7 Key Takeaways from Daniel Pink’s Book “When” That You Need to Know

The cover of Daniel Pink's book When

Some books have good information but aren’t the most pleasurable to read.

Daniel Pink’s When was both informative and pleasurable.

There are some great takeaways from the book that could have huge impacts on your life – so I wanted to share them with you. And, if you are looking for a book summary – this is pretty close.

Now to it: 7 takeaways from Daniel Pink’s When that you need to know now.

1. Our body runs on a cycle

This is one of the biggest points of the book. We all have a cycle we go through every day: our emotions, focus, energy, and so on.

So what is the cycle?

A spike, a drop, and then a recovery.

We have a period of the day where we are focused, full of energy, have a better mood, etc., then it drops into a trough and later begins to recover.

For most people, the peak is in the morning. Pink calls these people “Larks” and “Third birds”. Morning is where we do our best work. We are more honest and moral. We have more energy, and so on.

However, about noon or 1 (generally about 7 hours after we wake), we peak out and drop into a trough.

When we are in the trough, our moods are worse, we can’t think as well, make worse decisions, our energy is lower, etc.

Then, in the afternoon, it begins to recover, around 4 or 5 or such.

Pink says that the peak is best for logical thinking time and the recovery more for insight problems.


However, not everyone has that cycle (and even with that basic cycle, people’s times can vary). Some are the complete opposite.

Owls, night owls, have their peaks at night and their recovery in the morning. While larks make better decisions in the morning and are more moral and honest in the morning, owls are more so at night.

How this plays out

Studies have shown the negative effects of the trough. More problems arise from surgeries in the afternoon versus the morning. If you get a colonoscopy, the doctor is more likely to find more in the morning than in the afternoon.

Companies’ stocks are likely to be rated higher if their stock meetings are in the morning versus the afternoon. Kids who do testing do better in the morning than in the afternoon.

And so on.

Cycles change

Cycles change through life. Kids are mostly larks – that’s why many go to sleep early. When they become teens, they become night owls. That lasts into college and into the early 20s.

Then some shift back.

So how does this affect you?

If you know your cycle, you can work with it. Work with your peaks and recovery time. Try to adjust your schedule to maximize when you are at your peak and in recovery mode. Adjust tasks as much as you can.

Also, be careful of the trough time. Try to avoid major decisions.

There are ways to help overcome the trough period, and we will dig deeper into those in some of the coming takeaways.

2. We should take more breaks (and even take naps)

One of the best ways to overcome the grip of the trough during the afternoon is to take intentional breaks.

Vigilance break

One such break is what Pink calls a “vigilance break”. These are intentional stops to check to make sure you are doing what you are supposed to be doing and not miss anything.

For example, some hospitals, as they prepare to do surgery, do intentional stops and go over checklists. This prevents errors and helps keep everyone alert.

Regular breaks

Breaks, in general, are effective. They can boost your mood and refresh your mind. They help keep you focused and can help you solve a problem you are stuck on.

It was mentioned previously that students test worse in the afternoons. However, if they take a break right before the test, they actually do better after the break, even in the afternoon.

At least one study showed that as time passed judges who did parole hearings, ruled less and less in favor of the person trying to get parole. However, if they had consistent breaks, they were more consistent in their rulings.

Pink says that it’s better to have frequent short breaks than occasional ones.

The company Desktime found that its most productive employees were not the ones who worked straight through, but they worked for 52 minutes and then took a 17-minute break.

So what’re the best ways to do a break?

      • Frequent short breaks are best.
      • Doing breaks with others is beneficial.
      • Getting up and walking around (and going outside if possible)
      • Be fully detached from your work during your break.
      • If can’t get up, do a 20-20 break – look up from your computer, and look at something outside 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

One of the best breaks is your lunch break. Pink even calls it the most important meal of the day.

Here’s why:

When you eat crappy and work from your desk, you don’t get detached from your work (and if the food is unhealthy, that hurts your energy and health, short and long-term).

One study showed that those who took breaks away from their desks were better able to handle workplace stress and displayed less exhaustion and more vigor.

Pink says the two key ingredients for a powerful lunch break are autonomy and detachment.

Being able to choose how to utilize your lunch break and being fully detached from your work, has great benefits.


Naps get a bad rap – but they are beneficial.

Research has shown that naps improve your cognitive performance and boost your mental and physical health. It increases your ability to learn and increase information.

You can get more done by taking a quick nap than working straight through.

However, if naps are too long, you have “sleep inertia” – that groggy feeling you get.  The longer the nap (after a certain point), the more inertia you have.

So how long should you nap?

10-20 minutes.

A 10-20 minute nap gives you the rest you need without sleep inertia. Pink recommends setting an alarm for 25 minutes as it, on average, takes a person 7 minutes to fall asleep.

He actually recommends what he calls a cappuccino. Caffeine takes 25 minutes to kick in, so Pink recommends drinking a cup of coffee right before your nap. That way as your nap is ending, not only are you refreshed from the nap, but the boost from the caffeine is kicking in.

3. How we start is important

How we start matters in many ways.

Take our income. The state of the economy, when we joined the workforce, has had a large influence on our income for a number of years.

Star time matters as well. Remember how teens and college students are night owls?

Having early classes hurts learning. They found that when classes start later, there are less tardies, less absences, better grades, less car accidents, and so on.

Of course, how we start a relationship or our day can have effects on the rest of it.

Though he didn’t mention it, there have been studies that showed how you start a conversation determines largely how it will end. If you start a conversation harshly, there’s a high chance it’s going to end negatively.

Thankfully, though, we can start again.

We often create “temporal landmarks”, beginning on certain days. For example, New Year’s is a new beginning for many. Birthdays are another. The start of the week. And so on.

If you had a rough start on something, start again. Pick a day or hour or moment. If the quarter is going bad at work, have some point set where you and your team can “reset” and start back on track?

And though he didn’t mention it specifically, when it comes to our day, we can decide to “restart” our day. From this point (from lunch, etc.), it’s going to be different.

Same with relationships. If a conversation starts poorly, call a time-out. Say, “We started out poorly, let’s have a reset and start over, okay?”.

One way to start well is together.

The example Pink gave was medical students who graduated and began their careers as medical students. There were, for obvious reasons, more errors during the following month.

How to solve this? Put them with a team of seasoned professionals. Having them work together with them reduces errors.

This can apply to a job. If people have a rough time starting a new position, put them with positive, productive people who are more seasoned and who can help them along and show them the ropes.

4. We don’t hold the “middle” very highly, but we can use it to our advantage

We have a lot of regard for the beginning and end of things.

We like to start well. And as long as we end well, what happens in the middle often doesn’t matter as much.

For example, say you are using scissors to cut out a star from paper. You are more likely to focus on being extra precise and careful when you start and when you finish. You are more likely to be less precise during the middle.

Take the lighting of the menorah candles. Say there are two people: one lights the candles halfway through then stops. The other does a couple in the beginning and then the end (which many do).

Even if the halfway person did more candles, we are more likely to hold the one who ends well in higher regard.

The pattern of the middle

The middle often has a pattern. Think of a “U”. Things are high, then they go lower, then goes back up.  (look at the scissor example or the menorah example – started well, slumped down, then finished well.)

Though he dismisses the “midlife crisis” with some of the studies he cites, he does say that in general people start high in satisfaction in life, then drop in satisfaction, then it goes back up again later in life, somewhere 50’s range.

The uh-oh effect

However, we can use the middle to our advantage.

Take teams, for example. Studies have shown that teams do not progress steadily in stages.

Let’s take a team that has a project due in 6 months. Teams typically get to know each other, share ideas, and so on, but don’t get much done the first half, the first 3 months.

However, when the halfway point hits, there is an “uh oh” moment. Teams get hard to work getting things done at that point.

This pattern spans teams of all types, from study groups to IT, to bankers, etc. When the halfway point comes along, whatever issues may have delayed are often put on the rest and people get down and get to work to get it done on time.

A little behind

Another way that the middle can help us is by giving us a little boost of motivation.

Take basketball. The team that has more points at halftime statistically wins more than the team that is behind. However, if the team behind is only 1 point behind, it has been shown that they have a greater chance to win.

So how does that apply to you? Think of yourself as behind, only a little. Let it get you motivated to push harder and get it done, whatever it is.

5. How we end matters – a lot

Despite how something starts and the events in the middle, we hold how an event ends in higher regard than the rest of it.

If you have a colonoscopy and it ends painfully, even if it wasn’t that painful most of the time, you will have a more negative impression of it than if it was painful in the beginning but ended non-painfully.

If your vacation ends on a negative note, you are likely to think of the whole vacation as more of a negative experience, even if the rest of it was great (so always try to end your vacations, events, seminars, etc. with a bang!).

The jerk

Take someone who lived as a jerk for most of their life, then the last few months become generous, kind, etc. We are much more likely to think highly of that person than someone who spent their whole lives as generous, kind, etc. but then the last few months became a jerk.

Ending points

Certain ending points matter to us as well. For example, the years that end in 9 have great significance.

People who are 29, 39, 49, etc. are much more likely to sign up for marathons or events like that. They are also more likely to commit suicide, cheat on their spouse, etc.


Endings can have a motivation for us to push harder to get something done. Remember the “uh oh effect”? That’s why setting deadlines can help us accomplish more, faster (in some cases).

As you get older

Pink also notes how the main reason the social groups of senior citizens decrease is not just because people pass away or get sick, but because toward the end of life, people focus more on what’s more important, on the relationships that are most important. They focus on a few relationships that have the most meaning.

Good news or bad news first

When it comes to giving someone good and bad news, start with the bad, and end with the good. The end has more weight, so ends well.

6. Groups must synchronize on three levels

For groups to be effective, they must sync on three levels – to the boss, to the tribe, and to the heart.


Pink says that group timing requires having a boss, “someone or something above and apart from the group itself to set the pace, maintain the standards, and focus the collective.”

This can be a person (such as a choir director, team leader, etc.), or something external (like a set time, regulation, etc.).

The tribe

Next, groups need to sync with each other. They need to have a deep sense of belonging. Ways to build that sense of belonging include the “codes’ of the group, garb, and through touch.

In basketball, it was seen that the teams and team members who touched the most (fist bumps, high fives, hugs, etc.), did better.

The heart

And lastly, syncing to your heart. When you do things in synch with others, it feels good and helps us do good, which enhances synchronization.

Bonus: Why you should sing in a choral group

Now to singing specifically. Here’s what singing in a group, synching with them, does for you:

      • Calms heart rates and boosts endorphin levels
      • Improves lung function
      • Increases pain thresholds
      • Alleviates symptoms of IBS
      • Increases production of immunoglobulin
      • Cancer patients show an improved immune response
      • Gives a boost to a positive mood
      • Lifts self-esteem
      • Reduces stress and symptoms of depression
      • Enhances one’s sense of purpose
      • Increases sensitivity to others

Synching, doing things with others, has great effects on us. It’s important to find groups you can sync with.

7. Think past, present, and future – together

Different languages see time differently. Some languages have a strong future tense and others have weak or non-existent ones. The view on time is different.

Weak future tense

With the weak and non-existent ones, the future is more blurred with the present.

In fact, people with languages that do not differentiate much between the future and present were 24% less likely to smoke and 30% more likely to save for retirement. They exercised more regularly, were healthier, and had more money in retirement.

Now, the researcher did not think the language itself caused it, but the language reflects their viewpoint on time.

Strong future tense

People with a language with a strong future tense separate the future from the present more. They see the future as different than now. They don’t see as much how present actions affect future self.

It can be easier to say, I’ll save for retirement in the future.

Those who blend it see the future and the present together. What they do now affects them.

So what should we do?


Blend past, present, and future together.

Pink says, “As with nostalgia, the highest function of the future is to enhance the significance of the present.”

Don’t think of the future as far off and not important now. Let it be part of you now, as what you do now affects it.

And, as for nostalgia, it’s good (as long as we aren’t living in the past).

Pink says, “The benefits of thinking fondly about the past are vast because nostalgia delivers two ingredients essential to well-being: a sense of meaning and a connection to others.”

Don’t disregard the past or ignore the future. Don’t hold them so separately.  Use them to enhance today.


Pink had some great insights in his book When: from how our daily lives are guided by patterns, to the importance of breaks, to the significance of how we start, end, and the middle, to group timing and synching.

I just scratched the surface of this article, and I encourage you to read it for yourself. You may find it at your local library, or you can get it on Amazon.

Now to you: What one principle do you plan to take and apply to your life today?

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