New Research on How Timing Affects Your Leadership

Published March 14, 2018

A fascinating new book by GLS faculty alumnus Daniel Pink (GLS 2010), When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, explores the relationship between timing and leadership effectiveness. Recently, the GLS team sat down with him to discuss his findings.

GLS:  As leaders, we are always searching for new ways to grow our abilities, invest in the people we lead, spread our vision and increase our impact. Often we invest time into discovering the “how” behind these skills; however, you would argue the “when” is just as important. How does learning the value of “when” have the potential to increase our leadership capacity and enhance our leadership skills?

Daniel:  What most leaders haven’t realized—but what the science shows very clearly—is that “when” has a material effect on people’s productivity, creativity and well-being on the job. One example is simply time of day. The research shows that our cognitive skills do not remain static over the course of a day. They vary, often considerably, in predictable ways.

Indeed, time of day effects can explain 20 percent of the variance in human performance on workplace tasks. That doesn’t mean timing is everything. But it is a big thing—and something leaders should be prepared to reckon with.

GLS:  In the book you share, “I used to believe that timing was everything. Now I believe that everything is timing.” What makes timing so important in our lives, and how can it actually affect the way we lead?

Daniel:  We are temporal creatures. Every cell in our body has a biological clock. And we live in a temporal environment. We move through time and organize our lives by its units. For some reason though, we’ve discounted this aspect of our lives. But it’s omnipresent, and knowing how to deal with it can make a world of difference.

GLS:  One timing strategy in your book is something you call “the nappuccino.” Talk about that.

Daniel:  This strategy is the recipe for a perfect nap. It turns out that the most effective naps are extremely short—between 10 and 20 minutes. Those deliver the restorative benefits of napping without what’s called “sleep inertia,” that groggy, boggy feeling we often get from sleeping too long. But the very best short nap has a twist. We should drink a cup of coffee right before napping. Since it takes about 25 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream, when you wake up, you’ll get an added boost. It’s called a nappuccino, and I swear by it.

GLS:  Why are endings important?

Daniel Endings—simply being aware of an end—dramatically shape our behavior. Endings can energize us. So the impending end of a decade is one reason why people are disproportionately likely to run their first marathon at ages 29, 39, 49 or 59. Endings help us encode—that is, to evaluate and record entire experiences. That’s one reason we should pay particular attention to how customer experiences, family vacations and work projects end. Endings also help us elevate, feel better and even seek meaning. In general, we prefer rising sequences to declining sequences at the end. That too can shape how we construct experiences and interact with others.

GLS:  You say, “Midpoints can bring us down. That’s the slump. But they can also fire us up. That’s the spark.” How can we take the midpoints in our own lives and leadership and turn them from slumps into sparks?

Daniel:  The recipe is fairly straightforward.

  • First, we should recognize midpoints. Any undertaking with a beginning and an end, by its very nature, has a midpoint.
  • Second, once we recognize the midpoint, we should consciously use it as a call to wake up rather than to roll over.
  • Third, one way to wake up is to imagine that you’re “slightly” behind.

GLS:  You suggest there are 86 days in the year when an individual can make a fresh start. What are those days and why are they significant?

Daniel:  Certain dates operate as what researchers call “temporal landmarks.” They stand out in time the way physical landmarks stand out in space. They get us to slow down, and then to perform a peculiar kind of mental accounting. On these “fresh start dates,” we relegate our old imperfect selves to the past and open up a fresh ledger on our new better selves.

This is why you’re more likely to start to be successful in sustaining a new diet, exercise plan or work approach if you start it on a Monday rather than a Thursday, on the first of the month rather than the 13th of the month or on the day after your birthday rather than the day before your birthday.

GLS:  In the book, you teach that each individual has a chronotype that can be determined through a tool in the book. Each reader can identify if they are a Lark, a Third Bird, or an Owl.  Why is it important for leaders to understand their chronotype?

Daniel:  Leaders should understand their own chronotype, but equally important, the chronotypes of those they lead. Whether we rise early and fall asleep early, or rise late and fall asleep late, plays a role in our performance and well-being at work.

GLS:  What is one step every leader can take to utilize the value of “when” to enhance their leadership?

Daniel:  One of the simplest has to do with endings. At some point, every leader says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Which should she deliver first? The conventional view is to give the good news first as a way to ease into the conversation and lay down a cushion before bringing down the hammer. But that’s the wrong approach. Research shows that most people want the “bad news” first. Why? Given a choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate. So the next time you’ve got good news and bad news to report, lead with the bad, and follow with the good. You’ll see the difference.

To learn more about the scientific secrets of perfect timing, check out Daniel’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.

About the Author(s)