Daniel H Pink is the author of six books including the number one New York Times Best Sellers Drive, To Sell is Human, and A Whole New Mind. His most recent book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, spent four months on The New York Times Best Seller list. Goodreads, Amazon, and others named it a top nonfiction book of 2018. The former host and co-executive producer of the TV show Crowd Control, which was a show about human behavior, Daniel regularly appears on NPR, PBS, and elsewhere. His books have been translated into thirty-nine languages, which is more languages than I can even name. His articles and essays have been in The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, and other notable publications. His TED Talk on the science of motivation is one of the ten most watched TED Talks of all time with more than twenty million views. A Phi Beta Kappa alum of Northwestern, he received a JD from Yale Law School and was a speechwriter for Al Gore. He lives in Washington DC with his family.
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Hi, Dan. It’s Zibby Owens. How are you?
Dan Pink: Hi, Zibby. Good, thanks. How are you doing?
Zibby: Good. How are you doing?
Zibby: Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I appreciate you taking the time. I loved your book When. It has changed my life already. Can you tell listeners a little bit about what When is about?
Dan: When is about the science of timing and ultimately all of the “when” decisions we make in our life. When we make these “when” decisions, we tend to make them based on intuition and guesswork. That's the wrong way to do it. There is this rich, complex body of science out there that gives us clues about how to make better, smarter decisions about when to do things, everything from when we should exercise, when we should read, when we should do certain kinds of work, when we should do other kinds of work, when we should quit a job, when we should get married. If we start making these kinds of decisions based on the evidence rather than based purely on intuition, we’re going to make better decisions.
Zibby: That makes sense. I loved your chart here, the five secrets to taking a perfect nap. I'm putting this on my bulletin board for the kids and everybody who needs one. For the sleep deprived parents out there, what are the tips for taking a perfect nap?
Dan: First of all, sleep deprivation is a tough issue. A nap isn't going to cure that. Believe me -- my kids are older now, but I have a twenty-two-year-old, a twenty-year-old today, and a sixteen-year-old -- if I go back in time fifteen years, fourteen years, I feel your pain, all you parents out there. What we know about naps, again, there's a lot of research on naps, is that naps are pretty good for us, pretty good for our mood, pretty good for our mental acuity, pretty good for our overall wellbeing. However, the ideal nap is actually surprisingly short, shorter than I would have imagined. The ideal nap is between ten and twenty minutes long. After you nap longer than that, you begin to develop what's called sleep inertia, which is that groggy, boggy feeling you get when you have slept too long. A ten to twenty-minute nap is extremely effective. For any of you ice hockey fans out there, it’s like a Zamboni for our brain. Our brain gets scuffed and nicks on our ice. A nap comes through and smooths it all out. Naps are especially good.
The nap that you're referring to, Zibby, is a super-duper, ultra high-end, which works as follows -- I've done this. I actually didn't do it when I was a parent of young kids. It probably would've saved me some grief. What I do is I will sit in my office. I will put on my noise-cancelling headphones, indeed the very headphones I'm wearing right now. Then I will set my phone timer to twenty-five minutes, countdown timer to twenty-five minutes. Right before I turn it on though, I will guzzle a big cup of coffee. I won't even enjoy it. I’ll plunk ice cubes into it just so it can go down easier. Gulp a big cup of coffee. Then I close my eyes. Timer goes off. I can usually, these days, fall asleep within ten or eleven minutes. Let's say I fall asleep in eleven minutes. My timer goes off at the twenty-fifth minute. That means I've had a nap for fourteen minutes, which is right in that ten to twenty-minute sweet spot. Here's the bonus. It takes about twenty-five minutes for caffeine to enter our bloodstream. At the moment that I am waking up -- that Zamboni has done its magic -- I'm getting a second hit from that caffeine. This is a technique, as you know, called a nappuccino. I hadn’t thought about this. I really wish I had done nappuccinos when I had smaller kids.
Zibby: I have to say I tried the nap, the technique. I had been very resistant to naps. I feel like I should just power through. I tried it this weekend. It changed my life. I am going to adopt this. Thank you from my heart.
Dan: That's great to hear. Here's the thing, Zibby. You're not the only person who thinks it’s better to power through. We have this whole culture of powering through that says that that's the way to get more work done. That's the way to get better work done, that's it’s also morally virtuous to power through. What the research is telling us is that's nonsense, total bunk. Research is telling us very clearly we need to take breaks. We should probably be taking more breaks. We should be taking certain kinds of breaks. Naps are just one dimension of this larger research on taking breaks. This is something that I, as in many realms of life, had gotten completely wrong. I had always believed that, similar to you, that amateurs take breaks. Professionals don't take breaks. It’s 180 degrees opposite. Amateurs are the ones who don't take breaks. Professionals take breaks.
Zibby: I love that. My daughter was doing her homework last night. In the middle, she's like, “I just need a break.” I thought, “Dan Pink says it’s okay. You have to go take your break now and get that restorative boost.”
Dan: How long had she been working before she needed a break? I like that self-awareness, unless it was like three minutes and she needed a break.
Zibby: No. She had done a solid hour.
Dan: Oh, my god. Completely needed a break.
Zibby: Yeah, she needed a break. She always needs a break. [laughs] I have to say, we’re having this talk now. It’s two o’clock. Based on your book, this is the worst time for me to be doing anything that requires my brain because I'm deep in the trough that you talk about. Can you explain to listeners when is the best time to be doing your analytic thinking? I know it depends on if you're a morning person or a night owl. This is really, really great information to have.
Dan: You're exactly right. It does depend on what your chronotype is. Are you a morning person, an evening person, or in between? What we know is about fifteen percent of us are very strong morning people, larks. About twenty percent of us are very strong evening people, owls. About two-thirds of us are in the middle. A way to think about it is this. We tend to move through the day in three stages: a peak, a trough, and a recovery. Most of us, about eighty percent of us, move through the day in that order. We have our peak early in the day, the trough in the middle of the day, right now, right around when you and I are talking, and then the recovery later in the day. Our cognitive abilities are different during each of these stages.
During the peak, that's when we’re most vigilant. Vigilance means that we’re able to bat away distractions. That makes the peak the ideal time for work that requires intense, heads-down focus and attention: writing a report, analyzing data, doing that sort of thing, a broad category of analytic work as you say. The recovery period, which again for most of us is late in the afternoon, early in the evening, we’re actually less vigilant during that period. Our mood is higher. The combination of we’re not totally worn out but we’re not as vigilant, that combination of being not worn out but in a decent mood can make it a good time for things requiring some degree of mental looseness, things like iterating new ideas or brainstorming. We should be doing our insight work, creative work, then, our analytic work during the peak. This trough period that you and I are in right now, not a good time, not a good time for anything. It doesn't mean that you don't do anything during that work, but you might want to answer your routine emails during that work.
If you do find yourself having to do real work during this trough period, there are some remedies. For instance, it’s a weird day for me because I'm not in my office. I'm in my house because I have to do some interviews that require having a hard-lined phone which I do not have in my office. It’s also incredibly, ridiculously, irritatingly cold outside here in Washington DC. Right before this, because I knew it was a nonoptimal time to talk, I actually did kind of a sprint, not a full sprint, but close to a sprint up and down the stairs of my house. I had a little bit of movement. I had a little bit of a break. We know that in breaks, something beats nothing. We know that movement is better than being stationary. Ideally, I would've gone outside to talk a walk, but I'm not going outside in that ridiculous cold. Even though I'm talking to you at a nonoptimal time, even recognizing that allowed me to take some steps to make it a little bit better.
Zibby: I like how you had a whole hierarchy of things that can make breaks better. The best I felt like you recommending was taking a walk in a nature with a friend. Isn’t comradery the best and being in nature the best?
Dan: Absolutely. There are these design elements. Outside is better than inside. Moving is better than stationary. This is really important, fully detached is better than semi-detached. A lot of people delude themselves into thinking they're taking a break, and they walk around with their nose in their Snapchat feed or Instagram feed. That's not a break. Also very interestingly as you suggest, social is better than solo. Breaks with other people are more restorative than breaks on our own. That's true even for introverts, which surprised me.
Zibby: The best time for exercise?
Dan: It depends. We can chart that out. It depends on your goals. Morning exercise seems to be better for weight loss, although benefits to weight loss of exercise are not as great as I think people think. Second is morning exercise seems to be better for habit formation, probably because you're less likely to get interrupted at seven AM than you are at five PM. The other thing which I think is a pretty strong argument for morning exercise is that exercise, not only aerobic exercise but even weight training, gives us a pretty enduring mood boost. It can last ten, eleven hours. If you exercise late in the day, you end up sleeping away some of that mood boost, whereas in morning exercise, you get it throughout.
That said, afternoon to early evening exercise is better for some things, other kinds of things. Late afternoon/early evening exercise is better for avoiding injury because we’re literally more warmed up right at that point. The second thing is that it’s better for enjoyment. People enjoy the late afternoon to early evening exercise more than morning exercise. I say that not only looking at the research, but I hate morning exercise. I feel awful when I exercise in the morning. By the late afternoon and early evening, I actually kind of enjoy it. Then finally, late afternoon/early evening exercise seems to be better for performance, believe it or not. Our lung function is higher. Our speed is greater. Our hand-eye coordination is a little bit better. It really depends on your goals. As you see -- your listeners can't see this, but you and are talking via video -- I'm actually dressed in some workout clothes because around four o’clock, late afternoon, I'm going to go to the gym. I hate going to the gym in the morning, but I like going to it in the afternoon.
Zibby: If I don't go by nine, forget it. It’s done.
Dan: That's fine. Here's the thing. People should do what works for them. It really depends on their goals. Listen, I want to be one of those badasses who gets up at four o’clock in the morning, and then works out for two hours, and then reads three newspapers in two different languages, and is in the office at seven fifteen. That's not me. I’ll wake up at seven. I’ll get to the office at eight thirty. I’ll go for a run at four thirty or five. It’s like the Popeye principle. I am who I am.
Zibby: You said have your therapy sessions in the morning. This was another good one.
Dan: There's some really interesting evidence on therapy sessions. In general, we absorb messages better. We learn a little bit better, not all of us. People who are owls are a little bit different. The vast majority of us absorb and learn a little bit more in the morning than in other times of day. There is evidence that therapy sessions are more effective in the morning rather than later in the day.
Zibby: What do you do if you're a lark married to an owl? When are you ever supposed to talk?
Dan: That's actually a really tough one. It’s interesting how often that will come up when I talk to people about this. It can be difficult. One of the things that you have to do is you have to recognize that a chronotype is a very heavily biological thing. It’s like height. It’s not a character flaw if somebody is an owl, that is they wake up late and go to sleep late. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not a character flaw if somebody wakes up at six in the morning and then falls asleep at nine in the evening. That's who they are. It’s sort of like complaining about, in straight couples, “I'm really miffed. My wife is short.” What are you going to do about that? She's short. “My husband’s tall. I hate that.” Okay. What are you going to do? Recognizing it as a biological feature is really important, then just making whatever accommodations you have. You see some evidence that when you have groups that have a mix of chronotypes, that can create cognitive diversity that ends up making better decisions. There could be a virtue in that as well.
What's interesting is that there are differences in men and women in their chronotypes. Men are more likely to be owls more than women. Even over the course of a lifetime, little kids are very strong larks, as most of your parents know. They get up early in the morning and start running around like insane nutjobs. Then around the mid-teens there's a massive move toward lateness. Again, it’s biological. They can be very significant shifts, two hours, three hours, four hours. That period of owliness exists until about the mid-twenties. Then after that, in general, leaving aside the hardcore owls, the twenty percent of us who are hardcore owls, there is a general return to larkiness, except that women return to larkiness a lot faster than men. I don't have the chart here. It’d be useless to draw it in a podcast. What the chart shows is that among straight couples, male-female couples of the same age, they almost always have incompatible sleeping times. The man, in general, is a little bit owlier than the woman.
Zibby: My husband and I never agree on what time to book a flight. I want to fly at nine AM. He wants to fly at nine PM.
Dan: I'm going to side with you on that, leaving aside your husband’s chronotype here for a moment, because early morning flights are less likely to get delayed. That's the argument. The first flight of the day is far less likely to have a problem or get delayed than a flight later in the day.
Zibby: Excellent. Thank you for helping me win that argument from now on. That's very helpful. Another thing that I thought was great, as a companion to your book you have all these little videos on your website that are short. They're animated. You have the words underneath so people can read them. You have audio so people can hear them. I feel like someone was like, “This is the best educational framework for making a story because people learn in such different ways.” Was that your goal there?
Dan: Thank you so much for saying that. What you're referring to I call Pinkcast, which are these super short videos. I started out as an experiment. I try a lot of experiments of trying different ways of conveying ideas. Like many experiments, most of them don't go anywhere. This is one that's actually worked pretty well. The idea was that a lot of people online, especially on their phones, didn't necessarily want to watch a super long video. People were still curious and wanted to learn. If you could distil something to sixty seconds, ninety second video -- we changed a little. We have the subtitles underneath them, so people don't even have to turn on the sound. If you can leave people with one idea, one tip, in sixty to ninety seconds and do it in a way that is mildly entertaining, it’ll prove to be pretty popular. That has worked pretty well. What I'm working on right now as a matter of fact is actually taking those Pinkcasts to the next level, making them even a little bit more entertaining, a little bit better produced, but still leaving people with that one tip, that one takeaway that they can use in their life.
Zibby: I like how you always ended it with some sort of a joke or a pun. It was perfect. They were all wrapped up like a little bow. I loved it. Looking forward to more of those. You have had twenty million views of your TED Talk. What does that feel like? How does it feel to know that twenty million people out there are watching you talk and really learning from your ideas?
Dan: It’s twenty million views. We don't know if it’s twenty million people.
Zibby: It’s your mom ten million times.
Dan: Or I watched it myself nineteen million times. I don't think about it that much. It’s like what we were talking about before with the Pinkcast. What I do for a living as a writer is try to do deep, real research that gives people some insights into their world. People, they're overwhelmed with day-to-day experience. They're missing context. They don't understand how the pieces fit together. If I can provide people that and translate that research in a way that is accessible and then give them something to do about it, then I'm doing something reasonably good for the world. Today especially -- you and I are talking via Skype; you've got this podcast for this audience of parents, mostly moms -- there are all kinds of ways to get ideas out there. You really have to endlessly experiment with what are the best ways to tell stories? What are the best ways to convey ideas? What are the best ways to make arguments? Try stuff. If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn't work, stop doing it. What people might not know is how much stuff doesn't work. Then you just stop doing it.
Zibby: In terms of your writing your books, how much time and research goes into each of the books? This is your sixth book.
Dan: Ideally, about two years. Most of my books are fairly research-intensive. I spend maybe a year on the research. Then I spend a year on the writing. In the course of writing something, you'll realize “Oh, my god, there's a giant hole here. I need to talk about this topic, and I don't have any research on it.” You go back and do that. Or you'll say, “I did all this research on this thing. It’s actually really boring and useless. I can't use this, so I have another gap here.” I'm a slow worker. Generally, about a two-year process.
Zibby: It sounds like from your acknowledgements you have your kids helping you out now?
Dan: My kids are older now. In this last book, both my daughters actually, the one who’s now twenty-two and the one who’s now twenty, they were just a couple years younger, they actually read pieces of it. Believe me, any daughter, especially, is willing to tell her dad when he’s full of it and doesn't know what he's talking about. They were very astute readers. My son actually, because I needed a basketball example, he was willing to help me out, actually found some great basketball research. It’s a family business here, man. My wife is a hugely important part of all of these books from the conception all the way through the final editing. For reasons that I can't understand, she is willing to sit in a small room with me while I read pages out loud to her and also read the pages out loud to me. I like to edit by hearing the words sometimes. This book and other ones, Jessica, my wife, has literally read every single word out loud to me. Here's the thing. I am the most annoying person in the world to be read to because I have a certain way I want things read. I will interrupt. I will criticize, yet she stuck with it.
Zibby: That's nice. What's your next book? What are you working on now?
Dan: I don't know. You got any ideas? I'm trying to figure that out right now. For me, the topic you pick for writing a book is a very, very high bar because it’s just so much work. I've been doing this for a long time. Still, it’s really hard to write a book. It’s really hard to write a good book. It takes a lot of effort. Even if you've done it before, it gets a tiny bit easier, but actually not that much easier. For me, I want to pick a topic that I really, really am into. Sometimes journalists will write an article about something and it’s kind of interesting. Then they’ll decide to write a book about it without fully vetting it. It’s sort of like getting married to somebody after two dates. Okay, you had a pretty good time on those two dates, but that doesn't mean you get married. For me, the bar is very, very, very, very high. I've actually explored several ideas and even written full proposals for books that I eventually said, “I don't want to live with this for several years or the rest of my life. This isn't quite good enough.” I'm trying to figure that out right now.
Zibby: I’ll send you some ideas later.
Dan: Sure, I’ll take it. I'm a little desperate.
Zibby: Do you have any other advice? That was pretty helpful right there. Any other advice to aspiring writers?
Dan: Recognize that writing is really, really, really, really hard. What you see on the page is often the product of a lot of sweat and torture. Don't get the idea that any writer just simply shows up, sits down, and they start taking dictation from god. It doesn't work that way. To me, the best advice I can give to aspiring writers is number one, you got to read a lot. I'm surprised by people who say, “I want to be a writer,” and they actually don't read very much. You're not going to be a writer that way. Second thing, or maybe the first thing in terms of day-to-day practices, is that it’s really important to treat, at least it is for me, to treat writing like a job. You don't just start writing whenever you feel inspired. If I waited until I was inspired to write, I would have zero books to my name. I treat it in some ways like a blue-collar job. I've said this many times.
I liken writing to building a brick wall. What do you do to build a brick wall, a giant brick wall? You show up on day one with your supplies and put up a few bricks. Then what do you do? You show up the next day. Put up a few more bricks. The world doesn't care whether you're in the mood to put up bricks that day or not. You just freakin’ show up. If you just show up and show up and show up and show up and treat it like a job, treat it like a blue-collar job where you have to do the work, you'll be surprised at how often inspiration will come because you've shown up. It’s really just show up every day and read a lot, those two things. Here's the thing that surprises me, Zibby. A lot of people who want to be writers aren’t even willing to do that. If you're not willing to do that, game over.
Zibby: Excellent. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.
Dan: Of course. I hope they have time to read this book, but I hope they have time to listen to the podcast if they can't read the book.
Zibby: Thanks so much. Take care.
Dan: All right, Zibby. Bye.