When should you schedule that meeting—or find a new job? Is it time to start dating again? What’s the secret to an afternoon that drags just a little bit less? Every day we face questions of timing, but we have no guiding principles to answer them. In his new book, When, best-selling author Daniel Pink takes a comprehensive look at the psychology behind questions like these, offering practical advice on how to shape your day, your year, and your life. He answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.  

Talk to me about afternoons.
Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. 

Let me give you a few examples. Researchers at Duke University who analyzed 90,000 surgeries found that harmful anesthesia errors are three times more likely for procedures that begin at 3pm than at 8am.  Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that nurses and doctors in hospitals are significantly less likely to wash their hands in the afternoons than in the morning. Physicians are more likely to prescribe unnecessary antibiotics, thereby risking the rise of “superbugs,” in the afternoon. Endoscopists find only half as many polyps during afternoon colonoscopies compared to mornings ones. 

But it’s not just health. There’s a great study of 2 million Danish standardized tests that revealed that students who’d been randomly assigned to take standardized tests in the afternoon scored significantly lower than those randomly assigned to take them in the morning. The effect was equivalent to missing two weeks of school. Other research has shown that jurors are more likely to resort to racial stereotypes—convicting “Roberto Garcia” but exonerating “Robert Garner” on identical facts—during afternoon deliberations than morning ones. 

It’s scary. Fortunately, there’s an antidote: More breaks and better breaks.  Regular, systematic breaks—especially those that involve movement, nature, and full detachment—reduce errors, boost mood, and can help us steer around this Bermuda Triangle.

I was interested in your discussion of our biological clocks, and particularly the distinction you make between “insight” tasks and “analytical” tasks. Can you please explain this advice?
Analytic problems are those that require heads-down focus, attention, and vigilance. Think writing a legal brief or auditing a financial statement.  Insight problems are those for which methodical, algorithmic thinking don’t yield a solution and depend instead on flashes of insight. Think brainstorming or coming up with a name for a new project.

The reason this distinction matters is that we perform differently on these tasks at different times of day.  In general, people move through the day in three stages: A peak, a trough, and a recovery. And most us move through it in that order. (The roughly one in five of us who have “evening chronotypes”—night owls—generally move in the reverse order.)  During the peak, which for most of us is the morning, we’re better at analytic tasks.  That’s when we’re most vigilant, when we’re able to bat away distractions and concentrate deeply.  During the trough, which for most of us is the early-to-mid-afternoon, we should do our administrative tasks—answering routine emails, filling out expense reports. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, we’re better at insight problems.  Our mood then is better than during the trough. And we’re less vigilant than during the peak. That looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity. 

The trouble is that often we often don’t do the right tasks at the right time. We think questions of “when” are less important than questions of “what,” “how,” and “who.” So we squander our peak answering email, then try—often unsuccessfully—do our deep work during the afternoon. That’s a mistake. Research shows that time of day explains 20 percent of the variance on human performance on cognitive tasks. So timing isn’t everything. But it’s a big thing.

Why is the midpoint of something sometimes so thrilling, but other times such a bummer?
You’re right. Sometimes reaching the midpoint brings us down, sometimes it fires us up. And knowing the difference makes a world of difference.

Take midlife.  The idea of a midlife crisis is total bunk. But there is a pile of evidence showing a midlife sag—a droop in well-being. If you plot it on a graph, it looks like a U. Our well-being is high in our 20s and 30s, begins to drop in our 40s, reaches its nadir in our early 50s, and then begins climbing back up in our 60s, 70s, and, if we’re lucky, beyond. What’s remarkable is that this “U-curve” of well-being has been found in more than 70 countries around the world. It’s even found in great apes!  

Yet midpoints can also have the opposite effect. Connie Gersick, an organizational behavior scholar, has found that teams proceed through projects in a peculiar way. Instead of a steady, linear path to accomplishing their goals, they begin by doing very little. They hem. They haw. They posture. They procrastinate. It’s only at a certain moment that they sound the alarm and get moving. What is that moment? The temporal midpoint. Give a team 34 days to complete a project, Gersick found, and they don’t really get started in earnest until day 17. Give a team 11 days, and they get going on day 6.  At the midpoints, teams say, “Uh-oh, we’ve squandered half of our time. Let’s go!"

And some midpoints are especially motivating.  Research from NBA games showed that teams that are ahead at halftime are more likely to win the game. That’s not exactly shocking. They already have more points! But there’s an exception. Teams that are behind by one point at halftime are actually more likely to win than teams that are up by one. Experimental research has likewise shown that being slightly behind at the midpoint gets us to work smarter and try harder. 

How did you become interested in timing as a topic for a book? 
It was personal. I realized that I was making all kinds of “when” decisions in my own life, but I was making them in a haphazard, brainless way. I looked around for some guidance on how to make those decisions better. It didn’t exist. So I began digging into the research and found a veritable trove of material. It took me two years to work through the studies, to analyze them and sort them into something comprehensible.  But what I found really changed my own behavior and my own understanding of just how important timing is. In a sense—and this might sound silly—I wrote this book in order to read it.