Daniel Pink on When You Should Write, Research, Work and Play

Daniel H. Pink wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera

Daniel Pink is the New York Times best-selling author of books like When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

His new book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing was one of my favourites of 2018 and it informs how I now structure my day.

In this podcast episode, Pink explains:

● His research process for writing best-selling non-fiction books like When, Drive and To Sell is Human
● The ideal time for writing, researching, attending to admin and more
● How he approaches his workday and keeps to a writing routine
● The differences between early risers and night owls

And lots more.

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Transcript Below

Bryan Collins: Okay, so, Dan, my first question is about being an owl versus a lark. A couple of years ago I used to like to work at night, whether it be on business projects or writing. And these days, perhaps because I have some small kids, I’ve kind of turned into a lark, in that I now get up really early to work on my main thing for the day. Is that normal, or is it just me?

Daniel Pink: It depends. It’s a great question. You know, what we know is that people have different chronotypes, which means, really, just your propensity to … Do you wake up early and go to sleep early? Do you wake up late and go to sleep late? And we know, in the broad population, about 15 percent of us are very strong larks, about 20 percent of us are very strong owls, and about two-thirds of us are somewhere in the middle, and that can change over time. So, in general people have this period of intense owliness, we become owlier than ever in our lives, during a period of about the mid-teens and the mid-twenties. So, it could just be aging, or it could be that you’re an owl with little kids.

Bryan Collins: Yeah. Yeah, probably that I’m an owl with little kids. So, and well, what about you, what do you find-

Daniel Pink: And little kids are very, very larky. The period between, say, toddlerhood and the early teens, is a very, very larky period.

Bryan Collins: I’ve got, now, I have a 13 year old son, so I’ll tell him that. What about you? When do you find is your best time for focusing, perhaps on writing a chapter for one of your books, versus-

Daniel Pink: I come out as … you know, when I measure my chronotype, which … you know, all kinds of methods for doing that. I come out as a … in the middle, what I call a third bird, but leaning a little bit toward the larky side. So, for me, that’s where I am. So, if you think about it as a spectrum of extreme lark at one, and extreme owl at 10, I’m about a four, four and a half. What that means is that, in general, about 80 percent of us, that is, everybody who’s not an owl, tends to move through the day in three stages, a peak, a trough, a recovery. Peak early, trough in the early to mid-afternoon, recovery later in the day. So, for me, my peak, which means the time that I am most vigilant, the time that I am least distractable, the time that I am most focused, tends to be in the morning. So, when I’m writing books, or anything of any length, I sequester the morning and work only on that, and then do my other work other times of day.

Bryan Collins: And how long does that state, for you, last for, when you’re in a peak state, so to speak?

Daniel Pink: Not that long, unfortunately. So, for me I … again there’s a lot … Here’s what we know. There’s some general patterns, and then a lot of idiosyncrasies. So, again, the general pattern is peak, trough, recovery, for 80 percent of us. Now, owls are different. Owls tend to hit their peak much later in the day, late afternoon, early evening, well into the evening. So, for me, I would say that my peak, and again, when I say peak, what I mean is that the time that I’m most vigilant, the time that it’s hard to distract me, the time when I can maintain some decent focus. For me, that’s generally between about 8:30 in the morning and 12:30, or noon, somewhere around there.

Bryan Collins: So [crosstalk 00:03:55].

Daniel Pink: So. it’s not that much time. Call it three or three and a half hours of really good time. Which is why it’s so important to use that time effectively, to take that time that is my best time, and not spend it answering email. Not spend it wasting brain cells on Twitter. And instead, move my administrative work, that is, think about answering emails, or expense reports, or whatever, move that type of work to the trough period, the early to mid-afternoon, because that’s when I’m going to be … That’s when I’m least effective, so I should do the least important stuff there.

Daniel Pink: Now, what’s interesting is that, that recovery period, again, for most of us, late in the afternoon, early in the evening, that’s a very valuable period, but it’s a different kind of thinking. During that period, our mood goes back up, but we’re less vigilant, and that ends up being a very powerful combination for things that require some degree of mental looseness, flexibility, disinhibition. Things like brainstorming, things like iterating new ideas.

Daniel Pink: So for me, again, I try to do my heads down work early in the day, my administrative work in the middle of the day, and then my more iterative, freewheeling work later in the day. And what’s important about all of this at a big level, is that what this research shows, this research on timing and performance, what it shows is that our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of the day. That’s a really important insight. Our brain power doesn’t remain the same throughout the day. It changes. It changes in material ways, and it changes in somewhat predictable ways. And so, if you actually honor that, you can begin to do the right work at the right time of day, and get … really just feel better, and get more and better work done.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, I mean, I’ve tried to spend early mornings writing, and you know, the afternoons on email and so on. In the book you also talk about napping. You describe how you’ve changed your opinion on napping over the years.

Daniel Pink: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, there’s a lot of research on naps, and again, this book, When, is rooted in this incredible amount of research across many disciplines on questions of timing, on when we do things, on how beginnings affect us, how mid-points affect us, how endings affect us. And there ends up being a big pile of research on naps, and the key to it all is that naps are pretty good for us, they really are. That naps are a form of taking a break, that they can restore mental energy, they can restore mental acuity. They can restore a sense of wellbeing.

Daniel Pink: But the most effective naps are extraordinarily short. They’re between 10 and 20 minutes long. When you nap longer than that, you begin to develop what’s called sleep inertia, which is that groggy, fuzzy-headed feeling you sometimes get when you wake up from a nap that’s too long. So, naps are very effective, they’re an effective form of break, but the most effective, by far, are these exceptionally short naps.

Bryan Collins: A lot of the ideas in your books struck me as a reason why people should have self-knowledge about how they’re spending their time. And I’m just wondering, do you recommend people track themselves, with a wearable, or perhaps in a spreadsheet, or even in an app like RescueTime? Or is there another way to do it?

Daniel Pink: I do recommend that. I do that myself. I myself use RescueTime, and I’m always horrified, because I like to think that I know what I’m doing, but then I find myself … then I look at RescueTime and I realize how much time I’ve frittered away.

Daniel Pink: So, I do recommend those kinds of things. I think that a lot of times we get caught up in these apps and whatnot, there are very simple analog ways to do that too, just, like, write down what you do every hour over the course of a week and just then look at it. You will see patterns there. But I think the starting point of your question, Bryan, is in some ways even more important, which is, you used the hyphenated word self-knowledge. That is key, and what I have found is, that many of us are not very good observers of our own behavior, and that’s really key.

Daniel Pink: One of the things that … merely thinking about timing, and thinking about the effect of time on our lives can do, is that it makes us more aware of what we’re doing ourselves. And so, you can ask the question, a question that I hadn’t really asked myself before doing this research, which is, “Okay, at what time of day am I most creative? At what time of day am I most mentally acute? How do I feel at two o’clock in the afternoon? Why is that different from the way I feel at 9:30 in the morning?” And so, just being aware of how we feel and how we’re performing, whether it’s by recording it in an analog way, whether it’s by using things like RescueTime, which again, as I said, I’m a big fan of RescueTime. I get a RescueTime report every week. That kind of self-knowledge is a really, really important starting point for doing better.

Bryan Collins: You also talk in the book about a fresh start, and we’re recording this interview, I suppose, at a key time for a fresh start, which is the New Year. So, how can people who are perhaps struggling with a bad work habit, or something else that they want to stop doing, embrace a fresh start?

Daniel Pink: Yeah, the fresh start effect is a principle discovered by three researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Kitty Milkman, Jason Riis and Hengchen Dai. What they found is that certain dates are what social ecologists call temporal landmarks. Temporal landmarks, and what that means is that certain dates stand out in time the way that physical landmarks stand out in space. And som when you’re moving through a physical setting and you see a landmark, it has a certain effect, and one of the effects that it has is that it’s navigational. It helps you orient yourself. It’s navigational, you have a sense of where you are, you slow down.

Daniel Pink: Certain dates do that same thing with a added kick. So, certain dates get us to slow down, assess, have a sense of where we are, but they also seem to trigger this [inaudible 00:10:56] form of mental accounting, where we relegate our … It’s like having a business, and you open up a fresh ledger on yourself. You know, business at the beginning of a quarter … If you think about a ledger in the physical sense, you know, in the old-fashioned days, where they were writing down what they sell and what they … how much goes in and how much goes out, they’ll open up a fresh ledger at the beginning of a quarter. People do that themselves, on themselves, on fresh start dates.

Daniel Pink: So, New Year’s is, again, the great example of that. So, 2018 me was a complete slob, never exercised, ate like crap. But, fresh ledger, fresh start on January one 2019, new me’s going to be … going to go to the gym every day, and is going to eat more vegetables, and yada yada yada yada. Now, what’s interesting about this is that New Year’s Day, while the most prominent fresh start date, is not the only one.

Daniel Pink: So, what you see is, you have people who are … people are more willing to start new behaviors, and therefore have a fighting chance of continuing those new behaviors, if they start them on a fresh start date, which means that … let’s say, you know, you’re more likely to start a diet, say, on a Monday rather than on a Thursday. And again, if you start something, you have a fighting chance of actually doing it. So, if you want to change your behavior, start it on a Monday, rather than on a Thursday, on the first of the month, rather than the 13th of the month, on the day after your wedding anniversary, rather than three days before your wedding anniversary.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, you could start a writing habit, I suppose, on a Monday, or at the start of the month. You also talk about, in the book, when you’re working on a difficult project, and you’re at the mid-point, and your motivation is lagging, and you should imagine that you’re behind, and how that will motivate you to push on.

Daniel Pink: Right, there’s some … Yeah, again, this goes back to your earlier question, Bryan, about self-knowledge. A very, very important aspect of timing is … goes beyond simply what we do at a certain time of day, or whether we take a break, but more … that it involves the more episodic nature of our lives. How do beginnings affect us? How to mid-points affect us? How do endings affect us? And beginnings, like a new year, is … beginnings are usually visible to us, but mid-points are often invisible, but they have this effect. They sometimes can bring us down, other times can fire us up. So, one thing would be to make them visible, and again, have that self-knowledge to say, “I’m at the mid-point of this project.”

Daniel Pink: And what’s … [inaudible 00:13:27] research shows is that being slightly behind at the mid-point can be very motivating. There’s some research in professional basketball on the scores at half-time. There’s some interesting experimental research, and what it … where you put people in settings, playing against an opponent, and then give them a score at the halfway mark of the game, and what they find is that, at the halfway mark of a contest, if you’re way ahead, you get complacent in the 2nd half. If you’re way behind, you give up in the second half. But if you are a little bit behind at half-time, you really, really improve your performance in the second half.

Bryan Collins: And, it’s always good to end on a high. You talk about it in the book, as well, about how if you’re on holidays, for example, try and tailor, or a memorable experience for the last day or the last night.

Daniel Pink: Yeah, so this is again … this is the principle of endings, which is … endings, again, part of this episodic nature of our lives. Endings have a strong effect on us, multiple effects on us, often at a very deep level. One of the things that endings do is that endings help us encode. So, what happens at the end of an encounter, an experience, anything, has a disproportionate effect on how we evaluate the experience, and how we encode the experience, and how we remember the experience.

Daniel Pink: And so, in any … whether it’s like a customer transaction, whether it’s a family vacation, whether it is a gathering you have of friends, how that encounter ends is going to have a huge weight on how people will encode it. So, being much more intentional and deliberate about the ending can improve the quality of the overall experience. And so, it’s analogous in some ways to the idea that our cognitive ability doesn’t stay the same throughout the day. Through any kind of experience or episode, we don’t weight the moments of that experience equally. The things that happen at the end have a disproportionate impact, so we should be … pay more attention to those, and, in my view, in our businesses especially, more intentionally and deliberately craft those kinds of endings.

Bryan Collins: And you also talk about how, even at the end of a working day, you should just take a few minutes to plan out the following day, and then to, I suppose, close the door on the day that you’ve just finished, and how that can help you … energize you for tomorrow.

Daniel Pink: Yeah, [inaudible 00:16:16] that, one of the things that I like to do at the end of the day, and there’s some good research behind this is … and I’ve been doing this now for years. There’s some very, very good research on this, a lot of it comes from Teresa Amabile, at Harvard Business School, showing that the single biggest day to day motivator on the job is making progress, and the trouble is that we often don’t know when we’re making progress. So, taking, literally, two or three minutes to record, memorialize, okay, what did you get done today? How did you advance things today? Can be really powerful.

Daniel Pink: So, I have been doing this, I mean, literally, Bryan, for several years now, where I will take a moment, at the very end of the day, and basically write down … or, not physically write down, but on a computer, write down, what did I get done today? And if you take that moment to reflect on that, you realize, “Hey, wait a second. I actually did get something done.” And if you didn’t get … you know, if you feel like you didn’t get something done, I find that frustrating enough that the next day I want to do a little better.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, that’s a good practice. That makes sense. You also talked a lot there about the research that’s gone into your book, and that’s something I was struck by, the level of research. How does your research process work for a book like When, or Born to Sell, or Drive?

Daniel Pink: It varies from book to book. This research on When was … The amount of research that was out there was enormous, and what’s more, it was spread across many, many fields. So, there was research on timing in social psychology, and economics, but there’s also research in molecular biology, and anaesthesiology, and cognitive science. There’s a whole field called chronobiology. And so, for this book, I had to actually bring in some research help. So, really just to go out and find these hundreds and hundreds of studies, and then to begin to sort them and organize them.

Daniel Pink: And so, I’m a pretty slow worker, so what I will do is, you know, with the help of some very talented folks who were … they can help me find all the stuff, and then sort it, and then what I will do is, I will read through these things and say, “Oh, let’s follow up here, here and here. Can you go find that?” And then when I actually get further down the funnel and figure out, okay, this is a really great … this study is really solid, it’s been replicated. The methodology is good. The findings are meaningful. You know, I’ll go back and I’ll read it again. And just to make sure I have it right, in many cases, I will interview the author of the study and [inaudible 00:19:05] talk to her or him to see … to make sure that I got it right. So, it’s a very labor intensive, laborious, time-consuming process.

Bryan Collins: I recall listening to an interview you did with Tim Ferris, where you describe how you will work on an idea for a book for days or even weeks, but then you might walk away from it, if you feel like it’s not working.

Daniel Pink: Yeah, absolutely. So, when it comes to writing a book … And the reason for that is, like … so, the different levels of things. So, the amount of time and effort and blood, sweat and tears I would put into an article is obviously smaller than the amount that I would put into a book. So, therefore, the bar is higher for writing a book, and … Because writing a book is really … you know, this is what I do for living, and it’s really hard. I don’t think it’s easy for anybody. It’s a giant pain in the ass, writing a book, and it’s really time-consuming, it’s really hard during a lot of it. Most of it is just not that fun.

Daniel Pink: And so, you have to pick a topic that you’re really enamored by. You have to pick a topic that you really deeply care about, that you’re willing to live with, literally, for years. And that’s a very high bar, and so what I’ve done is, I’ve gotten to the point where, “Hey, that’s a pretty interesting idea. Let me start writing a proposal about a book on that”. And in writing that proposal, I can say, “I might …” And it’s happened to me, you know, three or four times in the last 15 years. Writing the proposal, I discover, “Wait a second. This is not a book. It doesn’t really hang together that much. It might be an article. It’s kind of interesting, but it’s not worth 25 dollars US and 12 hours of somebody’s time.”

Daniel Pink: Or, I can say, “This might be a book, but I don’t want to write this book. I don’t want to spend two years working on this, and the rest of my life talking about it.” And so, there’s a very, very high bar. And for me, I would rather have that more deliberative process, and make the discovery that this book wasn’t going to work, or that I didn’t want to write it, I’d rather figure that out then, than commit to writing a book, and get partway down the road and say, “Holy smokes. This is miserable.”

Bryan Collins: And do you test your ideas as well? You know, in the form of articles and so on, before you go further with them?

Daniel Pink: That’s a great question, too. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. It really depends. So, there was … my first book grew out of an article that I had written. Other times, the books have come out of … I’ll give you an example here. So, I wrote a book called Drive, about the science of motivation, that looked at 50 years of behavioral science and said, “Whoo, wait. A lot of these traditional motivators are far less effective than we think, especially these controlling, contingent motivators, if you do this, then you get that.”

Daniel Pink: And out of … So I wrote that book, and I started hearing from readers almost immediately, saying, “Wow, that’s really interesting. The research is compelling, but what about sales? We use sales commissions to motivate salespeople. Is that a mistake?” And I had not written about sales in the book, and that took me down a path, saying, “Well, that’s a great question. Let me do that.” I ended up putting some material on sales in the paperback edition of Drive, but then I became so interested in sales, that I ended up writing a book about sales.

Daniel Pink: And so, that’s often how things will … So, it’s not really testing an idea, it’s, basically, following up on things that spark questions from other people. And then, when I do think about [inaudible 00:22:54] a book, I will test it … I mean, test is too strong of a word. It’s not that systematic, but I will talk to … I think, some aspect of writing is social. So, I’ll say, “Hey” … you know, people say, “Hey, what are you working on?” “Well, let me tell you what I’m thinking about. Here’s a question that I’m thinking about answering.” And people will say, “Oh, that’s really boring,” or, “Wow, I have no interest in that.” Or they say, “Wow, that’s kind of cool. What about x, y or z?” So, I test it in that very informal way.

Bryan Collins: And are you always working on an idea for your current book, or your next book? Or do you take a break in between projects?

Daniel Pink: I am trying to work on that, and it’s interesting you say that, because at the moment I’m kind of hitting the, “Huh, that’s a really interesting idea. I’m not sure if I want to live with it the rest of my life, problem.” But, again, I would rather take a little longer to settle on an idea, than settle on an idea and then, eight months from now, think, “Oh my God, I’ve just made a terrible mistake.”

Bryan Collins: And finally, do you have a tip for focusing on a big project? It could be a book, or perhaps it could be a work project. Or do you have something that helps you focus?

Daniel Pink: Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure if it’s focus. I think that there are certain practices, and … for writing, and I’ve said this for years, and years, and years, and years, and this was a important discovery for me. I think there’s this notion of writing as this kind of exalted profession, where it’s very intellectual, and people are just thinking great thoughts all the time, and I think that’s just nonsense. Writing is, in so many ways, akin to a blue collar profession, and I’ve always likened it to bricklaying.

Daniel Pink: So, what you do is you … for writing, and this is the advice that I give to everybody is, you just fricking show up, all right? You show up, and you lay a few bricks, and mortar them together. You get a few bricks up, and then you come back the next day, and you put a few more bricks on. Then you come back the next day, and put a few more bricks on. And then you come back the next day, and realize that a couple of them are misaligned, so you kick those out and replace them. And then you put a few more bricks [inaudible 00:25:03]. If you just show up and do your work every day, and treat writing, not as this exalted, intellectual endeavor, and treat it more like a blue collar job, where you have to get stuff done, and just build the wall. Build that structure, brick, by brick, by brick, every single day, that’s the way to do it. That’s how professionals do it.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, that reminds me of something Steven Pressfield says in the War of Art, about the resistance. That was great. It was really nice to talk to you, Daniel. Where can people find-

Daniel Pink: I’m a huge fan of the War of Art and Steven Pressfield, and I am-

Bryan Collins: Oh yeah. I’m re-reading it.

Daniel Pink: I’m a full devotee of that idea, that … And I’m glad that you mentioned that Bryan, because the resistance which Pressfield talks about is this kind of mysterious force that keeps people from writing. Actually, there’s a timing to it as well, because we are able to bat away the resistance, we are able to confront, and challenge, and deny the resistance grip on us better at different times of day. So, one way to beat the resistance is to do your work at the right time of day.

Bryan Collins: Yeah, it’s a book I like to re-read once a year. Where can people find you, or your book, today, Daniel?

Daniel Pink: You can go to my website, which is danpink.com. There are videos, and an email newsletter, everything for the low, low price of free.

Bryan Collins: Great, yeah. The Pinkcasts are worth checking out, for anybody who’s listening.

Daniel Pink: Okay, thanks.

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