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What’s the secret to motivation and perfect timing? An interview with Daniel Pink

Telstra Vantage™

Posted on September 6, 2018

6 min read

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We sat down with Daniel Pink, globally renowned speaker and author of several New York Times best-selling books, ahead of his opening keynote at Telstra Vantage on the 19th September.




Daniel is an expert on motivation, timing and the intricacies of human behaviour and is here to discuss the science and the impact timing has on our productivity.

His newest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, is a compelling journey into what makes us tick and how we can all boost our efficiency. Daniel explores the importance of good and bad timing and how this is intricately tied to our mood and ability to perform at points in the day.

In your latest book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”, you explore the notion of the right time and wrong time, whether that’s in business or in your personal life. Can you share some of your thoughts here? Particularly that for most of us, we are most productive in the mornings. Why is that?

The most important thing to remember is that timing is an art, not a science.  Although we make most of our timing decisions based on intuition and guesswork, that’s a mistake.  More than two dozen disciplines — from economics to social psychology to molecular biology to cognitive science — have explored questions of timing and we can use their insights and this growing pile of evidence to make better, smarter decisions about when to do things.

Take, for instance, the unit of the day. Most of us move through the day in three stages: A peak, a trough, and a recovery. During the peaks, which for most of us is the morning, we’re most vigilant. We’re better able to bat away distractions. That makes the peak the best time for heads-down, focused, analytic work. During the trough, which for almost all of us is the early to mid-afternoon, we’re at our worst cognitively and emotionally. That’s when we should be doing work that requires less brainpower — administrative work, answering routine emails. During the recovery, which for most of us in the late afternoon and early evening, our mood is high but our vigilance is not. That makes it a good time for tasks that require mental looseness — brainstorming, iterating new ideas, and so on.

We have to understand that our cognitive abilities do not remain static over the course of a day and that we need to be more strategic about doing the right work at the right time.

How can people identify when is the right time or the wrong time for them? Is this about their own behaviours and working styles, or do we need to tap into the broader behaviours of society?

It’s about the interaction of our own proclivities and the environment we’re in. In the answer to your first question, I mentioned that most people move through the day in the peak-trough-recovery pattern. But about 20 percent of us do not. About one in five people have what chronobiologists call a “evening chronotype.” They fall asleep late and wake up late — not because they’re lazy but because they are night owls.  Owls are much more complicated than the rest of us. They reach their peak much later in the day — during the late afternoon and into the evening. That’s when they’re most vigilant and better able to perform focused, analytic tasks. Trouble is, most corporate workplaces don’t accommodate owls very well. If they did, they’d have a new source of talent.

You have spent a lot of time talking to people about motivation, and how businesses approach motivating their employees. What is the number one misconception about motivation in business?

That the secret to high performance is rewards and punishment. We tend to believe that if we reward behaviour, we’ll get more of it — and if we punish behaviour, we’ll get less of it. That’s true sometimes. But it’s true far less often than we think. And it’s rarely true of tasks that require judgment, creativity, and conceptual thinking. In many ways, our motivation systems are stuck in the 20th century. We need to bring them into the 21st century.

How do you continuously motivate yourself, and how can people learn from your behaviours?

I struggle with motivation just like anybody else. But my secret trick is this: I show up. When I’m writing, I show up each morning to write — whether I’m motivated or not. Then I show up the next day, the next day, and the next day.  If I waited around to be inspired, I’d never get anything done.  But if I put my butt in the chair and get to work — unpleasant as that might be some days — good things happen.

What is the one learning you’d like your audience to take away – whether that’s about the perfect time, business success, or motivation?

The world is so complicated these days, it’s impossible to act with certainty — to know precisely what to do. That means leaders need to think like scientists — to be both intellectually curious and intellectually humble.  When deciding a move, they should form a hypothesis and then conduct a small test. Then based on the test, they should refine their actions.  And this should all happen swiftly and repeatedly.  These days, average leaders plan, but great leaders test.

Telstra Vantage is a business, ideas and technology experience to bring insights that inspire and drive innovation. Join the conversation and be the first in line to hear big news, connect with peers and share your opinions on some of the hot topics we’ll be exploring at #TelstraVantage. You can follow updates on Exchange or via Twitter.

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