Thought Leader In­ter­view:

Daniel Pink

Rotman Management Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Karen Chris­tensen

For those of us who thought Twin Peaks was just a weird TV show, tell us a bit about the hid­den pat­terns of ev­ery­day life.

Be­havioural re­searchers have found that we ex­pe­ri­ence a con­sis­tent and strong bi­modal pat­tern — ‘twin peaks’ — dur­ing the day. Our pos­i­tive af­fect — when we feel ac­tive, en­gaged and hope­ful — climbs dur­ing the morn­ing hours un­til it reaches an op­ti­mal point around mid­day. Then our mood and en­ergy plum­met and stay low through­out the af­ter­noon, only to rise again in the early evening. Put sim­ply, we move through the day in three stages: peak, trough and re­cov­ery, and this se­quence is true for most peo­ple.

One im­por­tant im­pli­ca­tion of this pat­tern is that we are bet­ter off do­ing cer­tain types of work or ac­tiv­i­ties at cer­tain times of the day. Dur­ing the peak period, when we’re most vig­i­lant, we do bet­ter an­a­lytic work. Later, dur­ing the trough, we should do ad­min­is­tra­tive work, be­cause that time isn’t good for much else. Then, dur­ing the re­cov­ery period — when our mood is higher but our vig­i­lance is lower — we should do cre­ative work that re­quires a bit more loose­ness.

This pat­tern also has a huge ef­fect on work per­for­mance. There is ev­i­dence show­ing that ‘time of day’ ex­plains about 20 per cent of the vari­ance in how peo­ple per­form on cog­ni­tive tasks. Tim­ing is def­i­nitely more of a science than an art.

While these peaks and troughs are in­ter­nal, re­search in­di­cates that they have ex­ter­nal im­pli­ca­tions. How so?

One thing we know for sure is that the trough period is a ter­ri­ble time for im­por­tant tasks. For in­stance, hospi­tal hand-wash­ing goes down con­sid­er­ably in the af­ter­noon ver­sus the morn­ing, which leads to more hospi­tal-ac­quired in­fec­tions; physi­cians are much more likely to pre­scribe un­nec­es­sary an­tibi­otics in af­ter­noon ex­ams ver­sus morn­ing ex­ams; and anes­the­sia er­rors are four times more likely at 3 p.m. than at 9 a.m.

In the realm of ed­u­ca­tion, re­search out of Denmark shows that kids who take stan­dard­ized tests in the af­ter­noon ver­sus the morn­ing score as if they’ve missed two weeks of school. These re­sults were mir­rored in an L.A. Uni­fied School Dis­trict’s study, where kids who took math in the morn­ing learned more than kids who took it in the af­ter­noon, as re­flected in their stan­dard­ized test scores.

Talk a bit about the ef­fects in the busi­ness arena.

One study from New York Univer­sity looked at 26,000 earn­ings calls from more than 2,100 pub­lic com­pa­nies over six years, ex­am­in­ing whether ‘time of day’ in­flu­enced the emo­tional tenor of these crit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions. Their find­ings: Calls held first thing in the morn­ing were rea­son­ably up­beat and pos­i­tive;

A best-selling au­thor un­locks the sci­en­tific se­crets of ‘per­fect tim­ing’, show­ing that tim­ing re­ally is ev­ery­thing.

but as the day pro­gressed, the tone grew more neg­a­tive and less res­o­lute. Around lunchtime, mood re­bounded slightly — prob­a­bly be­cause call par­tic­i­pants recharged their men­tal and emo­tional bat­ter­ies — but in the af­ter­noon, neg­a­tiv­ity and com­bat­ive­ness deep­ened again, with mood re­cov­er­ing only af­ter the mar­ket’s clos­ing bell.

Per­haps more im­por­tant, es­pe­cially for in­vestors, the time of the call and the sub­se­quent mood it en­gen­dered in­flu­enced com­pany stock prices: Shares de­clined in re­sponse to neg­a­tive tone, lead­ing to tem­po­rary stock mis­pric­ing for firms host­ing earn­ings calls later in the day. Eco­nomic ra­tio­nal­ity, it seems, is no match for a bi­o­log­i­cal clock forged over a few mil­lion years of evo­lu­tion.

There is also ev­i­dence that bi­ases and stereo­types are af­fected by our daily rhythms. Please ex­plain.

In one study, re­searchers asked par­tic­i­pants to as­sess the guilt of a fic­tional crim­i­nal de­fen­dant. All the ‘ju­rors’ read the same set of facts, but for half of them, the de­fen­dant’s name was Robert Gar­ner, and for the other half, it was Roberto Gar­cia. When peo­ple made their de­ci­sions in the morn­ing, there was no dif­fer­ence in guilty verdicts be­tween the two de­fen­dants. How­ever, when they ren­dered verdicts later in the day, they were much more likely to be­lieve that Gar­cia was guilty and Gar­ner in­no­cent. Men­tal keen­ness — as in­di­cated by ra­tio­nally eval­u­at­ing ev­i­dence — was greater early in the day; and men­tal ‘squishi­ness’ — as ev­i­denced by re­sort­ing to stereo­types — in­creased as the day wore on.

When our minds are in vig­i­lant mode, as they tend to be in the morn­ing, we can keep dis­trac­tions out­side of our ‘cere­bral gates’. But af­ter ‘stand­ing watch’ hour af­ter hour, our men­tal guards grow tired and they sneak out back for a break. When this hap­pens, in­ter­lop­ers — sloppy logic, dan­ger­ous stereo­types and ir­rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion — slip through.

Why do be­gin­nings mat­ter so much to us?

Be­gin­nings mat­ter on many di­men­sions. One that is ger­mane to your read­ers is that the ini­tial labour mar­ket con­di­tions when you grad­u­ate from school have a huge ef­fect on your life­time earn­ing power. Stud­ies in both the U.S. and Canada show that grad­u­at­ing in the midst of a re­ces­sion shows up in your wages, even 20 years later. Also, peo­ple who get their MBAS dur­ing a re­ces­sion are less likely to be­come CEOS of a large com­pany than those who grad­u­ate in a bet­ter econ­omy.

On the bright side, we can also em­brace new be­gin­nings to help us with our own be­havioural changes, tak­ing ad­van­tage of some­thing called ‘the fresh start ef­fect’. This was iden­ti­fied by three re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, who found that we are more likely to start a pro­gram of be­hav­iour change and sus­tain it if we start on a Mon­day rather than a Thurs­day; if we start on the first of the month rather than on the 13th; or if we start on the day af­ter our birthday rather than the day be­fore.

The New Year is the quin­tes­sen­tial ex­am­ple of a fresh start date. In the me­dia, we al­ways read that ‘half of New Year’s res­o­lu­tions are bro­ken’. To me, they are bury­ing the lede. The real story is, half of res­o­lu­tions ac­tu­ally stick! That is huge when you think about how dif­fi­cult it is to change hu­man be­hav­iour.

You have stud­ied not just be­gin­nings but mid­dles and ends. Is the midlife cri­sis a myth?

The midlife cri­sis is an idea with es­sen­tially no sci­en­tific sup­port. It’s based on an ar­ti­cle from 1965, from a Cana­dian psy­cho­an­a­lyst named El­liott Jacques. He looked at the bi­ogra­phies of artists and no­ticed that a lot of them died at age 37, and he con­cocted this the­ory.

How­ever, there is ev­i­dence of some­thing else: in gen­eral, there is a U-shaped curve of well-be­ing. In the mid­dle of our lives, we are less happy. We don’t nec­es­sar­ily have a cri­sis or bot­tom out, but well-be­ing is higher ear­lier in life, dips in midlife and then re­cov­ers — not un­like the pat­tern of daily life. Sci­en­tists have found that this pat­tern of well-be­ing holds across more than 70 coun­tries. The U-shaped curve is con­sis­tent with other things we know about mid­points. When peo­ple hit a mid­point in any task, there is no ques­tion, their per­for­mance sags.

De­scribe the dif­fer­ence be­tween ‘larks’, ‘owls’ and ‘third birds’.

We don’t all ex­pe­ri­ence a day in pre­cisely the same way. Each in­di­vid­ual has a ‘chrono­type’ — a per­sonal pat­tern of cir­ca­dian rhythms that in­flu­ences when we hit our peaks and troughs. Col­lo­qui­ally, we think of this as, are you a morn­ing per­son or an evening per­son? But these are ac­tu­ally fairly en­dur­ing bi­o­log­i­cal traits.

Our built-in clock uses so­cial cues (i.e. of­fice sched­ules or train timeta­bles) and en­vi­ron­men­tal sig­nals (i.e. sun­rises and sun­sets) to make small ad­just­ments that bring the in­ter­nal and

Kids who take stan­dard­ized tests in the af­ter­noon ver­sus the morn­ing score as if they’ve missed two weeks of school.

ex­ter­nal cy­cles more or less in sync. The re­sult is that hu­man be­ings metaphor­i­cally ‘open’ and ‘close’ at reg­u­lar times dur­ing each day. In terms of distri­bu­tion, we know that about 15 per cent of us are pretty strong morn­ing types: We like to get up early and go to bed early. Much of the re­search shows morn­ing peo­ple to be pleas­ant, pro­duc­tive folks — ex­tro­verted, con­sci­en­tious, agree­able and emo­tion­ally sta­ble.

About 20 to 25 per cent of us are very strong evening types, who get up late and go to bed late. ‘Owls’ tend to move through the day in al­most a re­verse or­der: re­cov­ery, trough, peak—but we still see the two spikes. Owls also dis­play some darker ten­den­cies: They’re more open than larks, but they’re also more neu­rotic. They are more likely to smoke and are more prone to ad­dic­tion, eat­ing dis­or­ders, de­pres­sion and in­fi­delity. At the same time, owls dis­play greater creativ­ity, show su­pe­rior work­ing mem­ory and post higher scores on in­tel­li­gence tests. Two thirds of us are in the mid­dle some­where — what I call ‘third birds’. The prob­lem is, our cor­po­rate and ed­u­ca­tion cul­tures are con­fig­ured for the 75 or 80 per cent of peo­ple who are larks and third birds. Owls are like left-han­ders in a right-handed world.

Re­search from Ger­man Chronibi­ol­o­gist Till Roen­neberg shows that chrono­types can even pre­dict which pro­fes­sion peo­ple go into. Teach­ers and sur­geons, for in­stance, tend to be larks; if you’re an owl who wants to be a doc­tor, it might be a good idea to work in an emer­gency depart­ment on the overnight shift. How­ever, if you’re an owl doc­tor, I do not want you op­er­at­ing on me at 7 o’clock in the morn­ing!

What is the ‘syn­chrony ef­fect’?

This is a pos­i­tive ef­fect that oc­curs when one’s chrono­type, task and time of day align. For in­stance, even though it’s gen­er­ally more dan­ger­ous to drive at night, owls ac­tu­ally drive worse early in the day, be­cause morn­ings are out of synch with their nat­u­ral cy­cle of vig­i­lance and alert­ness. Also, younger peo­ple tend to have keener mem­o­ries than older folks, but many of these age-based cog­ni­tive dif­fer­ences weaken — or dis­ap­pear — when syn­chrony is taken into ac­count.

Syn­chrony even ef­fects eth­i­cal be­hav­iour. One study iden­ti­fied a ‘morn­ing moral­ity ef­fect’, show­ing that peo­ple are less likely to lie and cheat on tasks in the morn­ing than later in the day. Sub­se­quent re­search found that one ex­pla­na­tion for the ef­fect is sim­ply that most peo­ple are morn­ing or in­ter­me­di­ate chrono­types; when you fac­tor in ‘ow­li­ness’, the ef­fect is more nu­anced. Early ris­ers dis­play the morn­ing moral­ity ef­fect, but night owls are more eth­i­cal at night.

What does it look like for some­one to em­brace these find­ings in their daily life?

I’ll give you a few fa­mous ex­am­ples. Com­poser Py­otr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a clas­sic lark. He would typ­i­cally awaken be­tween 7 and 8 a.m. and then read, drink tea and take a walk. At 9:30 he went to his pi­ano to com­pose for a few hours. Then he broke for lunch and an­other stroll in the af­ter­noon. He be­lieved that walks were es­sen­tial for creativ­ity. At 5 p.m., he set­tled back in for a few more hours of work be­fore eat­ing din­ner at 8 p.m.

Writer Joyce Carol Oates op­er­ates on a sim­i­lar rhythm. She gen­er­ally writes from 8 in the morn­ing un­til 1 p.m., then eats lunch and al­lows her­self an af­ter­noon break be­fore re­sum­ing work from 4 o’clock un­til din­ner around 7. Both Tchaikovsky and Oates are ‘peak-trough-re­bound’ kinds of peo­ple.

Oth­ers march to a very dif­fer­ent drum­mer. Nov­el­ist Gus­tave Flaubert would typ­i­cally not awaken un­til 10 a.m., af­ter which he’d spend an hour bathing, primp­ing and puff­ing his pipe. Around 11, he would join his fam­ily for a late-morn­ing meal that served as both his break­fast and lunch. He would then tu­tor his niece for a while and de­vote most of the af­ter­noon to rest­ing and read­ing. At 7 p.m. he would have din­ner, and af­ter­wards, he would sit and talk to his mother un­til she went to bed around 9 p.m. That’s when he did his writ­ing. Night-owl Flaubert’s day moved in an op­po­site di­rec­tion — from re­cov­ery to trough to peak.

Talk a bit about the power of restora­tive breaks.

What we know about breaks is pretty sim­ple: We should all be tak­ing more of them and we should be tak­ing cer­tain kinds of them. We need to change the way we view breaks. There is this wide­spread be­lief that breaks are a de­vi­a­tion from per­for­mance. When we see some­one take a break, we think, ‘Oh, look at that am­a­teur; she needs a break,’ when in fact, we should rec­og­nize that breaks are key to strong per­for­mance. We should be look­ing at that per­son say­ing, ‘Wow, what a pro; she’s a great role model.’

With breaks, I think we are to­day where the science of sleep was 15 years ago. At one time, we sort of re­spected peo­ple who pulled all-nighters. We thought they were more com­mit­ted than the av­er­age per­son — that they were fiercer and bet­ter

Well-be­ing is higher ear­lier in life, dips in midlife, and then re­cov­ers.

per­form­ers. But we now know from the science of sleep that peo­ple who pull all-nighters are prob­a­bly hurt­ing their per­for­mance — and they might also be hurt­ing the per­for­mance of those who work with them.

There’s a lot of re­search show­ing that peo­ple per­form very dif­fer­ently af­ter breaks. In that Dan­ish study I men­tioned ear­lier, the stu­dents who took the test in the af­ter­noon scored as if they’d missed two weeks of school; and one way to get their test scores back up was to sim­ply give them a 20 - to 30-minute break to run around be­fore they took that af­ter­noon test. When a break was given, scores went way up.

The re­search also shows that cer­tain kinds of breaks are bet­ter than oth­ers: We are bet­ter off mov­ing around dur­ing our breaks; we’re bet­ter off be­ing out­side; and we’re bet­ter off tak­ing a break with some­one else, rather than alone. Per­haps most im­por­tant of all, we’re bet­ter off fully de­tach­ing dur­ing our breaks — mean­ing don’t talk about work and cer­tainly do not bring your phone.

If every­one would sched­ule just one 10- to 15-minute break ev­ery day — and take the right type of break — we would see mas­sive boosts to pro­duc­tiv­ity, en­gage­ment and hap­pi­ness in the work­place.

What can a leader do to em­brace these find­ings, start­ing to­mor­row?

One thing that I would rec­om­mend is to sched­ule meet­ings more strate­gi­cally. When we sched­ule meet­ings, we typ­i­cally use only one cri­te­rion: avail­abil­ity. That’s a huge mis­take. We don’t think, ‘Hmm, is this a meet­ing where peo­ple need to be think­ing an­a­lyt­i­cally? Is this purely an ad­min­is­tra­tive meet­ing, or is it a meet­ing where peo­ple need to be brain­storm­ing and think­ing cre­atively?’

If you think about how much time we spend in meet­ings, this is a gi­nor­mous strate­gic loss. Peo­ple sched­ul­ing meet­ings need to ask a few fun­da­men­tal ques­tions: What kind of meet­ing is this? What kind of think­ing do we want peo­ple to do? Who is go­ing to be there? And then, use these fac­tors to sched­ule the meet­ing at the right time of day.

An­other tip is, if you have good news and bad news to de­liver, you should de­liver the bad news first. The re­search shows that the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple pre­fer bad news first and good news next, be­cause given a choice, we pre­fer ‘end­ings that el­e­vate’. And so, when you’re given a per­for­mance re­view, or giv­ing your boss an up­date, or talk­ing to an im­por­tant cus­tomer, re­mem­ber: bad news first, good news last.

Fi­nally, no mat­ter whether you spend your days mov­ing money around, treat­ing pa­tients or teach­ing chil­dren, be­ware of that mid­dle period. The trough can be more dan­ger­ous than most of us re­al­ize.

If every­one would sched­ule a 10- to 15-minute break each day, we would see mas­sive boosts to pro­duc­tiv­ity and en­gage­ment.

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