Insights From Great Books: “When- The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” by Daniel H.Pink
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
I decided to start summarizing the books that I am reading and drawing some conclusions from the perspective of an educational leader. This is the first post in tis series.
I just watched “Lucy” - a movie about a girl who accidentally uncovers the mystery of accessing the 90% percent of her otherwise unused human cortical power. In one of the climatically epic moments, the supercharged, outrageously smart Lucy utters a profound discovery: “Time gives legitimacy to its existence. Time is the only true unit of measure. It gives proof to the existence of matter. Without time, we don't exist.”
FYI - according to modern neuroscience, the underlying idea of us using only a portion of our brains is nonsense, but the point Lucy is making about time is nonetheless very valid. This post is about a book that also talks about time, but much less in an epically philosophical, and much more in a scientifically empirical way. Daniel Pink in his book “When- The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” starts with a claim that while most of the wisdom-laden literature focuses on the how-to, but his book is a whole new genre of when-to.
Pink first talks about the natural rhythms and their impact on our lives and our decision making. From the explanation of the sleep cycles, he goes to various examples of timing playing a huge role in our decision making process. Pink brings a plethora of research that shows how the time of the day influences our decision making. Judges, doctors, CEOs make decisions differently at 10 am and 2 pm. Basically, most people are better decision makers in the mornings, with a steep decline in this valuable ability from lunchtime to early afternoon and an eventual recovery in evening. As funny as it may sound, after reading this research you may be convinced not to attend a doctor, e.g. do colonoscopy, in the afternoon ever again. The probability of it being performed or evaluated in a wrong way is much higher than in the morning. The same is true for judges - if you ever end up in court, insist on a morning hearing or, in the worst case scenario, beg for the one right after lunch.
“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.” ― Daniel H. Pink, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing
The second point that Pink makes is the importance of breaks. He says that “elite performers have something in common: They’re really good at taking breaks”. He even brings it down to the minute saying that “High performers, its research concludes, work for fifty-two minutes and then break for seventeen minutes.” The point is the importance of breaks, the most effective of which should be aimed at taking the mind off task completely. So, several short breaks throughout the day is a technique that will not diminish, but instead increase your performance and productivity. Pink sets forth several principles for getting the most out of this break taking approach:
Moving beats stationary - do not just sit and relax, but get your body moving, raise your heartbeat, get the oxygen flowing to your brain. Later on in the book, Pink touches more in depth on the importance and benefits of exercise - it improves our cognition, prolongs our lives, prevents both physical and mental disease and decay. Being consistent with his question of When? Pink brings forth the research about the different effects of exercise depending on the time of the day. In summary - exercise in the morning to lose weight, boost mood, keep your routine, and build strength. Exercise in the late afternoon or evening to avoid injury, perform your best, and enjoy the workout a bit more.
Social beats solo - make your breaks social, partner up with somebody, pay random visits to the colleagues in the office - we are social beings, wired to connect, and social interaction boosts our mood and is genuinely refreshing for our minds.
Outside beats inside - being close to nature is another important factor that has a proven record of improving our mood, helping us recharge and boost our productivity.
Fully detached beats semidetached - do not try to work on something else as you are taking a break. At least get into some other “flow” that you really enjoy, or, even better, detach completely - do nothing. This seemingly unproductive void gives the largest part of our brain, the subconscious part, an opportunity to run free from the orders of our much smaller prefrontal cortex that is responsible for our conscious existence.
How can one combine all four elements into one boosting experience? A quiet walk or jog in the park next to a friend seems like a plausible idea, but there is an ancient and genius approach that beats all others - a short, 10-20 minute, nap. Short is the key here, as naps longer than that prove to have a negative instead of positive effect on productivity. Even though I am familiar with this idea from other research and books I have read, Pink proposed a new strategy that makes so much sense and elegantly calls it “nappuccino”. He is suggesting to drink a coffee and then go for a nap as it takes around 30 minutes for caffeine to kick in - a perfect natural timer to end the sweet dreams before letting the nap last too long, and thus lose its positive effect. He even has a one pager explaining this concept on his website.
In the next three chapters Pink touches on the different characteristics of beginnings, midpoints and endings. The beginnings are apparently of crucial importance as they set the stage for everything and remain in our memory for a long time. Pink gives strategies for avoiding a wrong start in the first place, and also suggests to trick yourself in restarting again in the case of an early failure in something. He encourages us to use or create space for new beginnings to gain the motivation to change things for the better. The midpoints are very special as they provide breaking points - it is very important to recognize them in any process and use these midpoint moments to inspire positive change, a way of finding a new beginning. One of the ways to find it is to imagine for yourself or communicate to others that they are behind, but just a little bit. As proven by the research of basketball games, this notion of being behind just a bit at half time, consistently boosts the effort right after this midpoint.
It is also important to consider that the endings are as powerful as the beginnings. The ends leave the strongest mark in our memory and we make our judgements based on the last experience much more than we realize. A hilarious example was a study which involved participants tasting five chocolates and consistently giving the last chocolate the highest rating only if they were explicitly told it was their last. Even though the research shows our clear preference for happy endings, it is not as simple as just having it all perfectly fine at the end. Pink writes that “the core of meaningful endings is one of the most complex emotions humans experience: poignancy, a mix of happiness and sadness.” (p.164) The best endings don't just leave us happy - they are bittersweet, leaving us with a more complex emotion, with a longing for completeness instead of just completeness itself. Pink quotes a screenplay guru Robert MsKee “Anyone can deliver a happy ending—just give the characters everything they want. An artist gives us the emotion he’s promised…but with a rush of unexpected insight.”
In the end, Pink suggests to pay special attention to the endings. One example is his advice to reconsider how we end our days at work - not to end it abruptly, or in a rush, but plan for some deliberate reflection, though gathering, a pleasant conversation, and maybe jot down a plan for the next day. Also, he is mentioning the technique proposed by Ernest Hemingway who used to deliberately leave a sentence or chapter “unfinished” at the end of the day thus planting the seed of creativity and unfinished business into the subconsciousness mind and creating an urge for the continuation the next day. This chapter also made me think of a saying passed to me by one of my wise fellow school administrators when talking about a decision of a teacher who was about to leave the school on questionable terms: “People remember you not by the way you come, but by the way you leave.” As a very creative final touch to the chapter on endings, Pink is leading by example as he offers the reader to get a free gift by sending him an email with their address. Let's see if it works!
Pink finishes with a chapter on the so-called group timing. He describes the collective work of dabbawalas, a group of around 5000 men who deliver around 200,000 lunches a day in the “jungle” of Mumbai with the precision of FedEx using only bikes and trains - no smartphones, no bar codes, no scanners and no GPS. He speaks to this incredible human capacity and our need for synchronization that has driven our progress. The overall point in this last chapter was the hardest for me to grasp.
In conclusion, the book makes a great overall impression, shows some great research, has lots of practical advice, and is definitely a fun read.
Remember: “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” — Miles Davis
Realizations of an Educational Leader
(after taking a walk, napping, and jogging on it):
We run schools with schedules that are not made taking into account the drowsy afternoons. Rather we are driven by the crowd control mechanisms meeting the principles of fairness and equity. The curse of afternoon fatigue is distributed with a schedule that ensures equal distribution of loads and timetables. I have seen some attempts to put math in the mornings, but I know for a fact that in a larger school, with teacher loads maxed, favoring one age group or teacher in the schedule would mean disadvantaging another. Looking ahead, I think we need to seriously consider having elective courses, arts, crafts, and such scheduled right after lunch with math and sciences early on, followed by language arts and social studies running in the late morning or late in the afternoon.
Nap Rooms and Lounges
The crowd management constraints described before also make it virtually impossible to have all teachers enjoy an afternoon siesta every day, but it is possible to have 1-2 days a week planned for that purpose for every teacher. I know that some will think of this as a crazy idea, but I would indeed strongly advocate for specially designed napping rooms, with bubble lamps, sound proof environment and a comfy vibe. Giving teachers an opportunity for a nap would increase their productivity. Kids? I have no idea or suggestion, but would support it, if someone would think of how to schedule and regulate it.
As to the lesson plans, all great teachers already realise the importance of the beginnings and endings. The so-called ‘hooks’ in the beginning set the tone for the exploration that follows and experienced teachers are indeed masters of priming. In the same way, a summary at the end, a strong consensus building routine, like using the so called 'exit tickets' is another widely used and research based practice. The exit tickets can be informal check-ins on the students' knowledge, a way of leaving a strong association by summarizing the content in some way or applying it to a broader context.
Besides, great teachers are by now fully aware of the benefits of the brain breaks - short pauses for movement, mini exercises, and stretches to boost performance in class.
What made me stop for a brief AHA moment is the importance of the mid-points and its implications. I think teachers could plan for such mid-points to create a mini break, a sort of reset point - a very relevant topic in my school where we run 70 min lessons now.
Schools are also a great example of the group timing and its importance. A school is running on a minute based schedule - lessons, transition breaks, snack breaks, lunch breaks, recess, advisory, staff meetings, after school activities - all running with a rhythm of a ticking clock every day. Ask a teacher how much can be done in 2 minutes and you will be amazed. What about a five minute transition break between a Senior class going out and Kindergarteners coming in to an Art class - can you imagine the routine? Therefore, as an admin I soon learned that timing and handling time plays a huge role in educational leadership and is vital for creating an efficient school culture. Nothing can be worse for a great group of teachers than constant late starts, delayed endings, unnecessary or lousily-planned meetings, or … students arriving to their class 5 minutes too early or 5 minutes too late every day. On the other hand, consistently organized and punctual events, well planned smooth transitioning, and a shared sense of valuing each other's time create a feeling of collective efficacy which is a research based hallmark of effective learning communities. It provides extra motivation and builds trust and respect for each other in this special educational orchestra called school.
The Great Dilemma
The insights of this book will surely make yet another contribution to what is becoming one of my most craved foods for thought these days - the great dilemma of modern education. The dilemma is that in spite of a huge spike in criticism directed at the educational system in the last decades, basically saying that the system is long outdated and therefore inefficient, not much has really changed even in the wealthy, private, independent schools. I am planning to contribute another grandiose post on this dilemma, but for now I want to say that the answer to it, to my mind, has lots to do with the notion of time. More specifically, our cultural paradigm about how we 'must' spend time as adults, as responsible members of our society - spending most of it at work, away from our own kids. If time is all we really have, why do we do it? Why do we ask just a few other unrelated adults to spend time with a whole crowd of our own kids? Why do we blame the school for not individualizing learning when we ourselves clearly present it with an obvious priority of crowd control? I will be looking for answers in another post.