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It’s All About Timing: When in the Day Should we Do What?

What drew me to read Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing?    

I have felt an overarching sentiment to “catch-up with lost time” over the last four months as our society begins to norm the Covid pandemic into our sociology.  Given how precious time is – I wanted to be more strategic about how I spend my time, when I spend it and with whom. 

Background: Why am I speeding up?  

A Google search on the impact of COVID on our perceptions of time reveals that with COVID we put on hold many of the things that connect us to a sense of time such as new experiences, traveling, or going to a new restaurant.  As a result, there is a “blur” or “vanilla” effect that increases anxiety and depression, especially when social interaction is absent.  [And as a DIO If I’m feeling this way, I can only imagine how our residents and students are feeling having trained in this environment.]  

The downside of this reflex response is chronic stress, overworking, and sacrificing some level of our own well-being.  

The upside – and again why I sought out Pink’s book -- is that this reflex response gives us an opportunity to think more strategically about the when I spend my time on what. 

Pink’s book is about timing: 

When to take tests, when to see a doctor, when to deliver bad news, etc.  His book breaks down the importance of timing in three key areas of life: 

The day (the focus of this blog); 

The beginnings-midpoints-endings; and 


When focusing on “the day” per Pink, begin by thinking about our biological clocks.  We know our energy and attention unfolds in waves throughout the day, with a rise, then a drop, then a resurgence. Pink argues we can proactively use this cycle to think more strategically about how we plan our days and avoid tragedy. 

In an example from history, Pink suggests that the sinking of the U.S. Lusitania in 1915 had more to do with the time of the day – the when -- Captain Turner made strategic decisions about the Lusitania to avoid German U-boats detection.   What was the time of day? With land in site, around 1 pm Captain Turner slowed the speed of the vessel to around 18 knots, slower than the 21 knots that they needed to outpace the threat of submarines. About 45 minutes later, he executed what’s called a “four-point bearing,” which forced him to pilot the ship in a straight line rather than a zigzag course, which would be better for outmaneuvering torpedoes.  At 2:10 pm, the ship was ripped apart by a torpedo.

The result, 1200 aboard perished and the sinking of the Lusitania sparked U.S entry into WWI.  Pink’s premise is that Captain Turner made poor naval decisions because, in general, people’s judgement is not as sharp in the afternoon as it is at the beginning and end of a day.  While most of the literature on Circadian rhythm literature and its disruptive effects focuses on its impact on wellness, Pink proposes it has even more significant impacts on us than we realize.  By strategically using the hidden power of our Circadian rhythms, Pink proposes that we can affect our everyday life.  

The Science of Timing – Why “When” Matters

Pink’s research suggests that the day has three mood subsets: we tend to feel more engaged and happier during the morning, followed by a mood-plummet in the afternoon, followed by mood-rebound in early evening and that these dynamics have implications for how we plan work through the workday.  

For example, Pink cites Cornell University sociologists, Michael Macy, and Scott Golder’s study, published in the journal Science. These researchers analyzed more than 500 million Twitter tweets measuring the mood patterns of the 2.4 million tweet authors in 84 countries and how positive and negative affects varied over time.  The study found a consistent pattern across people’s waking hours.   

In the morning, tweets were more energetic and enthusiastic. 

By afternoon, tweets reflected a deteriorating mood in the afternoon; and 

By evening, tweets normally perked up!

In Sum: Positive affect rises in the morning, dips in the afternoon, and rises again in the evening.  In other words: a mood peak, a mood trough, and a mood rebound. Our biological clock (i.e., circadian rhythms) influence these daily mood-sets. 

What are the impacts of this pattern of peaks, troughs, and rebound? 

When matters!  Pink cites a 4-year study of test results for 2 million Danish schoolchildren and matched scores to the time-of-day students took the test.  The study found that students scored higher in the mornings vs afternoons.  Other studies that further illustrate the influence our biological clocks include temporary stock mispricing, stereotyping, court verdicts, mood, etc resulting in up to a 20% variance in performance based on the time-of-day effect.

Why does mood matter?  

1. These biological patterns significantly matter because they influence our mood and emotional intelligence.  

I have been teaching principles and practices of emotional intelligence to my graduate students at Moravian College and University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education for the last 12 years.   I recently incorporated Pink’s book, “When” into one of my leadership courses to provide students with additional eyewear to understand this hidden factor (aka our biological clock) and its influences on our mood and overall emotional intelligence.  It is right here with us, and it is important that we are aware of its effect on us and others. 

2. A leader’s emotions drive the emotions of everyone else.  It’s like an electrical current providing energy (or lack thereof) to others.  A leader’s mood is quite literally contagious, spreading quickly and impacts performance (Goleman et al 2001).  Not convinced? A leader’s mood - the ability to be vulnerable - can create psychological safety with their team leading to 76% more engagement, 74% less chronic stress, and 57% more collaboration (Zak 2017).   

People experience a wide range of emotions throughout their day. Learning which emotions, we experience when can help us better plan our workday and become more productive.

When is our highest cognitive/analytical output?

Per Pink, it comes in the morning when our mood tends to peak.  As cognitive abilities wane during the trough in the afternoon, we should shift to less cognitively damaging tasks.   As our mood rebounds in the late afternoon, we should shift to more creative and social activities.  Below are several activities to consider during a given day that match the biological clock for most of us.

ANALYTICAL/LOGICAL ACTIVITIES IN THE MORNING HOURS – Left brain activities such as reading, writing, calculations, research, forecasting, problem-solving, Data mining, data and metrics interpreting, reporting, crucial (high stakes) conversations, making decisions, etc.

ADMINISTRATIVE ACTIVITIES IN THE EARLY AFTERNOON HOURS - Answer and direct phone calls, organize and schedule appointments, plan meetings, response to emails, correspondence memos, letters, complete forms, organize notes, etc.

CREATIVE ACTIVITIES IN THE LATE AFTERNOON HOURS – Right brain activities such as team meetings, generating new ideas, brainstorming, divergent and convergent thinking, communication (ex. more visual and deals in images more than words), socially activities, etc.

COVID has influenced our perception of time to varying degrees which can lead to harmful reflex responses such as chronic stress, overworking, and sacrificing our own well-being.  In reading “When” I’ve gotten additional tips and tools to help proactively shape my reflex responses within my workday biological clock.  Moreover “When” has given me more ways to have a positive effect on my own and the people I lead – their well-being, performance, and work environment. As a leader, I now pay more attention to time of day and encourage you to re-read this blog in the AM!  


Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. and McKee, A., 2001. Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance. Harvard Business Review, 79(11), pp.42-51.

Pink, DH. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Penguin Random House. 2018. 

Zak, Paul J., “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Harvard Business Review, January 2017.

James P. Orlando, Ed. D is Chief Graduate Medical Education Officer & ACGME Designated Institutional Official (DIO) for St Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, PA.  He also serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor at University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education and Moravian College.  He is currently Secretary & Treasurer on the AIAMC Board of Directors.