Summary: When by Daniel Pink


Ala Daniel Miessler, one of my unofficial mentors, I’ve taken to doing a lot of note-taking and summarizing while I read. Also per his suggestion, it seems the best place to store these things is online in my blog so I can recall what I learned later without digging through old files.

Emotional Balance Based on Time of Day

What Daniel seems to describe as “emotional balance” is an aspect of any individual that I found hard to define. He’s described it as having feelings of positive emotions and ties characteristics like ability to focus and having self-confidence to this aspect. Daniel demonstrates that average emotional balance has been mapped by researchers and seems to follow a common pattern:

  • It would be at it’s absolute lowest first thing waking in the morning (around 7AM for most).
  • It would peak around noon, followed by a sharp decline that extends into the mid-afternoon (around 4-5PM)
  • It steadily climbs to its peak at late night (around 9PM)

What does this mean from a practical standpoint? Daniel says that you should utilize the time when your emotional balance is at it’s height to perform tasks or plan for meetings that require the most focus. These can be taking exams (research shows that, all other parameters being equal, students will do worse on the same test if taken in the afternoon vs. the peak emotional balance time just before noon), having an important meeting regarding a raise or a big presentation that must be given (the listeners will also be at peak focus as well), or have important conversations.

Note for coffee drinkers - Pink recommends abstaining from your coffee until 40 minutes to an hour after your initial wake-up time. This is when your cortisol levels will likely have settled and your body will get the maximum benefit from this immediate caffeine intake.

There are times when being too focused can be detrimental, usually related to relaxed or creative endeavors. Your time should be optimized so that your peaks can be used for focus-related activity and your troughs can be used for creative activity.

All this being said, your peaks and troughs may differ based on your chronotype, which you can determine likely using the MCTQ test. He brings up an interesting point that, biologically, our society seems to be fighting our natural chronotypes. For example, teenagers are natural owls who stay up and wake late, yet are forced to wake earlier for school than at nearly any other age.

Taking Breaks

Daniel has entire chapters on optimization of your breaks and the importance of them. He describes bodies of research that dictate the benefits of a short break on a full workday or even just a long task that had me convinced to take more breaks. He also talks a little bit about the history of breaks: how the Spanish Siesta, once a staple in Spain, was removed in order to compete with modern workplace demands; or how the Bible and Koran talk about mid-day breaks in the cultures of their time. It begs the question, what happened to the break?!

He states the following advice pretty plainly:

  • Have at least 3 small and planned breaks a day
  • Your breaks, including your lunch, should be detached.
    • They should be away from work and work-related distraction like your phone.
    • Make them social if you can, and with who you want.
    • If you can go outside, do so.

One section that was very interesting to me was this idea of a perfect nap, which Daniel describes as follows:

  1. Keep your nap between 10-20 minutes - Any longer than 20 minutes will produce “sleep inertia” which is when your body tells itself that it must be going to actual sleep and prepares other bodily functions. This is when you might wake up from just a one hour nap with major headaches if you need to rush back out the door. Just set a nap timer for 25 minutes (it takes about 7 minutes to enter the relaxed nap state).
  2. Drink a serving of caffeine immediately before napping - This was interesting to me as I thought it would be counterproductive, but if you follow the previous step then you should be fine. Caffeine takes, on average, 25 minutes to “activate” so you’ll get an immediate second wind on top of your usual nap.
  3. Have your nap between 2-3PM - For an average chronotype, this is where your emotional balance will be at it’s lowest due to fatigue.
  4. Repeat this as often and consistently as you can - Nap at work if you can. I personally bought a Bluetooth sleep mask to see if I can try to catch a nap on our work couch.

Temporal Landmarks

Temporal landmarks are, by definition, periods of time in your life that you assign special meaning to, despite the day having no actual intrinsic or cosmic value.

Beginnings - It can be beneficial to actually identify and mark temporal landmarks in your life in clear sight that would mark a new beginning in order to instill an objectively powerful motivator for change and drive. These can be as often as every Monday, or as uncommon as a Birthday.

Middles - Adherence to any given program will naturally follows a U-shape for various reasons, where your motivation dips in the middle but will be at it’s highest at the beginnings and when you near the end. Just recognizing this has helped me immensely, but Pink recommends various methods such as:

  • Breaking your programs into smaller individual landmarks.
  • Chaining (the Seinfeld Technique) - Jerry Seinfeld has a physical calendar that he marks big red Xs on every day that he writes for his shows and stand-up. As your chain of red Xs gets bigger, your motivation will actually increase due to the crap

Endings - Endings can also be immensely powerful. Marathon runner attendance surges around the ages wtih nines, likely due to individuals being powerfully motivated to finish a decade of their lifespan with a large personal achievement. A piece of chocolate can taste better when you know it’s the last piece you’re going to get.

Pink also notes that, much like beginnings, endings of a given event really stick out in our minds, whereas the middle can get very muddy. You can keep this in mind to give more objective judgement of a restaurant or interaction, but can also use it to your advantage to cap off an interaction with something that takes more effort and provides more impact.

Syncing with Groups

Pink gives fascinating insight into the dabbawalas, a group of delivery men in Mumbai tasked with bringing meals cooked by families to individuals at work. While this isn’t verified, it’s believed that the dabbawalas are legendary in their dedication, punctuality and, most importantly, synchronicity that allows them an error-rate of 1 in 16 million claimed by one of their organizers.

What does this mean? I took this chapter to mean that humans are inately social and that productivity and possibly even happiness stems from cohesiveness and communication between individuals. As a Fraternity man, former Boy Scout (current Eagle Scout) and former team athlete for both football and lacrosse these ideas seemed to resonate with me.

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