There’s no shortage of how-to books these days: how to create better habits, how to increase your productivity, how to leverage your strengths, etc. But, simply knowing how to accomplish your goals isn’t sufficient for achieving top performance. New research is revealing another critical factor that often goes overlooked when considering how to achieve our desired results: timing.

In his latest book, When: The Scientific Principles of Perfect Timing, Dan Pink synthesizes cutting-edge research into a compelling narrative that highlights the power of leveraging timing in order to amplify performance.

To support you in making the most of your timing, here are three lessons from When that will guide you to making better when-to decisions:

Lesson 1: Honor Your Internal Clock
Everyone has a chronotype (a personal pattern of circadian rhythms that influences your physiology and psychology). You’ve likely heard the terminology “lark” and “owl” used to describe chronotypes, but most people do not fall into either extreme category. In fact, roughly 60-80% of people are “third birds” or a bit of both (Rayasam, 2016).

Knowing your chronotype is key to understanding how you experience the day and when you are most effective at various tasks. Each day is divided into three experiential stages: a peak, a trough and a rebound. Larks and third birds experience the day in precisely that order, while owls experience the reverse. Use the research-backed chart below to better determine when to take different types of action:

3 Science-Backed Lessons on Perfect Timing

To determine your chronotype, take the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire at

Lesson 2: Restorative Breaks Boost Performance
Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Something happens during the trough, roughly seven hours after waking, that makes it far more perilous than any other time of day. For example:

  • Internists are 26% more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics for viral infections, thereby fueling the rise of drug-resistant superbugs
  • Sleep-related vehicle accidents peak twice a day: between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. (middle of the night, makes sense) and between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. (middle of the afternoon, hello trough!)
  • Taking a test in the afternoon without a break produces scores that are equivalent to spending less time in school each year and having parents with lower incomes and less education

Becoming more aware of the trough is an important first step in learning to avoid making poor decisions due to bad timing. Research shows that the best way to combat the dangers of the trough is by taking restorative breaks. While there’s no single answer on exactly what those breaks should look like, Pink says science offers 5 guiding principles:

  1. Something beats nothing. Even short breaks from a task can help us maintain focus and reactivate our commitment to a goal if our motivation is waning.
  2. Moving beats stationary. “Microbursts of activity” like hourly 5-minute walks have been shown to boost energy, sharpen focus, increase concentration, enhance creativity and improve mood.
  3. Social beats solo. Alone time can be replenishing, but much of the research points toward the greater power of being with others, particularly when we’re free to choose with whom we spend the time.
  4. Outside beats inside. Although people are able to recognize they’d be happier taking a break outside, they underestimate how much happier. Being close to trees, plants, rivers, etc. is a powerful restorative and allows people to return to their tasks in a better mood (Nizbet and Zelenski, 2011).
  5. Fully detached beats semidetached. Resist the urge to multitask, step away from all work-related material and engage in something completely different (all of those office ping pong tables are starting to make sense—they’re social, active and fully detached!)

Lesson 3: Temporal Landmarks Jumpstart Change
Just as physical landmarks help us to navigate space (“turn right at the gas station”), temporal landmarks help us to navigate time. Certain dates function like that gas station: they stand out from the repetitive march of other days, helping us to recalibrate and get motivated. To establish a fresh start, people use two types of temporal landmarks: social (landmarks everyone shares like Mondays, semesters, national holidays) and personal (birthdays, anniversaries, job changes). These time markers jumpstart change in two ways:

  1. They allow people to open “new mental accounts” in the same way that a business closes the books at the end of one fiscal year and opens a fresh ledger for the new year. This new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our sold selves to the past and disconnecting from the past self’s mistakes and imperfections. Subsequently, we “behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations,” (Dai, Milkman & Riis, 2014).
  2. “Temporal Landmarks interrupt attention to day-to-day minutiae, causing people to take a big picture view of their lives and thus focus on achieving their goals,” (Ibid). These time markers slow our thinking and allow us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.

Time is of the essence. Use it wisely!



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