[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.0] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries and part of the Self-Help for Smart People Podcast Network.
In this episode we discussed the secrets of perfect timing. Is there really a science to timing the most important things in life? Is it possible that something as simple as time of day could impact the effectiveness of doctors or other medical experts? Can you align your day to be more effective just by changing the time that you do certain activities? We dig into these questions and much more as we explore the truth about the power of time with Dan Pink.
In this episode, we discuss why the way we think about grit and willpower is fundamentally wrong. Self-control is one of the most research-validated strategies for long-term success, but the way we think about cultivating, it misses the mark. Emotions don't get in the way of self-control. They’re actually the path forward to sustainable and renewable willpower. How do we develop the emotions that underpin grit, self-control and achievement? We dig into that and much more with our guest, Dr. David DeSteno.
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I want to tell you about one of our earlier episodes this month. In our previous episode with Peter Shallard, we explored the gap that exists between learning and doing. Why it is that so many smart, ambitious people invest hours in their growth and development but failed to see breakaway external results for the time that they've invested? If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the things you know you could or should be implementing to level up your life and career, then that episode is going to blow your mind.
We explore what science is telling us about the actual execution of concrete individual growth and measurable upward mobility across various dimensions of life, which are the most effective tactic for moving yourself from learning to doing, with our special guest Peter Shallard.
That interview a couple of weeks ago is one of the most impactful and different interviews that we've done on the show. If you want to finally take action on what you been procrastinating on, listen to that episode. It will have a big impact on you.
Now for interview with Dan.
[0:03:28.4] MB: Today, we have another legendary guest on the show, Daniel Pink. Dan is the New York Times best-selling author of multiple award-winning books including his most recent work When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.
Dan has been named one of Thinker 50s top 15 business thinkers in the world. His TED Talk on the science of motivation is one of the 10 most watched TED Talks of all time and his work has been featured across the globe.
Dan, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:56.9] DP: Matt, thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.
[0:03:58.9] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on the show. Austin and I have both been big fans of you and your work for years and years and years. So we’re really excited to finally have you on here. I loved to start out with and kind of dig into some of the core ideas from your recent book When. When you talk about kind of timing, many people sort of bring this idea up. Is timing and art or is it a science?
[0:04:23.7] DP: I used to think that it was an art, but I'm not convinced it’s a science, because to write this book and try to figure out how to make better timely decisions, I realized that there is this incredibly vast body of research on timing. Everything from what’s the effective time of day on what we do and how we do it. How do beginnings affect us? How do midpoints affect us? How do endings affect us?
I think the challenge in this research and the challenge in this body of science is that it's really not a self-contained body. It is spread over many disciplines. So there's a research asking these questions in economics, and in social psychology, and also in anthropology, in cognitive science, in molecular biology. There’s a whole field called chronobiology. It's in anesthesiology, and epidemiology, and endocrinology. So the research is splattered across all these disciplines, and because the people in these individual disciplines often don't talk very much to one another, I don't think they fully realize that they’re asked the same questions.
[0:05:26.7] MB: I love how multidisciplinary kind of approach is. I men, one of the things that we talk a lot about on the show and one of my kind of intellectual heroes is Charlie Monger, who is a huge champion of kind of multidisciplinary thinking. So I think that’s great approach to pursue this sort of question of timing.
[0:05:42.7] DP: Yeah. Although I have to say just to be fair. I didn’t set out to take a multidisciplinary approach. I set out to find the evidence, and the evidence turned out to be in multiple disciplines. So, generally, when we have a choice, when we have a volition, yeah, I like to see things from different – From multidisciplinary perspective. But I actually discovered the multidiscipline rather than set out to be explicitly multidisciplinary.
[0:06:06.9] MB: That's really interesting. I mean, I think it comes back to this kind of fundamental premise that to be true, any discipline of reality, or academia, or whatever has to also reflect what every other discipline reflects, right? So to really figure out what's actually the case, and if we get into kind of the evidence and the science and kind of looking for truth in that sense, I think it all comes back to this idea that every discipline has pieces of the truth, and the only way to really get to the ultimate conclusion in a lot of cases is to kind of merge those types of things. I mean, behavioral and economics is another great example of kind of that cross disciplinary approach.
[0:06:41.7] DP: Sure, and I think it’s really good point and I actually think that the boundaries between disciplines are not fully arbitrary, but are much more porous than we believe. If you think about economics and social psychology, well, they’re both ultimately about behavior and decision-making and the endless tug between individuals and the context that they’re in. The fact that we label one economics and one social psychology is in some ways arbitrary and if you look at the boundary between social psychology and anthropology.
Anthropology is less experimental, but the underlying questions are in some ways similar. Again, I don’t want to get a lot of hate mail from social scientists, but they are different disciplines. In some ways that have different methodologies, but I really think the border the far more porous and the more we learn about the brain, the more we learn about even human physiology, the more we realize that the boundary between "behavioral science” and the “life sciences” are probably more porous than we realize too.
[0:07:49.1] MB: I want to come back to this kind of idea of timing, because I think we could go on about multidisciplinary thinking and how powerful it is, but one of the things that you said in the book that really kind of stuck out to me was this idea that we don't take when nearly as seriously as we take what.
[0:08:09.2] DP: Sure. I mean, it’s the heart of this book. We tend to be very intentional about certain aspects of our live when we think about our work lives. So what are we going to do? We’re intentional about that. We have a to-do-list. Who are we going to do it with? Companies have HR departments to figure out who gets to participate. But when it comes to when we do things, we think it doesn't matter, and the evidence shows it matters. It matters a heck of a lot. Even on the unit of a day, our cognitive abilities don't stay the same throughout the day. They changed in ways that can be fairly dramatic. When we do something depends on what it is we’re doing, and yet we tend to think of these questions of when as a second order, a third order issue, and it's not. I don't think the question that when are more important than the questions of what or who. But I think they’re as important. I think the evidence, that data, the research says that very clearly and loudly.
[0:09:03.9] MB: I think it's kind of funny. I mean, the listeners may not hear this in kind of the edited version, but we both actually already had like at least one thing we had to kind of edit out of this and retake and we typically record our interviews earlier in the day and we’ll get into kind of the daily architecture of this stuff kind of flows. I just think it's funny. We’re recording this now, 2 PM in the afternoon, and we are dead in the middle of the trough. So we’re both trying to kind of wake up out of the fog and do this interview.
But I'd love to get into that a little bit. So tell me about what is the science and the data say about how we should structure our kind of daily architecture and how our mood and our performance changes based on the day part?
[0:09:45.2] DP: So what we see in general is this, that most of us move through the day in three stages. There is a peak, a trough and a recovery. Most of us move through the day in that order, peak earlier in the day, trough middle of the day, recovery later in the day.
Now, when I say most us, that’s actually very important caveat. Some of this is determined by what’s known as our chronotype, which is basically our propensity to wake up early and go to sleep early or wake up late and go to sleep late. About 15% of us are very strong morning people. About 20% of us are very strong evening people, and most of us are kind of in the middle. So 15% of us are larks. 20% of us are owls. Two-thirds of us are what I call third birds.
The sequence in which you go through these stages depends on your chronotype, and the simplest way to think about it is owls and not owls, nighttime people and not nighttime people. 80% of us go through the day exactly as I suspect it, peak early, trough middle, recovery later. Owls are much more complicated. they might go through the day recovery, trough, peak, but the main thing is that they hit their peak late in the afternoon and early, sometimes even midevening. So why does this matter?
Let’s think about these three stages, and this goes to the point I made earlier about when we should do something depends on what it is we’re actually doing. During the peak, which are most of us is early in the. That's when we are most vigilant, and that’s the key word here, vigilant. What does is it mean to be vigilant? Vigilance means that you can bat away distraction. You can guard your cerebral gates. You can fight back against intruders, and that makes it the best time for what social psychologists call analytic work. That work that requires heads down, focus and analysis of writing a report, analyzing data, something like that.
During the trough, we’re actually not good at very much at all. It’s a very dangerous time of the day. You have a lot of problems at healthcare. You have arrived in auto accidents. Trough is the, as you were saying earlier, Matt, is a less than ideal time of day. So what we should be doing there is work that doesn't require massive amounts of brainpower or creativity or administrative work. Answering routine emails, whatever it is, the kind of garbage that all of us do day-to-day on the job.
They recovery period is actually really interesting. Again, for most of us, that’s late afternoon and early evening. The recovery period is really interesting. At that time of day, our mood has recovered. Our mood is higher and we’re less vigilant and that combination can be potent. That makes it a good time for things like brainstorming, iterative work where we’re able to exercise a little bit more mental looseness than mental tightness, and that's pretty much it, that what we should be doing is we should be doing our administrative work during the trough. We should be doing our analytic work during the peak and we should be doing our creative insight work during the recovery. The problem is that we don't do that. It goes back to this idea that we don't take the when as seriously as we take the what.
[0:12:49.7] MB: So I’d love to get into some of the research behind these conclusions about kind of the day parts and how our mood and behavior changes throughout the day. I know the data behind this is really robust in many cases. So I’d love to kind of hear that.
[0:13:02.7] DP: There’s so much interesting stuff, Matt, and what I think is interesting about this, again, and maybe it's analogous to the multidisciplinary research we’re talking about before, is how much we see the same patterns across different domains of life. Let me tell you what I mean by that. So let’s take education. There’s some brilliant research on student test scores in Denmark. This was done by Francesca Gino at Harvard and two Danish researchers. Something very peculiar, sort of natural experiment occurred in Denmark where students in Denmark take standardized tests as they do here in the United States. But in Denmark students take these tests on computers. That don't take them on pencil and paper.
However, the typical Danish school has more students and computers, so everybody can take the test at the same time. So they’re randomly assigned to take the test at different times of day, and it turns out that kids who take the test in the afternoon versus the morning score considerably worst. They scored as if they missed two weeks of school. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it, and that if taking a test in the afternoon is the equivalent in your performance of missing two full weeks of school. We see this over and over again in education where all times of day are not created equal when it comes to student performance.
You see this in big time in healthcare where some very alarming research out of the healthcare sector is showing that, for instance, hand washing in hospitals deteriorates considerably in the afternoon. Anesthesia errors are four times more likely at 3 PM than at 9 AM. Doctors perform colonoscopies find as half as many polyps than afternoon exams as doing morning exams. You see this in corporate performance, where there’s a great piece of research out of NYU, New York University, about the tone of corporate conference calls, earnings calls, and earnings calls in the afternoon are more negative, irritable and combative than earnings calls in the morning even when you control for the fundamentals of what earnings company is reporting.
So in every domain – I mean, basically in multiple, multiple domains, we see some fundamental tenets here about human performance, and one of them is that our cognitive abilities don't stay the same throughout the day. That's really important. Our brainpower isn't the same throughout the day. It changes. Some of those changes can be fairly dramatic so that the difference between the daily high point and the daily low point is often quite significant.
As I was saying before, when we do something depends on what it is that we’re doing, and that goes back to what we’re saying before. It's like, so we should be much more intentional about putting the right work at the right time, doing that heads down, lockdown focus work requiring vigilance during our peak period, which for most of us is morning. For Alice, it’s later in the day. Doing that more insight-driven brainstorming ton of research during the recovery period, which for most of us is late afternoon or early evening, and using the period in the middle of the day, which is generally a pretty bad period for stuff that isn’t a heavy lift, answering routine emails, doing that kind of thing.
[0:16:02.6] MB: I find the performance gap be pretty amazing. I mean, the Danish kind of schools example.
[0:16:08.4] DP: Yeah. It’s incredible.
[0:16:09.9] MB: Yeah, it was really, really fascinating.
[0:16:11.8] DP: It’s really incredible. I think the other thing that’s interesting about that researcher is also – I don't want to sound hopeless here, because there are remedies for this. So, I mean, the meta-remedy is being much more intentional about doing the right work at the right time. But the other more tactical remedy, in Denmark, and you see it with some of these other studies as well, is that one of the things that help give those scores a lift back up was giving the kids a break. Giving the kids a 20 to 30 minute break beforehand to get a snack and run around. When they had that, they afternoon test scores went up.
There’s another aspect of the science of all of these, which is that the science of breaks is proving to be really powerful. That we should be taking more breaks. We should be taking certain kinds of breaks. We see it in the research on handwashing in hospitals. One of the remedies for getting handwashing in hospitals backup was to give the nurses more breaks in particular, in that case, social breaks, breaks with other people. So if we go into the underlying evidence, we can get some clues about what's going on in our midst and how to do things a little bit better.
[0:17:16.1] MB: Yeah, I think the kind of theme of recovery and downtime and taking breaks is something we see again and again as kind of one of the most common and recurrent themes on the show. We've interviewed a number of people who are kind of top performance experts in that kind of stuff and they talk again and again about how critical rest and recovery is. So that's fascinating.
[0:17:35.9] DP: Well, here’s what I think about that. It’s interesting you say that, because my analogy here is that if you look at, again, the science. I think the science of breaks is where the science of sleep was 15 years ago, that I’d really do think that in this country we have a somewhat changed perspective on sleep that I find fewer people saying, “Oh, sleep when I'm dead,” or “Sleep is for wimps.”
I think that in the last 15 years or so, the science of sleep is deep and its hit some critical level of public consciousness. So at least somewhat less, people are not celebrating as much sleep deprivation and pulling all-nighters because we know it hurts performance. It doesn't help performance. That you shouldn’t be bragging about that, you should be ashamed of that. I mean, nobody would brag about saying, “Oh my God! I came into the office yesterday and was totally drunk,” and sleep of sleep has that kind of effect and I think we’re changing on that, on our approach to sleep. I think the same thing is happening with breaks.
Again, I don't have clean hands here because I'm someone who never took breaks and my attitude toward breaks was that breaks are for wimps, breaks are sign of weakness, breaks are concession, that amateurs take breaks, but professional don’t. As you’ve discovered on your show, it’s the exact opposite. Professionals take breaks. It’s the amateur that don't take breaks. But every once in a while a body of research, a body of science gets deep enough that it has some substance, but whatever collection of forces, it ends up hitting public consciousness and changing the way we approach our life. I think that is happening now asleep and I think that's on the brink of happening with breaks.
[0:19:11.4] MB: That's a really fascinating insight, and I think it's great way to kind of look at that, because sleep definitely has become more – People have started to realize how critical it is. We had an interview a couple of months ago with Dr. Matthew Walker, who’s one of the top sleep experts.
[0:19:25.9] DP: I recommend that book all the time. I’m spacing on the name of it, but it's Why We Sleep, something like that. But it's the best book on sleep science around.
[0:19:33.7] MB: Yeah. Yeah, he's a fascinating dude, and we’ll throw that in the show notes so listeners can did into that. But it's a great way to kind of conceive that, because you're right. I think there is still a huge stigma around taking breaks. You know what I mean? I can’t imagine going into a random fortune 500 company’s office and seeing somebody napping at 3 PM in the afternoon.
[0:19:52.6] DP: Yeah, and maybe they should be. Maybe they’d be performing better. It is a weirdly American thing, that is that somehow Americans, no matter where they come from, have absorbed some of this puritanical mindset where breaks are sign of not only like physical and intellectual laziness, but they’re a sign of moral weakness, and it’s just the wrong way to think about it. As I said, I'm a sinner in all of these, because that's what I used to think.
[0:20:23.5] MB: Yeah. I mean, I think I have the same belief, and even years ago, the same kind of conception about sleep and how it wasn’t important and all of this kind of stuff. The more you look at, whether it's the science and the data, people like Dr. Matthew Walker, or even the world's top performance experts, sleep, rest, recovery, it's so vital.
[0:20:41.4] DP: Absolutely. You have many NBA teams now have sleep consultants where they’re monitoring their players’ sleep where they're actually taking away some of the autonomy players have over the temperature in the rooms when the sleep. So sleep is a part of our performance. Just as breaks are part of our performance.
Again, I used to think that these things were deviation from performance. They were concessions that you had to make, but I actually think the better way to look at it is that breaks are part of performance itself.
[0:21:13.6] MB: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to kind of contextualize it.
[0:21:17.5] DP: So I want to come back and circle back to this idea of chronotypes and the three kind of different ways that people kind of live in the world and how they kind of interact with different day cycles. Could you tell me again and kind of share what were the three different types?
[0:21:32.5] DP: Sure. We have to think about it as a spectrum, but the three broad categories are — you can think of as morning people, evening people and intermediate people, or to put some feathers on it, larks, owls and what I call third birds. As I said, the distribution is about 15% of us are larks, 20% of us are owls and about two-thirds of us are third birds in the middle.
What that does is all that is it's a way of categorizing your propensity. Are you more likely to – Are you the kind of person who wakes up early and goes to sleep early? Or are you the kind of person that wakes up late to goes to sleep late? Or are you somewhere in the middle? That has an effect on how we navigate the day, that the patterns of the day, the hidden pattern of the day is somewhat different for these. It's different for every individual. There’s individual variation But in this broader group, there is variation in that larks are peak, trough recovery. Most third birds are peak, trough recovery. Owls are much, much, much, much, much more complicated.
[0:22:34.8] MB: It's really just to see me. I mean, I think you hear and kind of experience colloquially people saying, “Oh! I'm a night owl,” etc., etc. But there's actually a ton of science that kind of supports that conclusion.
[0:22:46.6] DP: Oh my God! There's a whole field called chronobiology that has devoted a huge amount of resources to this. It's relatively easy to figure out your chronotype. There is a something called a Munich chronotype questionnaire, the MCTQ, which you want to take online. You can also do it in a back of the envelope way by figuring out your midpoint of sleep on days when you don't have to get up to an alarm clock.
[0:23:09.3] MB: That's really interesting. So basically when you say midpoint of sleep, just take the time that you –
[0:23:13.6] DP: Yeah. Well, let’s do it for you, Matt. So let’s think about — What’s important here to do is think about what chronobiologists call as a free day. A free day is a day you don't have to wake up to an alarm clock and you’re also not massively sleep deprived. So you're sleeping and you can wake up when you want and you’d go to sleep when you want.
So, for you, when would that be? On a free day, you don't have to wake up to an alarm clock, but you're not massively sleep deprived so you’re not trying to catch up. When would you we typically go to sleep? At what time?
[0:23:37.0] MB: Probably 10 PM.
[0:23:39.8] DP: And then what time would you typically wake up?
[0:23:41.7] DP: Probably between six and seven.
[0:23:43.1] DP: Okay, so let's call it – I mean, just call it six, all right? So you wake up at six. What we’re trying to do here is figure out your midpoint of sleep. So your midpoint of sleep if you went to sleep at 10 and woke up at six, your midpoint of sleep would be 2 AM. Okay. So you're a lark definitely.
[0:24:00.3] MB: Yeah. I mean, I think I definitely am.
[0:24:01.8] DP: So if your midpoint of sleep is 3:30 AM or earlier, you're probably a lark. If it's 5:30 AM or later, you're probably an owl, and if it between 3:30 and 5:30, you’re a third bird. So that's fairly larky profile right there. So you’re probably in the 15% of people who are larks. So you’re going to go to the day probably peak, trough, recovery and your peak is probably going to begin earlier and end earlier than my peak. I'm not an owl by any means. I’m larky, but not a full-fledged lark like you.
So for you, someone like you, that start in the morning, relatively early in the morning, is going to be when you're most vigilant. So any work you have that requires vigilance is best done during that stretch of time.
[0:24:44.5] MB: It's funny I’ve kind of, before even discovering when I think I'd kind of stumbled into this daily architecture of having my first couple of hours of the day be all around kind of that proactive, most important tasks, kind of the important but not urgent kind of activities.
[0:25:00.2] DP: Absolutely, and that's hard to do. Most of us don't do that. Most of us know – And Eisenhower's famous 2x2 matrix of important and urgent, most of us neglect the important for the urgent and it takes some discipline and good set of choice architecture, a good pattern of choice architecture to get around that.
[0:25:21.6] MB: So there's a couple kind of variables that I'm curious if you looked at or stumbled upon in your research. One of them is fasting. Have you seen or did you uncover anything about how fasting, either positively or negatively kind of impacts energy levels throughout the day?
[0:25:37.5] DP: I not look at that. I’ve found a lot of the research on nutrition or whatnot somewhat internally contradictory and I didn't feel comfortable going full throttle.
[0:25:46.6] MB: Yeah, it’s a minefield.
[0:25:47.3] DP: Yeah exactly. I didn't feel comfortable. That said, I mean, there is research out there on – Certainly, there's a lot of research showing that calorie restriction, sometimes severe calorie reduction can aid in longevity. There is some research now and some practice out there on intermittent fasting. There is a very interesting line of research. Again, it's not in humans yet, called TRF, time-restricted feeding, which suggests that the key to weight control might not be what you actually eat, but when you eat it, and then if you can restrict your eating to a certain 12-hour period, like you never eat before 7 AM and after 7 PM, that that might be helpful for weight loss.
There are these more popular books with these various kinds. I've no idea how scientifically valid they are where you fast for two days and then eat what you want for five days. This intermittent fasting might have effect of rebooting or streamlining our metabolism.
[0:26:51.2] MB: Yeah. I mean, trying to step aside from the whole weight loss and that kind of question, because I know that can be a disaster. I was more curious specifically about kind of energy levels, but it sounds like you didn't necessarily go down that rabbit hole.
[0:27:01.9] DP: No, I didn't. I found that nutrition work a thicket. I really did.
[0:27:06.2] MB: Yeah. It is a thicket.
[0:27:08.4] DP: And I didn’t know how much guidance I can give readers based on the thicket. Maybe bushwhacking through that thicket, I wasn't sure I was going to get it right and I wasn't sure whether the people who are doing the research actually fully knew, because there are a lot of contradictions from study to study. I also feel like – And this is science, too, that, “Oh! What we thought two years ago about this is not right.” “Oh! What we thought two years before that, that’s not right either.” So whatever it is we’re thinking about today could be superseded by whatever it is that we discover two or three year attempts.
[0:27:43.1] MB: So this is kind of a related sort of just tidbit of a question, but did you find any research or look at all on the impacts of caffeine and kind of that peak, trough or daily energy levels?
[0:27:53.6] DP: There are some. For instance, I think there’s a pretty strong argument against having a cup of coffee as soon as you wake up, and the research – Coffee has a caffeine delivery mechanism. When we wake up, we start producing cortisol. It’s a stress hormone, and that's one of things that helps us wake up. We produce it naturally. It's part of what is waking up, and it turns out the caffeine can interfere with the production of cortisol.
So if you inject caffeine, immediately you inject caffeine while you're producing cortisol, it can actually slow the production arrest/stymie the production of cortisol. So what you’re better off doing is waiting an hour or so before introducing caffeine in the morning, because at that point your cortisol levels will have begun declining and you can then use the caffeine to bring up your levels of alertness.
There's also some interesting research on napping and coffee drinking. There’s a very strong argument in the science for taking very short naps. There is an even stronger argument for having a cup of coffee before taking a very short nap, because it takes about 25 minutes for caffeine to get into your bloodstream.
So if you drink a cup of coffee and then lie down and try to get a 10 or 12 minute nap, when you're waking up and set your alarm for 25 minutes, it takes you 5, 10 minutes just to fall asleep. You can nap for 12 or 13 minutes. When you're waking up, you are able to get the restorative benefits of the nap without the groggy-buggy feeling and the added bonus of a big dose of caffeine kicking in at that exact moment.
[0:29:30.3] MB: This is obviously kind of a sample of one, but I found that if I forgo caffeine completely, my energy level, let’s say it sorts of stays at like a 6 out of 10 throughout the day, and if I have it in the morning, my energy is like an eight or nine in the morning, but then I think it almost amplifies the kind of trough and the crash in the afternoon.
[0:29:49.6] DP: Sure. That sounds plausible. I mean, I don’t know the physiology well enough to draw to assert big, big claims about that, but that seems very plausible to me. I remember, human beings got by fine without caffeine for a long time.
[0:30:04.7] MB: So let's zoom out of this sort of nutritional rabbit hole and even further out of kind of the daily architecture component, and I want to get to the kind of idea of timing in a more macro sense in terms of life events and how those kind of – It impacts our lives in a broader sense. Can you talk a little bit about some of the conclusions that you’ve found and doing the work for the book?
[0:30:27.2] DP: Sure. I mean, what we have here is that our lives are in many ways a series of episodes. They’re not clear linear progression in many cases, and episodes have beginnings, middles, and ends, and beginnings, middles and ends each exert different effects on our behavior. So there’s a whole body of research on how do beginnings affect us. There’s a fascinating body of research on how midpoints affects us. Sometimes midpoints bring us down. Other times it fires us up. There’re some great stuff on endings. How do endings shape our memory? How do endings shape our mood? How do endings change our behavior? This stuff is as important as the day-to-day effects of biology and physiology, physiology and psychology on how we perform.
[0:31:10.7] MB: Let’s go deeper into that. So let's start with beginnings. Talk about how beginnings, kind of how do they shape us and what are kind of the implications of being in the beginning phase of something.
[0:31:21.9] DP: Well, it’s going to demand from domain to domain. For instance, you look at some of the research in economics, particularly from Lisa Kahn at Yale showing that the initial labor market of conditions when you graduate, basically – I’m don’t want to fancy it up. There’s a great research for instance from Lisa Kahn at Yale who found that the unemployment rate when you graduate college can predict what your wages are going to be 20 years later. So that somebody who graduate from college in a recession 20 years later is going to probably learn – A similarly situated person will earn less than someone who graduated in a boom time. So what the labor market is like when you first enter it has a big effect on our wages literally two decades later, which is a little bit alarming.
There’s also some great research from Katie Milkman at Penn, Jason Riis at Penn, Hengchen Dai was at Penn, now is a, I think, UCLA, about the importance of picking the right date to start something. So certain dates operate as what they call triggering a fresh start effect, where we do this weird form of mental accounting on certain days where we banish our bad, old selves to the past and open up a fresh ledger on our new selves. So what they found is people are more likely to start a diet or start a new exercise regimen or those kinds of positive behavioral changes, they’re more likely to start them on a Monday rather than on a Thursday, on the first of the month rather than on the 13th of the month, on the day after their birthday rather than the day before their birthday.
[0:32:52.6] MB: I can definitely see that. So with the kind of awareness of that knowledge, how do you think we should sort of think about shaping or changing the way we interact with the beginnings in our lives?
[0:33:04.9] DP: Again, I think it’s a question of intentionality, that is – So, for instance, you and I happen to be talking on a Thursday that is the 31st of the month. That's a really bad day to start something in general, because Thursday is not a fresh start date. The 31st is not a fresh start date. What we also know is that the first of the month is actually a pretty good for a start date. So you’re starting on the day before the first of the month. So if I were planning some kind of behavior change of my own, today would not be the ideal day to start it.
Again, it’s just simply being – Going back to your earlier question, Matt, it's like we don't take the when as seriously as we take the what. So we know what we should, “Hey, I need to stop eating meat,” or, “Hey, I need to exercise more.” But when we start doing that can play a role in how long we sustain the behavior.
[0:33:56.4] MB: That totally makes sense. I mean, I think the simplest way that I could kind of conceive of that is even just the birthday example. It’s really simple, right? If it's about to be your birthday, you want to go out and have a nice dinner and eat some cake and kind of let loose. You’re definitely not going to be starting a diet or kind of radically changing your life right before that happens.
[0:34:15.9] DP: No, but the day after your birthday is a very important for a start date for people.
[0:34:20.0] MB: So what about middles? What did you find about middles and how they kind of function in our lives?
[0:34:25.2] DP: Will, as I said, midpoint, two things. Sometimes they bring us up, sometimes they bring us down. So you look at the research on well-being over the course of a lifetime and it turns out that it's shaped like a U where we’re relatively happy in our 20s and 30s, begin to decline in our 40s, reach of bottom in our 50s and then start to take it back up in our 60s, 70s, and if we make it, 80s and 90s. Then you also see other kinds of patterns of behavior and how will people comply with rules and how diligent they are where at the beginning they’re very diligent, at the end they’re very diligent, but their diligence fades a little bit in the middle.
On the other hand, there's also research on the other side of that showing that teams, when they do team projects, they really don't begin their work in earnest until the middle of the project. So if a team has 35 days to finish a project, they’ll likely get started in earnest on day 18. The first 17 days, they won't do that much and it's only when they hit that temporal midpoint where they throw off old patterns and reengage and really get going.
Also, some research from the NBA showing that for NBA teams, basketball teams – Again, basketball is something where there is an explicit midpoint. Most midpoint are invisible to us. Basketball has a very visible midpoint. It’s called halftime. A horn goes off. We announce it. These researchers found that teams ahead at half time are more likely to win the game with one exception. Teams that are trailing by one point are more likely to win than teams that are ahead by one point, that being down by one at halftime is equivalent to being up by two in your win probability. So sometimes midpoint create a slump, sometimes they create a spark, and simply being aware of all that allows you to be volitional enough about it to do something about it.
[0:36:16.3] MB: In essence, midpoints are kind of these critical inflection points that can have a tremendous shift in one direction or another.
[0:36:22.9] DP: Absolutely, and they're usually invisible to us. That's a problem. So if we make them visible, we can be – Again, my word of the moment, intentional about what we do about it.
[0:36:33.5] MB: That's a great point. It's always hardest to kind of figure out when you're in the middle, right? The beginning are usually pretty clear, the ending is pretty clear, but the middle is the challenging part.
[0:36:41.5] DP: Right. I mean, certain project will have a certain duration and they’ll be a deadline or something like that and then you can work backward. But yeah, and that kind of ambiguity makes it tough sledding sometimes.
[0:36:50.2] MB: And coming to this idea of sort of endings and the importance of endings. I know you share a really funny example of when people typically run a marathon.
[0:36:59.9] DP: Sure. That’s the research from Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield showing that people are disproportionately likely to run their first marathon in years that end in a 9, so 29, 39, 49, 59. 49-year-olds are, for instance, three times more likely to run a first marathon than 50-year-olds, because this is another effective ending. If the end of something becomes salient, we kick a little bit harder.
[0:37:23.9] MB: That's fascinating. And again, I think it makes sense intuitively, but it's really interesting to see when the data kind of backs that conclusion up.
[0:37:31.4] DP: Oh, yeah.
[0:37:32.6] MB: So I think this is really interesting kind of conception that in many cases we don't prioritize or sort of de-prioritize the timing of things in our lives, but in reality that’s just as important as many other factors.
[0:37:48.7] DP: Yeah, absolutely right.
[0:37:50.9] MB: So for listeners who want to kind of take this concept of timing and the science of timing and apply it in some way concretely, what would kind of be a piece of homework that you would give to them in terms of kind of an action step they could implement in their lives to start being more intentional, as you said, about the timing of things around us both in our days and in the broader story of our lives?
[0:38:13.5] DP: Well, there are all kind of things. There are all kinds of things you can do. I think one of the simplest one is to make a break list, and I try to do this every day that I'm in my office, which is I will write down a certain time of day, let's say like 1:00 in the afternoon when I will take a break and I'll put it into my list of things to do that day at that particular time. So if I had a meeting or a phone call at a particular time of the day, I would never miss that. So I will go every afternoon, take –, I'm not going crazy here. At least one 10 or 15-minute walk around my neighborhood, and what we know about the design principles of breaks, it breaks our – That something is better than nothing. So even a short break is better than no break at all, that moving is better than stationary. So you're better off being in motion rather than just being plopped on the couch.
We know that social is better than solo. So breaks with another person are more restorative. We know that the best breaks are fully detached, that as you leave your phone at home, you leave your phone behind and you don't talk about work if you’re going out with somebody else. So scheduling one break every day to do something, like go walk around outside with somebody, like talking about something other than work can be really, really powerful.
Some of it also – I mean, among the other – There are so many in this book. There are so many huge. It’s just bursting with takeaways, some of which are going to depend on a particular person's experience or their perspective, but one of the things that think is useful for everybody is trying to track your daily behavior. So you can set your phone alarm to ring every 15 – Not every 15, every 45 minutes or an hour and 15 minutes or some like that and prompt two questions for you. How am I feeling right now on a scale of 1 to 10? How am I working right now on a scale of 1 to 10? If you chart that very simple set of self-reports, if you chart that over time, not bad.
[0:40:05.1] MB: So what would be a good kind of sample size to chart those, a week, two weeks?
[0:40:11.0] DP: I would try it for a week. Yeah, I’d try it for a week. Again, I think part of – There’s also one of the things that we should get better at is observing our own behavior and actually conducting small experiments. I wouldn't know the answers to a lot of stuff. This is one reason why in the digital world they do so much A-B testing. Facebook knows whether I'm more likely to click a royal blue button or an aquamarine colored button. They serve their customers both and see which one is more popular. I think there's a lot of room to do A-B testing in ourselves, A-B testing organizations, and we should go in and treat a lot of our performance out, and this is at the heart of your show, Matt. We should treat a lot of our performance as if we’re scientists.
Okay. What do scientists do? They have a hypothesis and they test the hypothesis. So I have a hypothesis that I’m going to do better doing my insight work starting at 5 PM, or maybe even later, 6 PM to 7 PM to do my insight work. Okay, that’s my hypothesis. Is it going to work? Let’s test my hypothesis. So go do that for a month or a week or two weeks or a month and then I see how it goes. If the hypothesis is right, great, I’ve learned something. If the hypothesis is wrong, great, I’ve learned something.
[0:41:20.7] MB: So I think there’s two kind of funny anecdotes about that. One is when you started talking about breaks and kind of making a break list, the first thing you said about it was, “I'm not going crazy here taking all kinds of breaks,” and I think it's just underscores what we talked about at the beginning the conversation, which is this idea that there's kind of this social stigma around taking breaks. It's okay if you want to take a break then. We’re going to allow you to take one.
I think the second piece, I love this idea of observing your behavior and kind of conducting small experiments. I mean, about a week ago I started – I was asking, I was really curious about this kind of caffeine and how it impacts people's energy levels to see if you'd seen any science behind it, but I started this experiment about a week ago where I’ve just kind of alternating days where I have caffeine and days where I don’t and seeing what my energy levels look like throughout the day and kind of trying to track that, “Okay. Is there sort of a repeatable pattern here, kind of peaks and troughs?” right?
[0:42:10.9] DP: Yeah. That’s the way to do it. Yeah, absolutely.
[0:42:14.0] MB: So for listeners who want to dig in more, who want to find you and your work, where's the best place to find that online?
[0:42:19.8] DP: They can go to www.danpink, D-A-N-P-I-N-K.com, www.danpink.com. I got all kinds of groovy stuff there, good videos. I’ve got PDFs of discussion guides for book. I get information on all the books. I’ve got other freebies and things like that. I do an email newsletter that’s free. I do something that I call a pink cast, which of these regular short videos with tools and tips and everything there is free.
[0:42:45.9] MB: Well, Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all of these insights and practical strategies. As I said, we've been big fans of you and your work for a long time, so it's great to have you on here to kind of share some insights with the listeners.
[0:42:57.7] DP: It’s been a pleasure, Matt. Thanks for having me.
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