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Why timing could be the secret to success at work
Here’s an example of exquisite timing: Natalie Portman’s pause for maximum effect before delivering the line “And here are the all-male nominees” during her presentation for the Best Director category at the Golden Globe Awards. (That it followed Oprah Winfrey’s powerful #timesup speech minutes earlier made it even more impactful.) Timing really is everything—just ask Pepsi about its tone-deaf ad campaign with Kendall Jenner, which made international headlines. But when it comes to navigating a career, it’s easy to end up sitting back and hoping for a “sliding doors” kind of magical happenstance—like looking at a job board on a whim the day before your dream position closes or holding the elevator for a woman who ends up offering you your big break—to occur and change your life (seemingly) by accident. The key to success is actually about getting strategic with the game-changing “whens” in your working life, from major pivot points to the minutiae of the daily nine-to-five.
“A lot of times, when we think about our performance at work, we think about what we’re going to do and who we’re going to do it with, and ‘when’ is sort of a lesser question,” author Daniel Pink tells us over the phone from his Washington, D.C., home. “But people need to realize that the question of ‘when’ belongs at the grown-up table because it’s as important as what or how.”
Pink has actually written a new book on the subject, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, born out of a feeling that he himself was making a lot of “haphazard” decisions without really consulting any of the science on the matter. And it turns out that the science is actually plentiful and fascinating. Here are four times that the “when” plays a really important role in your career, according to Pink’s research.
1. When you enter the workforce.
There are some timings that are out of your hands, and the time at which you find yourself at the bottom of the ladder is one, give or take a year or two for that gap year or master’s degree. The frustrating (or #blessed) part is that studies show that when you actually enter the job market (say, in a recession versus a boom time) will impact your earning potential for much of your career. People who graduate university in years with high unemployment, for instance, earn 2.5 percent less than their peers who graduated when the rate was low, even 15 years into their career.
2. When you quit a job.
Have you been in your current role for three to five years? Well, you might be in the “sweet spot” for a pay-boosting move elsewhere. According to Pink’s research, it’s ideal because you’ve been in the position long enough to gain new skills but not so long that you’re too senior and entrenched in the leadership structure to go elsewhere. There’s even info on the time of year that you might start getting those itchy feet (and, no, it’s not when your December credit-card bills come in). You’re most likely to hand in your resignation—or at least start thinking about it—around the date when you first started at that particular organization. Anniversaries are markers of time, Pink explains, and they tend to make people “self-evaluate”/actually update their LinkedIn.
3. When making a move is the last thing on your mind.
The above points are “macro” examples of timing, but Pink says he notices the biggest change in his own productivity in the “micro” moments of the everyday grind. He came across research that reveals that most adults perform better at logical tasks in the morning (it has to do with our rising body temperature, which is linked to alertness and concentration) and that ability “plummets” in the afternoon. Pink now structures his own day accordingly, writing in the morning and doing admin in the afternoon. He’s also a proponent of the mid-year assessment: “On July 1, see where you are with your goals, and if you haven’t done much, that will help trigger the ‘uh-oh’ effect.” Said effect, Pink goes on to explain, is based on research that demonstrates that most teams do nothing on projects until halfway through the allotted time, when suddenly they realize the deadline is looming and use that urgency as a powerful motivator. It’s actually a consistent pattern on teams of all kinds, from bankers to hospital administrators to, uh, the ELLE team during the production of any given issue.
4. When you’re the boss.
Timing also matters on an interpersonal level in the workplace. According to Pink, if you want to boost team bonding, consider how quickly you respond to emails. A Columbia University study indicates that the quicker a supervisor replies to your messages, the happier you are with their leadership. And if you want to mentor (or be mentored), schedule those meetings for the morning since our higher a.m. levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—have been linked to better absorption of advice. (Same goes for your therapy sessions, btw!)
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.