The Science of When, The Science of Why

Dan Pink Stops by Gravity to Discuss Timing, Motivation, and How His New Book Can Help You Get Sh*t Done

Bestselling author Daniel H. Pink, best known for books like Drive and To Sell Is Human, is currently in the middle of a months-long book tour to promote his latest book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. When we learned the tour was bringing Pink to Seattle, CEO Dan Price invited him to Gravity headquarters to talk with our team about how his work can help shape businesses for the better.

Gravity has long benefited from Pink’s research, and Drive is among the top books recommended on the Gravity reading list (which is shared with all employees to aid in their personal and professional development). As Price said when introducing Pink, he’s happy to make Gravity something of a “guinea pig” to experiment with ideas he finds interesting. In other words, rather than simply read a business book or article, the team discusses how to put research or advice into action that can help the organization thrive. Price then invited Pink to share whatever information he thought we’d find most valuable.

The informal and informative conversation started with a discussion of Pink’s new book, which explores the science of timing and offers advice on how we can structure our time in a way that allows us to get more done, make better decisions, and be more creative. As Pink put it, the book “tries to answer the question about when we should do things” because “our brainpower does not stay the same throughout the day. It changes. It changes in big ways. It changes in predictable ways. And it changes in ways that we can actually use to our advantage.”

Studies have shown that human energy levels follow a “peak, trough, recovery” cycle in which we typically experience higher levels of focused energy early in the day, followed by depleted energy in the afternoon (that post-lunch slump we’re all too familiar with), and an increased burst in energy later in the afternoon or evening. While American society has traditionally valued what Pink referred to as “the moral virtue of powering through” to get something done even if we’re tired and burnt out, this research indicates that reserving specific time periods for specific tasks, as well as carving out time for breaks, is actually much more efficient than simply working until we drop.

During our peak periods, Pink advised, we’re primed for analytical or highly focused work—things that require attention to detail or intense intellectual thought. As our energy wanes, we’re better off stepping away from work for a while rather than continuing to draw on our already depleted reserves. Later in the day, when our energy starts to bounce back, we benefit from turning our attention to creative work—think a late-afternoon brainstorming session—rather than something more focused or detail-oriented. “What the research shows,” Pink said, “is that if we just make a little bit of effort to move the right work to the right time of day, there’s a boost in creativity, productivity, and also just general satisfaction.”

In addition to exploring the relationship between timing and productivity, Pink also explained how timing can influence things like long-term outcomes, perception, and decision making. For example, economists can almost predict what your salary will be at age forty based on the unemployment rate at the time you graduated college. Meanwhile, people tend to judge experiences based on how they ended rather than whatever happened before. “There’s incredible research showing that if you give people two guys, and one of them was a complete ass for twenty-nine years and was a good guy in his final year, and the other one was a great guy for twenty-nine years and was an ass in his final year, and you ask people to evaluate their moral character, it comes out equal,” Pink said. “It’s weird, right? Twenty-nine years of being a good guy, one year of being a bad guy; twenty-nine years of being a bad guy, one year of being a good guy—disproportionately related to how it happens at the end.”

In an especially intriguing tidbit, Pink also shared that people who speak languages that lack distinct present and future tenses save more for retirement, smoke less, and practice safer sex than those (like English speakers) who don’t. “They’re actually better at planning for the future,” Pink said, “in part, we think, because there isn’t this divide between present me and future me.”

The conversation also touched on several topics that are close to Gravity’s heart, namely motivation and compensation. Pink’s book Drive explores the science of motivation and shows that intrinsic motivations—what Pink identifies as “autonomy, mastery, and purpose”—are far more effective than extrinsic motivations like money, recognition, or power. Price often cites Drive as one of the main reasons he decided to do away with sales commissions at Gravity and instead pay all employees a wage that allows them to live life free of financial worry. “We’ve been really heavy on saying we want everybody to make enough that they don’t have to think about it,” Price said. “And it’s ironic because the thing we’re famous for is compensation, and our entire mission is trying to get rid of compensation as something that people are thinking about or talking about.”

Because Gravity is well known for its generous compensation policy, Price and Pink discussed the best way to structure salaries in order to motivate people. Price began by talking about his decision to get rid of sales commissions. “When I started the company, it was a 100% commission-based industry,” he said. “So we said, ‘We’re gonna pay a salary. We’re gonna pay a commission only on customer retention and satisfaction,’ because at least it’s a long-term type of thing. And about five or six or seven years into the company’s existence, I started to notice an attitude as the company got bigger. People would ask, ‘Is that your account? Is that my account? Whose account is it?’ And there started to be this pause before we’d just help out and fix it.”

Pink echoed Price’s thoughts on commissions, adding that, in addition to being an ineffective motivator, they also cost companies unnecessary money and time. “One of the things that I think a lot of companies don’t take into account is that any sort of intervention has costs and benefits,” he said. “You need a whole apparatus to administer that, to monitor that, to record that, to adjudicate disputes over it…You have this whole apparatus that is not serving the customer, coming up with new ideas for products, not doing anything on the products.”

Continuing the discussion of motivation, Price asked how companies can ensure they’re motivating employees once they’ve removed money or external reward from the equation. Pink’s advice? Do whatever possible to excise control from the organization. “Control is the enemy in terms of people doing great work because human beings have only two reactions to control: they comply or they defy, period.”

Pointing out that most people are trained to be compliant, Price asked if there was a way to eradicate this tendency from employees. “I think the solution to that is start small,” Pink said. “I’ll tell you, the advice I’ve given to my kids if they’re in a class that they don’t like or they think they’ve gotten a grade they didn’t deserve or something like that, I say, ‘Okay, forget about that stuff. What are you gonna learn about? What are you gonna understand? What are you gonna be able to do four months from now that you can’t do now? Just focus on that, and you’ll be fine.’” Pink also advised people to stop caring what others think. “There’s a liberation in that,” he said, warning that it takes time to shed feelings of compliance, especially if you were raised to behave a certain way.

If the conversation could be summed up in one word, it would be “time.” Not only can we learn how to utilize our time better to help achieve our goals, but progress, improvement, and success in any endeavor—whether personal or professional—takes time. There are no quick and easy solutions about how to motivate people or grow an organization. It requires patience and a willingness to take risks. As Price summed up, “We have a motto here: ‘suck less every day.’”

By Brooke Carey, Content Editor

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