the cover of the book When by Daniel Pink

Book Review: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

A 'when-to' book on rhythms, synchrony, starts, ends, and more

[A]ll of these studies suggest that the path to a life of meaning and significance isn't to "live in the present" as so many spiritual gurus have advised. It is to integrate our perspectives on time into a coherent whole, one that helps us comprehend who we are and why we're here.

—Daniel H. Pink, When

When should you take a break for improved energy? How do you take the ideal nap? When are you most likely to re-evaluate the meaning of your life?

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. PInk (Riverhead Books, 2018) is, according to the author, not a how-to book, but a when-to book. Pink explains the science of timing, such as circadian rhythms, energy dips and rises, ideal naptimes, when to start activities, how to deal with middles and endings, why synchronous activity in a group improves wellbeing, and more.

While Pink argues for a big important role for timing, I'm less convinced that this is a life-changing book. It didn't feel as consequential as many of the other nonfiction books I've read lately. It's not irrelevant—you can definitely use the information Pink provides to deal with timing better—it's just somewhat less meaningful and less impactful for my daily life than the books on motivation, learning, goals, habits, and parenting.

Who should read When?

You should read Daniel Pink's book When if you're curious about human psychology and want insight into a few more aspects of human behavior. While not life-changing, it's plenty interesting and worth the time to learn about timing!

Read on for summaries and takeaways.

Diving in: Daily Rhythms

The first chapters cover daily rhythms and how to manage your energy during the day.

Most people follow the same general energy and positive emotion pattern over the course of the day. As Pink writes,

[A]ll of us experience the day in three stages—a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And about three-quarters of us (larks and third birds) experience it in that order. But about one in four people, those whose genes or age make them night owls, experience the day in something closer to the reverse order—recovery, trough, peak.

—Daniel H. Pink, When

Pink argues that these chronotypes have some heritability and some biological, genetic basis. There may also be patterns based on the season in which you were born. Part of the dip is related to cortisol levels and vigilance levels.

But I wonder, given other evidence I've read about the connections between daily rhythms, circadian rhythms, sunlight, nutrient deficiencies, and exercise, whether the studies Pink cites have the whole of the story. How many night owls would be larks if they got enough sunlight, for instance? How much of the daily energy pattern is a reflection of industrial time—do the patterns hold in more agrarian, agricultural societies, or in hunter-gatherer societies?

Pink shares plenty of interesting facts about larks versus owls. For instance:

Much of the research shows morning people to be pleasant, productive, folks—"introverted, conscientious, agreeable, persistent, and emotionally stable" women and men who take initiative, suppress ugly impulses, and plan for the future. Morning types also tend to be high in positive affect—that is, many are as happy as larks.

Owls, meanwhile, display some darker tendencies. They're more open and extroverted than larks. But they're also more neurotic—and are often impulsive, sensation-seeking live-for-the-moment hedonists. They're more likely than larks to use nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine—not to mention marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine. They're also more prone to addiction, eating disorders, diabetes, depression, and infidelity. No wonder they don't show their faces during the day. And no wonder bosses consider employees who come in early as dedicated and competent and give late starters lower performance readings. Benjamin Franklin had it right: Early to bed in early to rise makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise. Well, not exactly. When scholars have tested Franklin's "gnomic wisdom," they found "no justification for early risers to affect moral superiority." Those nefarious owls actually tend to display greater creativity, show superior working memory, and post higher scores on intelligence tests such as that GMAT. They even have a better sense of humor.

—Daniel H. Pink, When
Takeaway on chronotypes:
  • Knowing your chronotype can help you plan your day, so that you do more important, cognitively challenging tasks during your peak times.

Breaks and recess

The evidence is in: taking regular breaks is good for performance. This is true for adults as well as children in schools. Children's test scores go up if tested after a break (such as recess), but ironically, most schools have only two breaks a day, and these breaks are shrinking in the name of rigor and higher test scores.

(Read: How Schools Zap Kids' Motivation and Mental Health)

When I worked with educational robots in schools during grad school, a kindergartener (five years old!) told me that she didn't want to go to first grade, because then she'd only get "one outside, not two." As Pink wrote,

All this supposed toughness is wrongheaded. Breaks and recess are not deviations from learning. They are part of learning. —Daniel H. Pink, When

Takeaways on breaks:
  • Take restorative breaks! They'll increase performance.
  • Lunch away from your desk is more important than breakfast (for reducing afternoon slumps).
  • Short, frequent breaks, especially social breaks, away from your desk and outside, with movement, are good for performance.
  • Short midday siestas (10-20min) can be useful for learning, memory, and performance; longer naps lead to too much groggy sleep inertia.
  • Ingesting caffeine before a nap can be helpful, since it takes about 25min for the caffeine's effects to kick in.

Dealing with starts, middles, and ends

Pink shared interesting data on starts, such as how people are more likely to start something new (a new hobby, a new exercise regime, a new diet, etc) after a time landmark—in the New Year, on the first of the month, after their birthday, and so forth. He also found that starting strong made a difference for finishing a project or activity—and even for career progression! People whose careers started during a recession, when it was harder to get or switch jobs, didn't advance as fast or as far, likely because they couldn't as easily find a job that was a great fit or switch jobs when theirs wasn't ideal.

Regarding middles, Pink summarizes:

Midpoints, as we're seeing, can have a dual effect. In some cases, they dissipate our motivation; in other cases, they activate it. Sometimes they elicit an "oh, no" and we retreat; other times, they trigger an "uh-oh" and we advance. Under certain conditions, they bring the slump; under others, they deliver the spark…. The best hope for turning a slump into a spark involves three steps. First, be aware of midpoints. Don't let them remain invisible. Second, use them to wake up rather than roll over—to utter an anxious "uh-oh" rather than a resigned "oh, no." Third, at the midpoint, imagine that you're a little behind—but only by a little. That will spark your motivation and maybe help you win a national championship. —Daniel H. Pink, When

Ayelet Fishbach, in her book Get It Done (read my review!), writes that it can be hard to maintain motivation through the slog of the middle. She recommends breaking up tasks and projects into smaller milestones, so that you're always close to the start or end of something, and less likely to lose steam. Fishbach has lots to say on starts, midpoints, and ends, because she was writing about motivation, goals, and getting work done. Pink references her work. If you want to learn way more, in more depth, about goals and dealing with projects, read her book next!

On endings, Pink discusses how the way events end strongly influence our memory of the events. The end, plus the peak (the most intense moment), shape our memory. So even if an event is long and painful, an event that is short with a painful peak end would be remembered as worse. We don't remember the duration correctly; we remember the end and the peak. He writes,

The best endings don't leave us happy. Instead, they produce something richer—a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we've gotten what we need. —Daniel H. Pink, When

People are more likely to reevaluate their life or start new goals at the end of a decade (29, 39, 49, etc). In these years, you'll find people performing more behaviors associated with searching for meaning or a crisis of meaning. And when people get older or approach any kind of ending—when there's less time left—they switch from an open mode where they're seeking information and relationships, to a mode that preserves and cherishes what they already have.

Pink also describes some fascinating effects of language on our relationship with the future. Languages can be categorizes a strong-future (i.e., it has explicit differences in referring to the present and future) or weak-future (i.e., the language does not mark explicit differences between present and future). People who spoke weak-future languages discounted the future less, treated it as closer to the present, were more likely to save for retirement, less likely to engage in harmful personal behaviors, and more likely to exercise and pursue other healthy behaviors. As Pink writes,

[R]esearch has shown we plan more effectively and behave more responsibly when the future feels more closely connected to the current moment and our current selves. —Daniel H. Pink, When


  • Starting well is important for finishing. If you make a strong start, you're more likely to stick with it.
  • Use time landmarks to help you make a fresh start: the start of a week, the start of a month, the day after a holiday or birthday.
  • Also use time landmarks to reevaluate where you're at: the end of a week, the end of the year, or the end of a decade.
  • Be aware of midpoints, and imagine you're a little behind to give yourself a motivation boost. Break up projects into smaller milestones so you don't lose steam in the long middle.
  • The peak and the end of an event strongly influence our memory of the event. Consciously paying attention to the start, middle, and duration may help you form more accurate memories.
  • If you can reframe how you think about the future to make it feel closer to the present and your present self, you'll plan better and behave more responsibly.

Groups and synchrony

Pink also dives into the effects of people working in synchrony with one another. Whether in a choir or on a rowing team, there are three important takeaways:

  1. The group needs external standards to set the pace—like the coxswain on a rowing team or the conductor of an orchestra or choir.
  2. Everyone in the group needs to feel a sense of belonging; fortunately, acting in synchrony can help increase that sense of belongingness.
  3. Wellbeing is increased by group synchrony: synchronizing with others feels good, and feeling good promotes social cohesion.

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