What Daniel Pink can teach principals about timing

Happy spring! I hope your school year has been fantastic. Mine has been a bit hectic due to seven snow days, which caused rescheduling of, well, everything. Luckily, I’ve been reading When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink, which has helped me understand that the timing of when I make decisions can be a big deal.

I found this book so valuable that I purchased both the hard copy and audio versions, which come with the Time Hacker’s Handbook, a must-have. When contains a wealth of interesting and important information that I just can’t do justice to in one blog post. However, I can highlight some key points to save you time and pique your interest in reading more. Here are my top takeaways.

1. Research says timing matters

Have you ever wondered, “Can the when of things improve your health? Is it really true that important decisions should not be made in the afternoon?” Daniel Pink opens up his book with these tantalizing questions, making you want to know the answers. I mean, if doing something at a certain time can make a big difference, then let’s make sure we know as much as we can about the science of why.

Many of us believe that timing is an art, and we rely on our intuition to make decisions. In his book, however, Pink shows us that scientists have discovered that timing can provide insights into human behavior, and he shares practical advice for working more efficiently and living better.

2. Discover who you are

The first thing Pink encourages his readers to do is discover what our chronotype is. That’s everyone’s natural inclination to sleep at a certain time, and it also includes when we feel most energetic. Knowing your chronotype will help you determine when to do those important thinking-and-decision-making tasks versus when to do more fun, creative tasks or tasks that don’t require much thinking at all.

You can begin to identify your chronotype by asking yourself three questions, as outlined in the book. Try to think about the times that work best for you when you’re not constrained by a schedule, like making it to your Monday morning staff meeting.

  • What time do you usually go to sleep?
  • What time do you usually wake up?
  • What is the middle of those two times?

I typically go to bed at 10 p.m. and get up at 6 a.m. The middle point of my pattern is 2 a.m.

To further help us identify our chronotype, Pink shared work by researcher Till Roenneberg, an expert in chronobiology, that categorizes us all into three big buckets, based on our midpoint of sleep. We are all either a lark, third bird, or owl depending on our midpoint of sleep:

  • Lark: If your midpoint is 12:00–3:30 a.m., you fall into this category, along with about 14% of the population.
  • Third bird: If your midpoint is 3:30–6:00 a.m., you and about 65% of the population are a third bird.
  • Owl: If your midpoint is 6:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m., you are an owl. So is about 21% of the population.

Pink goes on to explain that studies on how brain power is impacted by time of day have yielded three key findings. First, cognitive abilities fluctuate throughout the day. Second, fluctuations in cognitive abilities are more significant than most people realize. And third, task performance depends on the nature of the task. Knowing your chronotype can help you better understand when your cognitive abilities are at their peak.

While knowing your chronotype is important, it’s also worth noting that your chronotype changes as you age. According to Roenneberg, most people become more of a lark as they get older.

3. Expect a dip about seven hours after you get up

In chapter two, Pink focuses on explaining how, for most of us, cognitive fluctuations occur around seven hours after waking. That makes 2 p.m. a potentially dangerous time for me to make big decisions.

It was eye-opening for me to begin to understand how the rhythm of my daily routine affects me and others. For example, research cited in chapter two shows that the probability of a problem during a healthcare procedure increases significantly as the day progresses. Anesthesiologists with a regular day shift have a 1 percent probability of making a mistake at 9 a.m., but by 4 p.m., the chances of making an error increase to just over 4 percent. Similarly, research into colonoscopies shows that doctors detect fewer polyps later in the day. These trends can be life-threatening, and the data left me wondering how I can take extra care when making decisions for my school in the afternoon.

4. Rest

How can we keep our cognitive abilities sharp? The answer is simple: take a break! Pink shares more studies on this, including one on how breaks can make a huge difference in how kids do on tests. He offers some guiding principles on what a break should look like:

  • Choose a short break over no break. Just a few minutes can do wonders for productivity.
  • Get up and move. A walking break, even if it’s a short one, can improve your energy and focus.
  • Find a break buddy. A few minutes for social connection can help you manage stress and improve your mood.
  • Go outside. Fresh air and plants are incredibly restorative. If you can’t get outside, finding an indoor break spot near plants can be beneficial, too.
  • Put your phone down. Gadgets distract us more than we realize, and sometimes they cause stress, too. Take a phone-free break when you can.

Following this advice in my busy school schedule has been a challenge, but it’s been worth it. By making sure I’m at my cognitive best each afternoon, I can contribute to a safe and effective school environment. I’ve been taking five-minute walks outside with a few colleagues whenever I can. It’s been so invigorating that we now set an alarm to remind us to take breaks together.

Worth your time

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink is a treasure trove of insights and practical tools for mastering the science of timing. I encourage you to grab a copy, dive in, and explore the fascinating world of chronotypes and circadian rhythms. Take notes, highlight your favorite tips, and start making smarter decisions about when to tackle your most important tasks. Trust me, you won’t regret it!

If you’d like more resources related to Pink’s book, check out the resources on his website. I also really like the talk he gave at Google in 2018.


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