When by Daniel H. Pink [Book Summary & PDF]

By harnessing the power of timing, ​When​ is the perfect book for everyone who seeks a more meaningful life, how to take advantage of the hidden time patterns of our daily lives, and even answers to bigger questions, like when to quit a job, switch careers or get married!





Who is this book for?

By harnessing the power of timing, ​When​ is the perfect book for everyone who seeks a more meaningful life, how to take advantage of the hidden time patterns of our daily lives, and even answers to bigger questions, like when to quit a job, switch careers or get married!

About the author

Daniel H. Pink​ is a ​ New York Times​ bestselling author with six provocative books. When was named a Best Book of 2018 by ​ Amazon​. His other books include the long-running New York Times bestseller ​A Whole New Mind​ and the #1 New York Times bestsellers ​Drive​ and ​To Sell is Human​. His books have won multiple awards and have been translated into 39 languages.

In this summary

People believe that timing is an art. In ​When​, Daniel H. Pink shows that timing is a science. He offers insights into the human condition and useful guidance on working smarter and living better, backing everything with multifaceted research. His book breaks down the importance of timing in 3 key areas of our life: the day, the beginnings-midpoints-endings, and synching-thinking. Let’s explore the principles of this amazing book together!



Across continents, cultures, religions, and time zones, scientists have discovered a predictable pattern governing our daily lives: we feel active, engaged, and happy during the morning, these feelings plummet in the afternoon, and they rise back up again in the early evening.

In other words: ​a peak, a trough, and a rebound.​

Scientists have further established that nearly all living things have biological clocks, called ​ circadian rhythms​. In humans, this biological clock controls our body temperature, regulates our hormones, and helps us fall asleep at night and awaken in the morning.

Why is this important to know? Because our moods have an external impact and shape how we respond to words and actions. As an example, the author suggests that important meetings with investors and the press, which impact a company’s public perception – and stock prices! – should be held in the morning, when the mood is upbeat.

Likewise, mental keenness, concentration, and vigilance are stronger earlier in the day, making it perfect for analytical, rational tasks. Past the afternoon trough, the brain becomes less vigilant and better at solving ‘insight problems’, requiring out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. As the author brilliantly highlights:

“For analytic problems, lack of inhibitory control is a bug. For insight problems, it’s a feature.”

In other words, our capacities also change during the day, according to a clock we don’t control! There is an important exception, however…

The aforementioned diagram is true only for 80% of people identified as ‘larks’ or ‘third birds’. For the other 20%, the ‘owls’, it’s in reverse: they’re out-of-sync in the morning and more vigilant in the evening!

What about the afternoon trough, though? Regardless of your chronotype, it’s been found to impair our professional and ethical judgment. The author suggests us to harness the power of restorative breaks. For the perfect break, keep in mind:

  1. Something beats nothing​. Sticking with a task for too long makes us lose sight of its goal. Short breaks reactivate our commitment to it.
  2. Moving beats stationary​. Simply walking during a break can boost our energy levels, sharpen our focus, and improve our mood.
  3. Social beats solo​. Social and collective rest breaks minimise physical strain and errors, and reduce stress.
  4. Outside beats inside​. Breaks in the nature are a powerful mental restorative – even looking outside the window can do the trick!
  5. Fully detached beats semi-detached​. Total psychological and physical detachment from work increases vigor and reduces exhaustion. In other words, ​for the perfect break, consider a short walk outside with a friend, during which you discuss something other than work.

The author also suggests that we take more seriously “the most important meal of the day”, our lunch, keeping the aforementioned rules in mind.

Finally, he suggests that we take a nap during our break, as it can improve cognitive performance, and boost mental and physical health.

The ideal naps that combine effectiveness with efficiency last 10-20 mins – if you sleep for more, you wake up with a confused, boggy feeling. To maximise its benefits, try “nappuccino”: drink coffee before your 20-min nap! Caffeine will take 25 mins to kick in, boosting your sharpness even more.


‘What problems’ (viruses, natural disasters, terrorism) are easy to grasp. We also often search for solutions in the realm of ‘what’. (​ What​ am I doing wrong? ​What​ can I do better?)

Adults often dismiss ‘when problems’, because they’re intangible, despite the fact that the most potent answers lie in the realm of ‘when’.


Beginnings have a far greater impact than most of us understand. Although we can’t always determine when we start, we can exert some influence on beginnings, altering their consequences.

Starting Right

“Starts matter. We can’t always control them. But this is one area where we can and therefore we must .”Click To Tweet

Young people can be classified as ‘owls’. However, the average start time of American schools/colleges is 8.03am, because students have to follow timelines designed for adults (most of them are ‘larks’ or ‘third birds’).

As a result, students sacrifice sleep and this negatively influences their health, grades, and trajectory of adult lives.

Delaying school starting times (optimal time found to be after 11am) improves motivation, boosts emotional well-being, reduces depression, and lessens impulsivity.

“Starts matter. We can’t always control them. But this is one area where we can​ and therefore we ​must​.”

Starting Again

We all use ‘temporal landmarks’, like the New Year, birthdays, the start of the week, or an anniversary, to start afresh.

Such days allow us to open “new mental accounts”, disconnecting us from our past mistakes and imperfections, and boosting our confidence and motivation for a better future. They also interrupt attention to day-to-day flow, helping us see the big picture of our lives and goals.

People and organisations can enlist these mentally strategic turning points to recover from rough beginnings and start again.

Starting Together

It’s been found that starting a career in a weak economy can persist restricting opportunities and earning power for 20+ years. Yikes! In such cases, ‘starting right’ and ‘starting again’ are insufficient. Here we must ‘start together’. Examples:

  • Placing new, unexperienced doctors in a team with seasoned professionals (or their patients might unfairly suffer the consequences),
  • Offering in-house help and advice to young parents in low-income neighbourhoods (or, likewise, their children’s lives might suffer terrible beginnings), and
  • Governments/universities offering a student loan forgiveness programme keyed to the unemployment rate (or fresh graduates in lousy economies could suffer for decades, as seen above).


Midpoints can bring us down. That’s the slump. But they can also fire us up. That’s the spark.

For example, numerous studies have found that happiness climbs high early in adulthood, but it begins to slide downward in the late thirties and early forties, dipping to a low in the fifties. But we recover quickly, and well-being later in life often exceeds that of our younger years.

One explanation for this midpoint deflation is the disappointment of unrealised expectations. Yet, we don’t remain in the slump for long, because gradually we adjust our aspirations and later realise that life is pretty good. In short, we dip in the middle because in a younger age we’re lousy forecasters.

In other cases, at the halfway mark we don’t slump; we jump. We experience “a new sense of urgency,” dubbed as the “uh-oh effect.” A mental siren alerts us that we’ve squandered half of our time. That injects a healthy dose of stress – “uh-oh, we’re running out of time!” – which revives our motivation and reshapes our strategy.

In short, midpoints can have a dual effect: the “oh-no & retreat” or “uh-oh & advance”. But there is a final type of midpoint situation worth mentioning: it’s been found that being ​ slightly​ behind compared to your opponent during the halftime ​ significantly​ increases your team’s chance of winning. To sum up, turning a slump into a spark involves three steps:

  1. Be aware of midpoints. Don’t let them remain invisible,
  2. Use them to wake up (“uh-oh”) rather than roll over (“oh-no”), and
  3. Imagine that you’re behind – but only by a little. That will spark your motivation and help you win – the opposing team or yourself.

Finally, to reawaken your motivation during the midpoint slump:

  1. Set interim goals.
  2. Publicly commit to those interim goals.
  3. Don’t break the chain (google “the Seinfeld technique”).
  4. Turn ‘how can I continue?’ to ‘how can I help?’ by picturing one personwho’ll benefit from your efforts.


Endings shape our behaviour in four predictable ways. Energise. When people near the end of the arbitrary marker of a decade, a re-energised pursuit of significance awakens in their minds and alters their behaviour.

For example, across the entire life span, the age at which people were most likely to run their first marathon was 29.

Likewise, at the beginning of a pursuit, we’re generally more motivated by our progress. At the end we’re generally more energised by trying to close the small gap that remains. That’s a reason why deadlines are often effective.


Endings help us encode – register, rate, and recall experiences. But they can also distort our perceptions and obscure the bigger picture. When we remember an event, we assign the greatest weight to its most intense moment (the peak) and how it culminates (the end). We tend to downplay how long it lasts and magnify what happens at the end. This effect shapes our opinions and subsequent decisions, so be wary of it.


Older people have smaller social networks than when they were young. The reason isn’t loneliness or isolation. As we get older, when we become conscious of the ultimate ending, we edit our network and actively prune the less emotionally meaningful people out.

A possible reason is our goals. At a younger age, we pursue “knowledge-based goals”, where a wide-and-loose social network helps us collect information more easily. Later in life we attune to the present and seek appreciation for life, prompting us to omit the needless people from our lives.This happens with any kind of ending: moving to a new city or switching jobs.


“I’ve got good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?” Roughly four out of five people prefer ​ “bad news first, good news last.” Given a choice, human beings prefer endings that elevate. However, pure ‘happy endings’ rarely leave us satisfied.

The most powerful endings produce something richer – the unexpected insight that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we need. They deliver poignancy, because poignancy delivers significance.


Group Synching

Individual timing (managing our own beginnings, midpoints, and endings) is crucial. But group timing is just as important.

What is group timing? It’s individuals working in tempo, synchronising their actions with each other, and moving to a common beat toward a common goal – whether it’s a music festival, a school, a company, a government, or even our society as a whole. Groups in sync have three characteristics in common.

The Boss

Group timing requires a boss: someone or something above and apart from the group itself to set the pace, maintain the standards, and focus the collective mind. This may be the conductor in an orchestra, the coxswain in competitive rowing, or the CEO of a company.

Sometimes, however, the “boss” – or the pacesetter – is merely external cues, such as the arrival time of a train, the working hours of a company, or the law that doesn’t allow a bar to serve drinks after 1am.

The Tribe

Belongingness leads to health and satisfaction and its absence leads to ill effects. Social cohesion leads to greater synchrony, helping us time our actions with others. Group coordination manifests in three forms:

  1. Codes​ – shared language that creates the sense of affiliation
  2. Garb​ – clothing operating as a marker of affiliation and identification
  3. Touch​ – found to increase cooperative behaviour within groups

The Heart

The final – and ultimate – level of synchronicity: working in harmony with others makes us feel good, which, in turn, enhances synchronisation, and the cycle continues. If you want to find your own “Syncher’s High”, consider the following:

  • Sing in a chorus
  • Run together
  • Try team rowing
  • Dance
  • Join a yoga class
  • Flash mob
  • Cook in tandem

Group coordination is not a set-and-forget matter. To keep operating in sync with your group, ask the following questions:

  1. Do we have a clear boss who engenders respect, whose role is unambiguous, and to whom everyone can direct their initial focus?
  2. Are we fostering a sense of belonging that enriches individual identity, deepens affiliation, and allows everyone to synchronise to the tribe?
  3. Are we activating the uplift – feeling good and doing good – that is necessary for a group to succeed?

Thinking in Tenses

Through numerous studies, the author has concluded that ​ “the path to a life of meaning and significance isn’t to “live in the present” as so many spiritual gurus have advised”​; the challenge of the human condition is to bring the past, present, and future together.

In other words, to integrate our multiple perspectives on time into a coherent whole, one that helps us comprehend who we are and why we’re here.

Here’s how the past, the future, and the present come together.

The Past

Thinking in the past tense, ie. being nostalgic, offers ​ “a window into the intrinsic self,”​ a sense of meaning, and a connection to others. It makes the present meaningful and gives perspective to our current actions.

The Future

When we feel that our future self is closely connected with our current self, we are more likely to plan effectively and behave responsibly about our future, eg. save for retirement or have a healthy diet. Approaching the future correctly can enhance the significance of the present.

The Present

“By recording ordinary moments today, one can make the present a ‘present’ for the future,” Click To Tweet

People underestimate the value of rediscovering current experiences in the future.

For example, the experience of awe – the sight of the Grand Canyon, the birth of a child, a spectacular thunderstorm – changes our perception of time. It slows down. It expands. It lifts our well-being. It brings us to the present moment.

Every present moment can be a moment of awe, if we pay close attention.

“By recording ordinary moments today, one can make the present a ‘present’ for the future,”​


Key takeaways

  • Most people feel engaged and happy in the morning, these feelings plummet in the afternoon, and they go up again in the early evening.
  • Breaks are crucial. For the perfect break, consider a short walk outside with a friend, during which you discuss something other than work.
  • Important decisions and negotiations should be conducted earlier in the day.
  • Be aware of midpoints and turn them into moment of awakening.
  • Group synching has a boss (the pacesetter), a sense of belonging (the tribe), and a feel-good effect, which boosts synchronicity even more.
  • Every present moment can be a present for the future.

Further reading

The Power of Moments by Chip & Dan Heath.​ The bestselling authors explore why certain brief experiences can elevate and change us – and how we can learn to create such extraordinary moments in our life and work.

Should you answer that email, or answer your calling? Tune into social media, or tune into your own voice? Respond to other people’s needs or actively set your own agenda? When it comes to creative work, every decision, every day, matters. 99U brings together the insights of 20 creative experts to produce Manage Your Day to Day. Learn how to build a rock-solid routine, find focus and sharpen your creative mind.

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Action Steps

  1. Determine your chronotype and sync your work accordingly.
  2. Improve your future by ‘starting again’ on the next ‘temporal landmark’.
  3. Start a group activity to find your Syncher’s High.
  4. Download the complete book on Amazon.

This summary is not intended as a replacement for the original book and all quotes are credited to the above mentioned author and publisher.