Saturday, January 12, 2019

Tired of "How-To" books? It's time to read a "When-To" book!

In one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits, a character is a few seconds late with a funny line, making his comments a missed opportunity or an occasion for embarrassment. An announcer's voice pipes in to promote a product that moves time back by a few seconds. The character uses it and suddenly becomes the life of the party. The moral of the story: timing matters. 

Timing is the subject of Daniel Pink's When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. His book is an easy read and based on a survey of the relevant research. Many of the findings run counter to conventional wisdom. But beyond interesting, it's highly applicable. 

Pink has written a "when-to" book, instead of much more popular "how-to" books. Timing is both art and science. To help with both, he uses Part 2 of each chapter-- what he calls a "Time Hacker's Handbook"-- to provide helpful hints on how to manage time more effectively. (Most of the book is focused on individuals, but still applicable to organizations and groups, but chapter 6 is devoted explicitly to the timing of teams within organizations.) 

Time and timing are important themes in Jewish and Christian theology. God's creative work is divided into periods of time-- the six "days" of Creation and a seventh day for rest. The Hebrew term "yom" is often translated "day" in English and them imagined as a 24-hour time period. But yom is used in five different ways in just the first two chapters of Genesis. In any case, whether a literal day or some broader time frame, God's creative activity begins with distinct periods of time. 

Pink describes the creation of synchronized time with the invention of clocks via pendulums (5, 11). In this, his book is similar to two other great books: Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman on the origins of dictionaries and James Scott's Seeing Like a State on the origins and importance of maps. With each, we depend on the innovation to a degree that is difficult to fathom. What would life be like without maps, dictionaries, and clocks?

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, time continues to be a key player. First, in terms of theology and theodicy, Habakkuk, Job, and the Psalms wrestle with the questions of "why" and "how long". Often, a trial is manageable, until it lasts too long. 

Second, sin is often defined in terms of time. In I Samuel 13, Saul starts his downward slide by impatiently offering a sacrifice instead of waiting a bit longer for Samuel. In Joshua 7, Achan takes from that which had been dedicated to God after the victory at Jericho. If he had waited one more battle (at Ai), he could have had what he wanted. 

Or think about the classic example: Abraham knows that a promised son will come from his loins, but Sarah and Abraham rush the timing by going through Hagar. Not only are the results sobering (the Arab/Israeli conflict that emanates from that fateful decision), but their ignorance for years that they had done anything wrong (they don't know until Isaac is explicitly promised).  

There are more positive examples in the Christian Bible / New Testament. Think of Paul following the Spirit's lead for both timing and direction on his missionary journeys. And certainly in real life, we can think of many examples where a moment failed or worked because the timing was wrong or right. 

In chapter 1, Pink describes the daily cycles in our moods (10-13). For most people, mornings and evenings are good, but afternoons are a lull. It does vary a bit by individual-- and in particular, by "owls" who do better at night vs. "larks" who do better in the morning (27). The probability of your bird type is dependent on when one is born within a year and gender (29). And it's not all bad news for the afternoons: although a poor time for analytic thought, it's a better time for creative thought and insights (21, 25). 

Throughout the book, Pink relates the research to ideal or at least improved business practices. Companies should be wary about when they field "earning calls" that will influence their stock prices (17-19). He describes a "Hospital of Doom" with lousy metrics that derive simply from standard afternoon vs. morning performance metrics (49-53). And he notes that scores on standardized testing vary significantly with time of day (23). 

In all cases, Pink offers suggestions for avoiding and offsetting the problems created by time. Hospitals use checklists after noon to counter late-day sluggishness (51-52). Some schools start school later (for high school), test later (especially for younger children), and use breaks to accommodate "chronobiological" tendencies (57, 88-93). Try to use "strong-future" language-- another reason to avoid passive tenses (215-218). 

Chapter 2 is devoted to the importance of breaks (60-62, 75-82) and naps (66-70)-- and how to do them well. This was reminiscent of David Randall's book, Dreamland which focuses on the science of sleep. My favorite observation was to take short naps (I learned this from Randall), but then to double-down with some pre-nap caffeine. I was also surprised to learn that lunch is more important than breakfast (64-65). Once Pink describes how breakfast had been researched, it was easy to see how its importance could be exaggerated, confusing correlations with causation. 

The heart of the book, Chapters 3-5, is structured around beginnings, middles, and ends. Get off to good start. Avoid the potential slumps and embrace the potential sparks of your middles. Use endings to "energize, encode, edit and elevate". Most of these are relatively obvious insights-- at least, after the fact. But if you're looking for good how-to advice through when-to counsel, the details in Pink's When will be worth your time. 


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