When by Daniel Pink — Suffering from a Strong First Half | A Book Review

Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.

The book When by Daniel Pink starts off with this quote from Miles Davis (half expected this quote). As I started with the first chapter ‘The Hidden Patterns of Everyday Life’, I expected to see a riveting story. Daniel chooses to start with a slightly deadpan account of the sinking of Lusitania. It is a tricky choice because the answers to the tragedy are not yet clear. Some paragraphs later, he says ‘There are books on “how-to”. This is a book about “when-to”.’ He finally manages to set up (or should I say ‘start’) the book well. As a bonus, you also learn that each chapter has a Time Hacker’s Handbook. The book starts looking promising. The next few pages showcase the impact of the biological and psychological research studies on circadian cycles, evaluation of various times of the day and when to do what and why. By now, the book has picked up the pace. It is now that you see the often-quoted probability question of who is Linda — a teller OR a teller and a feminist. So many books have repeated this that it is not intriguing at all. Just as you are about to go “Oh come on”, Daniel moves to one of my the most interesting parts of the book — Larks and Owls terminology. Although I have read about this before, Daniel makes it an interesting and a fresh read. The pages on Larks and Owls end with a bang. This was a splendid chapter. And, the Time Hacker’s Handbook of the first chapter is even more splendid with takeaways, timing for key activities and discovering your own internal clock. Loved it.

The Afternoon knows what the morning never suspected. -Robert Frost.

And with this starts the second chapter — Afternoons and Coffeespoons. The second chapter starts by describing the Hospital of Doom and does a fantastic job of capturing the attention even though it is scary to read the first page of the second chapter. When I encounter examples from hospitals in books, I expect some reference to The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. There is none here but Daniel covers ‘Vigilance Breaks’ which are awfully similar to techniques described by Atul. Anyway, we quickly move on the study of what drives the test scores higher (or lower) among the students. By now you are slightly angry on how little public policy makers know about policy making for hospitals, schools, and colleges. The chapter finally ends with a word I am going to quote often — Nappucino. What it is, you have to read yourself. Like the previous chapter, the Time Hacker’s Handbook here too is really exciting.

To be lucky at the beginning is everything. -Don Quixote

And with that starts Part 2, Chapter 3. Beginnings. The chapter’s first few pages are comforting. Early mornings may not the productivity hack you were looking for. Especially if you are a teenager or young adult. Working when you feel energized is the best. Daniel covers research on how pushing school and college times to 830 am and 11 am respectively could improve test scores, attendance, college driving fatalities and more. The research quoted is solid and the lackadaisical attitude of the policy makers and implementers is questionable. The chapter focuses on how to start, start right and starting again. A slightly somber chapter. Loads to sink in. And the Time Hacker’s Handbook again is splendid.

When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood. — Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace.

The next chapter titled Midpoints was my favorite chapter of the book. And in this chapter precisely at loc 1795 — almost around the midpoint of the book, comes the most startling insight from a study by Berger and Pope about which team wins after being ahead at the midpoint. If the chapter in itself was great, the Time Hacker’s Handbook is perhaps even better. Daniel talks about Zeigarnik effect — our tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than finished ones. He also recommends us to take your break when you are in middle or something, you have more motivation to start again. Finally, he quotes, Ayelet Fishback of Chicago Booth for her advice to best position work to your team — that is the best advice I have read in my life. The Warren Buffet technique to tackle mid-life crisis is another gem. This chapter is turning out to be the best one in the book. Honest, insightful and unique.

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” — Orson Welles

Chapter number 5 is titled “Endings”. I was really excited about this chapter as it finishes Part 2. The best part of this chapter was a section titled ‘Energize: Why We Kick Harder Near (Some) Finish Lines.’ The Ending Chapter was not as great as the previous chapters but makes some interesting observations on not only when to end but also how. The Time Hacker’s Handbook for the chapter covers interesting topics but without many interesting insights. The book seems to be losing its momentum at this stage. However, there are two more chapters to go still.

Chapter number 6 is titled rather poetically — Syncing Fast and Slow, and Chapter 7 is titled Thinking in Tenses. Chapter 6 starts off with a fascinating account of Ahilu Aadhav — a Dabbawala in Mumbai. As Daniel mentions, “No smartphones. No scanners. No barcodes. No GPS. And no mistakes.” it sets the story in context. We then cut to a choir in America. But overall, I didn’t quite get the point of this chapter — perhaps it was to emphasize group timing but it didn’t really come across. The book is now almost 90% done. But there is still a Chapter 7 to be completed. It is a rather quick read (took less than 6 minutes). Overall, I didn’t get the point of the chapter either. Anyway, the ending passages were great. Further Reading which wraps up the book has been noted too. Honestly, 6 and 7 could have been either avoided or needed tighter editing and better flow. They just did not work for me. Well, maybe, Daniel Pink suffered from a strong first half :-)

The book “When” by Daniel Pink has built up quite an anticipation before the eventual mainstream release on 9th Jan. Did it live up to the hype for me? Every reviewer has their own style. For me, there would always be 2–3 important lessons you take away from a book. If these lessons have an intensity, uniqueness, and value about them, I value the book high. The chapters on circadian rhythms, midpoints, starts are all worth the price of the book for me. However, I also thought that the book is not a consistently excellent read. It is definitely not in the league of Thinking Fast and Slow (which is referenced several times in the book — but then it is in almost every business, psychology book anyway) or Emotional Intelligence or even Give or Take. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book — just an uneven one. What stands out about the book is the thorough research Daniel Pink has taken. There are scores of excellent references. Overall, I will go with 4 out of 5 for When by Daniel Pink.

I also experimented with live tweeting my thoughts as I read the book. Captured in the Twitter moment below.


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