'When' by Daniel H. Pink: When our timing is right

Daniel H. Pink, author of "When."

The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing
By Daniel H. Pink
Riverhead Books. 272 pp. $28.

Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler

In an article titled "Timing Is Everything" published 25 years ago, Deborah Ancona, a professor of management at MIT, suggested that although time might well be "the most pervasive aspect of our lives," its role was not well understood.

Daniel Pink agrees. In When, Pink draws on hundreds of recent empirical studies in psychology, economics, and biology to provide guidance on how to use "the science of time" to improve performance at work, enhance health, and deepen personal satisfaction. Designed as a new "when-to" genre, his book examines the rhythms of each day (peaks, troughs, and rebounds); the impact of breaks; midpoints, halftimes, and endings; and group synchronization. He appends to each chapter a "Time Hacker's Handbook," with tools and tips "to help put the insights into action."

The author of Drive, To Sell Is Human, and A Whole New Mind, Pink is a splendid writer, with a knack for distilling important takeaways of scholarly research. As he simplifies, however, Pink at times obscures ambiguities and limitations. Arguing that "hands down analysis" should be done in the morning and "head in the sky insight" in the afternoon, for example, he acknowledges in passing that not all tasks "divide cleanly" along this axis. He sends mixed messages about the ease of finding a job when the unemployment rate is 7 percent. And he maintains that group timing requires "a boss," only to include within the concept a fixed train schedule that sets the pace, maintains the standards, and focuses the collective mind; social dancing; flash mobs; and "pass the clap" improv warm-up exercises.

That said, When contains a cornucopia of compelling information and insights. Internists, Pink reveals, are 26 percent more likely to prescribe unnecessary medications for infections, and patients are three times more likely to receive fatal doses of anesthesia in the afternoon. When Danish students take a 20- to 30-minute break before an exam, their scores go up. Pilots who nap show a 34 percent improvement in reaction time. Basketball teams that are slightly behind at halftime, Pink indicates, have a significantly better than 50-50 chance of winning the game. Individuals who reach the arbitrary marker of a decade (age 29, 39, 49) are much more likely to run a marathon and post a better time. But, then again, they are also much more prone to cheat on their spouses or commit suicide.

Most important, Pink emphasizes, human beings are hard-wired to prefer endings that elevate. We prefer the bad news to be followed by the good news. We want poignant endings, which give us unexpected insights and fleeting moments of transcendence. In the end, Pink writes, we yearn for meaning. With When, he delivers more than a fair share of it.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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