrong?" But perhaps the question they should be asking is "When did it go wrong?"

Daniel H. Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (Riverhead Books, 2018) and a popular Society for Human Resource Management conference speaker, says timing matters more than people think—and there's a science to getting it right. "There's a huge body of research spanning dozens of disciplines from economics to anesthesiology that demonstrates we can make evidence-based timing decisions," he says. That can give HR leaders an edge, if they understand how to harness the power of when.

Why should timing be important to HR?

HR executives and other leaders often focus on what people are doing and how they are doing it, as well as who will do it and why. But we give the question of when short shrift. Timing has a material effect on our productivity and organizational performance. We should start taking it more seriously.

How does timing affect daily work?

We're better at certain tasks at particular times. There are hidden patterns in the day: for most of us, a peak in the morning, a trough in the afternoon, and a recovery in the late afternoon and evening. We tend to do analytic tasks better during the peak stage and excel at creative work during recovery. We don't do a lot of things well in the trough. When productivity suffers, it's often because people aren't tackling the right tasks at the right time.

Should people hold important meetings early in the day?

It depends. If the meeting is about a minor administrative issue, the morning is a terrible idea because people will waste their optimal thinking time on something trivial. But if it's an important audit, early might be best. Make sure to carve out time for people to do focused work. You need to ask "Is this meeting worth sacrificing an hour of this employee's peak time?" If not—and it's usually not—don't do it.

Why do you say it is imperative to escape the trough?

Midafternoon is more perilous than any other time of day. Research shows that car accidents and adverse surgical events rise in the late afternoon. Taking a break can help mitigate these dangers.

HR may need to change its views of breaks—which are integral to performance, not a concession to weakness. Encourage employees, including top executives, to schedule two brief pauses in the afternoon. If people see a member of the senior team taking a 10-minute walk outside, they might think "Maybe I should do that, too."

How can managers help employees improve their timing?

Reply to e-mail quickly. A fast response demonstrates respect and provides the clarity people need to do their jobs better. If you ask your boss a question and have to wait six hours for an answer, you're in no man's land. In fact, research shows that e-mail response time is the single best predictor of employees' satisfaction with their bosses.

What are "temporal landmarks" and how can HR use them?

They're markers in time that indicate when to stop, think and pay attention. They open a new ledger in our mind. Any kind of change initiative—like introducing a new performance management process—should begin on a date that helps foster the idea of a fresh start, such as a Monday or the first day of the month or quarter. Timing isn't everything, but it's a big thing.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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