The Formula for a Perfect Break: An Interview with Daniel Pink

There is an entire body of science on the types of breaks that can restore energy, mental acuity and lead to fewer errors. Daniel Pink, one of the most watched TED Talk presenters of all time and bestselling author of books like, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, breaks it down for you in this interview. Listen now:



Full Transcript

Celia Fleischaker: Hi, I'm Celia Fleischaker, Chief Marketing Officer at PROS, and I am so excited today to be joined by our keynote for our upcoming conference, Outperform. It will be held in Las Vegas next month. Daniel Pink is keynoting for us. He is the best-selling author of six books. His latest, called When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, has been on the best seller list for more than four months. He's written a number of titles: Drive, To Sell is Human, A Whole New Mind, and they've been translated into 39 languages.

Daniel, thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us today.

Daniel Pink: I'm glad to be with you.

Celia: We're just going to ask you a few quick questions. We don't want to give it all away. But we want to give people a preview to what you're going to talk about. And the first one is really around the title of your book. The crux of this idea of the science behind the ‘when’. 

People, they go into their day. They often think about, you know … “Who am I meeting with? What am I going to talk about?” But they don't always prioritize the “when.” Just maybe tell us a little bit about the science and the importance behind that.

Daniel: Well, we know a few things, Celia. The first is that we tend to make our timing decisions based on intuition, based on guesswork, based on default. Sort of not even really thinking about them. And that's the wrong way to do it. There is this really intriguing and very rich body of science out there on timing. It ends up spanning across many, many different disciplines. But if you go into this research, you can begin to collect and assemble the ways to make better, smarter decisions on when to do things. Certainly, at the unit of a day, but even more episodically. So, research on how beginnings affect us, how do midpoints affect us, how do endings affect us. But the day, as you say, is crucial. And what we know … and the most important thing to know about the day is this: our brain power does not remain static over the course of a day - it changes. This is a very important point because, as you suggest in your question, we don't even factor that into any of our decisions. We assume that our brain power is going to be the same at 9.00 a.m., at 3.00 p.m., at 7.30 p.m.  And, it's not true. So, we have to start taking that into account on everything from individual work, to team-based collaboration, to even the scheduling of meetings. 

Now the good news in all of this is that the science is relatively clear, or at least it yields a set of fairly clear design principles. And that individuals and organizations who use this evidence can actually make pretty significant productive changes for relatively lower or sometimes zero cost.

Celia: That's amazing. So, there's a difference in maybe when I want to do this interview with you, when I want to brainstorm, when I want to do a highly analytical set of activities. It matters?

Daniel: It matters a lot. The difference in performance between the daily highpoint and the daily low point can be massive. And you what you do. The best time to do something depends on what you are doing. So, as you suggest, there are certain times of day … it gets complicated because not everybody is identical ... some of us are more inclined to be larks -- morning people -- and some of us are more inclined to be owls -- evening people. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. But what it tells us is that there are certain times of day when we are systematically better at analytic, heads down focused kinds of work. And there are other times of day when we are mentally looser, and our mood is a little more elevated, and that makes it better time for doing everything from brainstorming, to try to solve non-obvious problems, to iterating new ideas, to having a fun, free willing interview like the one we are having now.

Celia: There you go, awesome. And then now I'm going to ask you about breaks. I know my CEO is going to see this. I don't want him to think that I'm always thinking about when I’m going to take my next break. But, is it important to take breaks from a timing perspective? And, does it matter what kind of break we take?

Daniel: Yes, and yes, and I'm going to add a third yes to this in that your CEO should be taking breaks. In terms of organizational change, people always look -- they will listen to what their leaders are saying -- but they always look up to see what they are actually doing. And so, if the leader is taking breaks, then I think you have a fighting chance for other people in your organization to take breaks. So, here's what we know about breaks, and then you identify the two key issues once again. First, we should be taking more breaks. We have to. There's a whole science of breaks that to me that is where the science of sleep was 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, people were still thinking they were cool when they pulled all-nighters. Now we know better. And, you know right now people think they are cool if they power through. They never take a break; they never leave their desks. What we know from this research is that's wrong. That powering through is very rarely a good idea. That, listen, I had it flipped. We used to think that amateurs took breaks, and professionals didn't. It's totally reverse. Professionals take breaks. Amateurs are the ones that don't take breaks and power through. We have to think of breaks as part of our performance rather than some kind of deviation or slip up in our performance. The second thing is exactly as you say … is that some breaks are better than others. And, once again, the research across many, many fields yields, I think, some very clear guidance on this. What we know is that breaks with other people are more restorative then breaks on our own. And that's true even for introverts. We know that breaks, and this I think is fairly...

Celia: Classic?

Daniel: Well known. Breaks where you are moving are more restorative than breaks where you are just sedentary. Some remarkable research on the importance of breaks outside, in nature, seeing greenery, is part of a larger set of body of research on the effects of nature and greenery on our overall well-being, which is powerful. And also, it tells us that these breaks should be fully detached. And by that, what I mean is it's not a break if you are walking around outside with your nose in your phone, and it’s not the greatest break in the world if you are talking about work. What you need is … you need that detachment. And so, what I like about this is that, you know, it’s very easy to put these principals into place. So, what I think people can do is just schedule every afternoon to take a 15-minute break, outside, walking around, with someone you like, leaving your phone behind, and not talking about work. One 15-minute break. I mean if organizations did that, I think there would be boost of productivity and well-being across the work place, and I would love to see it … CEO's and everybody in the C-suite to start modeling that behavior.

Celia: That's so cool, the fact that small change could have that big impact across the organization.

Daniel: And the other thing that is does, which is interesting, is that it can … you know again, our performance changes across the day. I mean our brain power changes across the day. And we are not always able to say, "Oh, it’s not great time of day for me to do this, and I am therefore not going to do it at all.” Like, you don’t always have that option. And so what breaks can do is … breaks can mitigate some of that down draft in performance based on diurnal patterns and time of day. So, it can, it can, and there's all kinds of good evidence out there about how, even a very high stakes thing, like surgery, or even construction in the building trade … that taking breaks can restore energy, restore mental acuity, lead to fewer errors, and just for people of pure knowledge workers, people who are sitting at their desks … there's also evidence showing that even tiny breaks, what researchers call microbreaks can be effective. So, even a literally a one-minute break is better than not taking a break at all.

Celia: Awesome. That's terrific! Thank you so much for spending a few minutes with us. We really appreciate it. I can't wait for our attendees to hear more from you in Las Vegas. Thank you.

Daniel: Yeah, I know. I'm looking forward to being in Vegas, where timing matters in Vegas, too.

Celia: Absolutely. Perfect. Thank you!


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