Using the Science of Good Timing to Pass the Test, Get the Job, and Live a Meaningful Life

“There’s research showing that time of day explains about 20% of the variance in how people perform on cognitive tasks. That’s a big deal.”

READ ON TO DISCOVER:

  • Why you should drink coffee just before taking a nap
  • How to design your brain’s ideal workday
  • Why graduating in a recession means less cash—but more happiness—decades later

One of the world’s foremost thinkers on business and social science, Daniel Pink is the author of several groundbreaking books on work and behavior, including his most recent bestseller, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect TimingAdam Grant is an organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, and the #1 bestselling author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. He recently hosted Daniel in the latest installment of the Authors@Wharton Speaker Series, where the two discussed why good timing isn’t a mysterious art but a science that can be learned—and perhaps even mastered.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.

Adam: I’ve read a lot of how-to books, but [When] is the first when-to book I’ve ever read. One part of the book made me really angry because you wrote that I should take naps. I hate naps—I always feel like a soggy piece of French toast afterward. Why should we take them?

Daniel: Well, there’s a rich body of science showing that naps operate as Zambonis for our brain. Over the course of the day, we have all these nicks and scuffs on our mental ice, and naps smooth those out.

You seem to have a rigidly anti-nap ideology, but here’s the thing—back in the day, I had the same view of naps as you did. When I would take a nap, I would wake up feeling bad and French toast-like. I would also wake up feeling deeply ashamed of myself, because I felt [like napping] was some kind of moral weakness.

What I discovered is that I was doing it wrong. There is a better way to nap. What the research tells us is that the best naps are really short—10 to 20 minutes long. That’s it. Beyond that is sleep inertia—what you describe as “French toast”—where you sleep so long that you have to dig your way out of the negative effect before getting the positive effect. So super-short naps are the best.

The single best nap you can have, bang for the buck, is the following: I will sit in a chair, put on noise-canceling headphones, [and] put my feet on a little ottoman. Then, I will have a cup of coffee, down it pretty quickly. Then I’ll set the timer on my phone for 25 minutes, and I will close my eyes.

Now, I can usually fall asleep in 10 to 12 minutes. Let’s say I fall asleep in 12 minutes—that gives me a nap of 13 minutes. That’s pretty good, actually; it’s in the 10 to 20-minute sweet spot.

But here’s where it gets interesting. It takes about 25 minutes for caffeine to get into our bloodstream. So remember that coffee that I had? Just as I’m waking up—minus the sleep inertia—I get that hit of caffeine; I get a double-whammy. That’s the scientifically ideal nap, and it’s called a “Nappuccino.” I encourage you to take one.

boy i sure am sleepy

Adam: I do like the way you describe it, [even though] I still can’t imagine waking up feeling refreshed.

So is there a “when” on naps? Is there a right time to take [one]?

Daniel: A lot of the research on the “when” of doing stuff gives us not “Do this at this particular time for this amount of time,” but broader design principles that we can apply to our life.

Basically, [people often go] through the day like this: a peak, a trough, and a recovery. That’s our pattern of mood, and also our pattern of performance in some intriguing ways. For 80% of us, our pattern goes up, it goes down, it goes back up again.

Now in the recovery stage, you see elevated mood and less vigilance. That makes it a good time for brainstorming, [and other] things where you want be a little bit looser. We’ve all been in brainstorming sessions where someone is hypervigilant, saying, “That’s a stupid idea, that’s a stupid idea, that’s a stupid idea.” [In the recovery stage], higher mood and less vigilance makes it a good time for creative work.

The research is telling us that we need to put a little more attention on [doing] the right work at the right time of day, because our cognitive abilities change throughout the day—and they change in significant but predictable ways. If we do our analytic work during the peak, our administrative work during the trough, and our creative work during the recovery, we can do a little bit better. There’s research showing that time of day explains about 20% of the variance in how people perform on cognitive tasks. That’s a big deal.

Think about what else explains variance in how people perform—some people are smarter than others. Some people are more conscientious than others. Some people have more advantages. But timing—that’s something you can do something about.

Adam: You wrote about some standardized tests that are staggering.

Daniel: It’s unbelievable. In Denmark, students take their standardized tests on computers, but the typical Danish school has more students than computers, so not everyone can take the test at the same time.

Two Danish researchers looked at two million standardized test scores in Denmark, and what they found is that students who take the test in the morning score [significantly better than] students who take the test in the afternoon. [In fact,] taking the test in the afternoon is equivalent to missing two weeks of school.

It’s an “Oh wow” [fact] for two reasons. One, we are making policy based on standardized tests, and there’s such a heavy effect of time of day. [And two,] we’re making decisions about these kids based on their standardized test score, when [maybe they] had been randomly assigned [to take the test earlier or later in the day]. It’s kind of terrifying.

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Adam: There’s a bunch of people thinking, “Hey, I wasted a lot of money on test prep. I could’ve just shifted the hour of the day.”

Daniel: Not a bad idea. I’m getting email from people who are taking certification exams saying, “When should I take it?” If you take a test in the morning, it’s not like you’re guaranteed to do well. But if you’re [a morning person] and you have a 10% chance of getting a great score, you can maybe dial it up to 13% if you take it in the morning. It’s still an 87% chance you’re not gonna do well, but I’ll take that jump from 10% to 13%. It’s a 30% increase! Over time, those things really pay off.

Adam: We can’t always control the time that we get scheduled to take a test or interview for a job. But there’s an interesting shift in the data with one group of students who take a test at the wrong time but still do better.

Daniel: Oh yeah, this is actually a remedy for a lot of what happens during that [daily] dip. If you give those kids a 20-30 minute break, and they run around the playground, their scores not only go back up, but go a little bit higher.

I was blown away by the research on breaks. And you can extend this into things like recess, where you have many school districts pulling back on recess in the name of raising standardized test scores, in fact, you might want to do the exact opposite.

Adam: I’m curious, what are we supposed to be doing during our breaks? Adult recess?

Daniel: That’s not a terrible idea, actually. We should be taking more breaks, and the kinds of breaks we should be taking is one of those areas where it distills very nicely into some design principles.

Here’s what we know—number one: something is better than nothing. A one- or two-minute break is better than no break at all. The second thing is that moving is better than being stationary. Outside is better than inside. The research has been around for a while—the replenishing effects of nature are just amazing.

This is a really interesting one: social is better than solo. Breaks with other people are more restorative than breaks on our own, even with introverts.

And then the [last] one: fully detached beats semi-detached. So you want to leave your phone behind, you want to not talk about work—you just want to detach. And in terms of length, it can be 10 or 15 minutes.

So there is a Platonic ideal: a ten-minute break with friends, walking around outside, leaving your phone behind, and talking about something other than work.

“There’s research showing that time of day explains about 20% of the variance in how people perform on cognitive tasks. That’s a big deal.”

Adam: Shifting gears, I think there’s some bigger questions about life decisions here. Growing up, my mom always told me that everything in life is timing—you can meet the same person but not fall in love with them if you met them at the wrong time.

And I hated hearing that, because it means that so much of our lives is out of our control. And yet you’re saying there are things that you can control. Like timing a job interview for example—could you talk to us about when it’s best to be the first candidate interviewed versus taking the last slot?

Daniel: On the first point, what your mother is talking about is essentially fortune, circumstance, luck—and that’s a big factor in our lives. We don’t like thinking about that, we don’t like talking about the utter randomness of the things that happen to us. It’s disturbing. But there are some things we can control.

Let’s talk about job interviews—there’s a sequence effect. Most jurisdictions [for voting] have randomized ballots, but there’s a huge advantage of being first on a ballot. When else is it of value to go first? It’s better to go first when you are not the default candidate.

A lot of times, decision makers have a default in their back pocket. For things that are kind of binary—“yes” or “no”—the default answer usually is “no”. If you go ask a boss for a raise, the default answer is “no”—your boss has “no” in her back pocket. If you’re in sales and you ask somebody to buy something, the default answer is “no”. If you ask somebody out for a date, the default answer is “no.”

So when are people likely to overcome the default? They’re more likely to overcome the default earlier in the day than later. So if you’re first and you’re not the default candidate, you have a little bit of an edge.

If there aren’t that many candidates, going first has an advantage. If there are limited candidates and strong candidates, you’re also better off going first [because of] the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is saying, “I flipped a coin four times and it was heads, heads, heads, heads… [The next time I flip,] it can’t [possibly] be heads again!”

The Gambler’s Fallacy in decision making is that somebody sees, “Great candidate, great candidate, great candidate… The fourth? Well, I can’t have four great candidates in a row, so I’m actually going to mark down the fourth one.” [So amongst] a limited number of strong candidates, you’re better off going first.

If you are the default, you’re better off going toward the end. Because later in the day, in general, people will [lean] toward the default decision. You’re also better off going last if there are a lot of candidates, [due to] the recency effect.

The thing that is probably most germane for real life is that if the decision makers are not totally clear on the criteria, you’re better off going later. Because a lot of decision makers—even in job interviews—will use those first interviews to figure out what it is they want. So they basically use the other people to establish their criteria, and then you come along: “Ah, that’s what I was looking for!”

Those are some rules of thumb, and again, you need to recognize that you’re just turning the dial. You’re increasing probability by a few points. But if you can increase your probability from 12% to 17% and you go on eight interviews, that’s pretty good.

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Adam: So [let’s say] I’ve taken my first job out of college or MBA program, and then I have to decide when to leave that job. How do I decide when to quit?

Daniel: People are most likely to quit on the one-year, two-year, three-year anniversary of their job, these temporal markers.

At the most satisfying jobs, people have control, and they’re challenging. So think about a job that is in your control but not challenging—you’re bored. Think about a job that is not in your control but is challenging—you’re going to burn out. Think about a job that’s neither—you’re just adrift. A job that’s both in your control and challenging is a good job.

So project out to your anniversary and think, “Which of these squares will I be in?” If you can’t get to [the right] square, then I think it’s time to consider leaving.

The other thing that comes out is the research on the salary benefits of switching jobs, which was surprising to me. Take two similarly situated people, Fred and Ed. They both graduated from college, they’re the same level of ability, but Fred graduates in a recession, Ed graduates in a boom. That shows up in their wages literally 20 years later—Fred is still behind. The unemployment rate when you graduate from college is a predictor of what your wages will be 20 years later, which is terrifying.

Why is this going on? What matters really is that Fred has far less mobility than Ed. Ed takes a job, and Ed is looking for the right match for his skills. You don’t usually get that right away, so you will often switch to figure out, “Oh, this is what I’m good at, this is what I’m not good at.” Switch. “Oh I stink at that, but I’m pretty good at that.” Switch. That allows you to find the right work for your skills.

“Some people have more advantages. But timing—that’s something you can do something about.”

Also, within those changes is a pay increase. So Ed finds his way to the right match for his skills far earlier, which leads to the higher wages. Whereas Fred says, “This is a terrible match. I want to leave, but the labor market is too muddy—I can’t do that. So I’m going to stay at this job, then when the labor market finally tightens up, I can move.” He’s not making these matching moves as quickly—he’s already lost a couple of years, and it adds up in a fairly terrifying way.

Adam: So Ed was doing more job-hopping and getting a higher salary—the data suggests that Ed is going to be richer, but less happy. Emily Bianchi has these studies that show people who graduate during economic recessions are happier with their jobs 20 years later because they’re grateful to have jobs, and the people who graduate during a boom are like, “Wow, I could have a much better job. My life is terrible.” So can you help us get both wealth and satisfaction?

Daniel: Um, no—I think that’s actually a really good point. In a tighter job market where there are more opportunities and more hopping, you inevitably trigger social comparison, which corrodes our sense of well-being. If you’re in a situation where you are lucky to just have a job, you had the career equivalent of a near-death experience, and you’re grateful. You’re satisfied with what you have.

I think there’s a way to square the circle here, which is basically have the benefits of the economic success, but use other techniques to mitigate or dampen the social comparison aspect.

You actually offered up one [technique] to me when we were together [once]. It’s basically, “Don’t compare yourself, because I don’t care how well you do, there’s always someone who’s doing better.” So instead of comparing yourself to others, compare yourself to yourself five years ago. I think that’s actually really healthy. That could be a decent way of saying, “Hey, even though Joe Schmutz over there worked for a hedge fund and is now a gazillionaire, I’m a lot better than I was five years ago. I’m actually making a decent living and supporting my family.”

Also, focus on other virtues besides money. Focus on, “Do I have meaningful relationships? Do I have a sense of purpose?”