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Daniel Pink: Viewing Time as a Science, Not an Art

  • By Andrew Deichler
  • Published: 11/2/2020


For treasury and finance professionals, timing is imperative. But while many people are very efficient creating schedules for all of their responsibilities, few actually take a good, hard look at how time itself impacts productivity.

In the second week of AFP 2020, keynote speaker Daniel Pink, New York Times bestselling author, provided attendees with a look at the importance of timing in their professional and personal lives. “Research on timing captures the entirety of the human experience,” he said.


Pink first began his research on timing while pondering how he was scheduling his own work. “I was asking myself, ‘When should I do my writing? When should I do my research? When should I take a break? When should I do meetings? Even more broadly, when should I start a project? When should I abandon a project that isn't working?’”

What Pink came to understand was that we tend to view timing the wrong way, as an art and not a science. “When we make our timing decisions in our individual lives, in our organizational lives, we tend to make them based on intuition,” he said. “We tend to make them based on guesswork. We tend to make them, in some ways, by default. And that's a mistake. We should be making them based on evidence, based on science.”

The time of day can severely impact performance, but the most productive time of day can differ greatly when looking at different professions and industries. For example, Olympic athletes tend to record their best times in the late afternoon or early evening. “So the difference between an Olympian swimming at, say, around 5:00 in the evening and an Olympian swimming, say, earlier in the day is often the same as the difference between the gold medalist and the silver medalist, which is really kind of astonishing,” Pink said.

Conversely, analysis of over 26,000 earnings calls over 6.5 years found that afternoon calls were more negative and combative than calls held earlier in the day. And perhaps the most unnerving statistics came from the healthcare industry; Pink noted that the quality of care people receive can differ greatly depending on the time of day. Doctors are far less meticulous in afternoon appointments. “Don't go to the hospital in the afternoon if you can avoid it,” he said.

To maximize their potential, financial professionals need to determine at what time during the day they are at their “peak” or their most productive. They also need to know when they are at their “trough” or their least productive. And lastly, they need to understand when are in their “recovery,” or the time after the trough when their mood is back up but not to the point it is during the peak. These times vary from person to person, but once you determine yours, you can begin to schedule your activities around them accordingly. For example, you don't want to do your most important work during your trough, and you don't want to do busy work during your peak.

Pink provide attendees with three key takeaways on daily timing:

  • Be much more deliberate and intentional in scheduling individual and teamwork.
  • Move analytic tasks to the peak, administrative tasks to the trough, and insight tasks to the recovery.
  • Take more breaks, and take breaks that are social, moving, outside, and fully detached.


Time of day isn’t the only aspect of timing that can have a major impact on our lives. We must also consider episodic timing. Our lives are essentially a series of episodes, and episodes have beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings, in particular, can be incredibly critical. For example, research shows that people are less likely to become CEO of a large company if they graduate from business school during a recession. “It is quite remarkable, the outsize effect that beginnings have on the total trajectory of our careers, which is worrisome for all of the young men and women who are graduating from college right now in a very tough economy,” he said.

Midpoints can also have a lasting impact. A joint study by a pair of professors from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago looked at more than 18,000 NBA games to determine whether the score at halftime predicted the final score. Their research revealed that, unsurprisingly, teams leading at halftime are more likely to win than teams trailing at halftime.

More interestingly however, is that the study also found that trailing slightly at halftime can give a team an edge. Teams that were down by one point at halftime were more likely to win than teams that were ahead by one point. “Being down by one point at halftime in the NBA is as advantageous as being ahead by two points,” Pink said.

Lastly, endings are also important because they can be crucial motivators. Pink noted that the average age that people run their first marathon is 29. Why is it that people who are 29 are two times as likely to run a marathon as people who are 28 or 30? Is it because they 28-year-olds believe that they will be in better shape in year? Unlikely. Is it because 30-year-olds believe they are past their prime? Also, unlikely.

Pink posits that people tend to run marathons at 29 because they realize a decade in their life is ending and that motivates them to do something. This is backed up by data that shows that people are also likely to run their first marathon at age 39. Likewise, 49-year-olds are three times as likely to run their first marathon as 50-year-olds.

“So we think about a project—beginning, middle and end,” he said. “We have a process for how we report earnings—beginning, middle and end. So much of our lives are episodic, and yet the beginnings, middles, and ends of things exert this quiet influence on us. We're often unaware of it, but it has a big effect. And if you're slightly more aware, you can do things a little bit differently.”

Listen to Daniel Pink’s full session, The Science of Perfect Timing, here.

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