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The Best Time to Sell, with Dan Pink [Episode 695]

Dan Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing and five other Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestselling books, joins me on this episode.


  • Timing is a science. Make timing decisions based on evidence, data, and facts — not on intuition. Dan lays out the aspects of timing and what research in social psychology and biology reveals about your best times.
  • Your cognitive abilities vary over the course of a day. The Synchrony Effect is to align the right type of task with the right time of day for your ‘ChronoType.’
  • Dan touches on age and memory tasks. Regardless of age, more performance errors are made in the late afternoon than at the beginning of the day. Find your right times to do the right tasks.
  • ChronoType comes from the study of biological rhythms. Based on your daily performance, you are either a Lark, an Owl, or in-between — a ‘Third Bird.’ Note your peak, trough, and recovery times of the day.
  • Dan gives a ‘back-of-the-envelope’ way to figure your ChronoType according to how you sleep on a free day. Larks and Third Birds have a Peak, Trough, and Recovery during the workday. Owls are more complicated.
  • Your Peak is when you are most vigilant and can ‘bat away’ distractions, lock down your focus, and analyze data. Your Trough is a very bad time of day for performance. Use that time for administrative work.
  • In your Recovery, your mood is high but you are less vigilant than at your peak. This is a good time for ‘insight’ work. Brainstorming is a good activity during Recovery. Experiment, day by day, what works for you.
  • Research shows that people have a default, which is usually ‘no,’ for making binary decisions (transactions)  You are more likely to overcome the default early in the day or immediately after breaks. 2 to 4 p.m. is a bad time.
  • Consider the stage of the sale, your prospect’s likely mood, and your peak or recovery time for making visits. Experiment and pay attention to possible differences. Then keep doing what seems to work best for you.
  • Andy elaborates on 1% performance gains, added up, citing Team Sky in the Tour de France. Dan agrees — when you are always testing, you are making cumulative gains. He notes Marketing A/B testing.
  • Sales ‘folklore’ can offer some guidance but don’t rely on it. Rely on continual testing. Test when your emails are opened; test email content. People like good stuff. Give them the best.
  • Andy brings up curiosity. How do we convince salespeople to try something new and not sell like we’ve been doing for the last 100 years?

Episode Transcript:


Hey friends, this is Andy. Welcome to Episode 695 of The Sales Enablement Podcast. Now I have another excellent episode this week for you to help you get your year off to a booming start. Joining me today is Dan pink. Dan was the author of multiple New York Times best selling books, including the classic sales book To Sell is Human. And today we’re talking about Dan’s latest book titled When: the Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. So what you’re gonna learn is that success in sales is not just about how you sell or what you sell. As you learn, it’s also about when you sell. Timing is a science, it can make a difference, when during the day you undertake to do certain tasks.


We all have intuition about whether we work better in the morning or there are early birds or are night owls working late into the night. Well, as Dan explains in his book, and as we go out in our conversation, we now have the science, not intuition, the science to help us make timing decisions. So based on evidence, based on data, based on facts – Dan lays out in the book, the aspects of timing and what the research and social psychology and biology reveal about your best times with your “chronotype” as well. He’ll explain what your chronotype is. So when you optimize your cognitive abilities to take on certain tasks like to prospect to sell, to analyze to provide insights, it’s all part of what’s called the synchrony effect. So make sure you stick around for that.


Andy Paul  3:27

we’re here to talk about your latest book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. Is there such a thing?


Dan Pink  3:35

Perfect timing, no! Better timing. Absolutely. And the way to have better timing is to recognize that timing is not an art, It’s a science. Unfortunately, whether we’re salespeople, sales managers, whatever our profession is, we tend to make our timing decisions based on intuition and guesswork or really in most cases, by default. That’s the wrong way to do it. We should be making it based on evidence.


Daniel Pink’s Overview of the Synchrony Effect from When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing


Andy Paul  4:04

Oral tradition in sales almost more than anything else still seems to carry the day. So you wrote that what ultimately matters is the type of task, and how task and time align. You called this the synchrony effect. So explain what that means.


Dan Pink  4:20

Let me take one step back, though, and just say this: What we know, if we think about timing, is that there are different aspects of timing. There’s timing over the course of a day, there’s timing over the course of a lifetime, over the course of a project, over the course of a career, etc, etc. What I wrote about is really built on this wide array of research from multiple fields. It’s research and social psychology, It’s in economics, but it’s also in front of biology, molecular biology, and endocrinology. All this vast research gives us some clues about how to make timing essentially our ally rather than our enemy. Now, when we talk about the unit of the day, which is what we’re talking about here, the most important thing to keep in mind is the following: The biggest idea is this, our brain power, our cognitive abilities, do not remain static over the course of the day, they change. They change in material ways, they change in predictable ways. The right time to do something depends on what we’re doing. When you’re talking about the synchrony effect, that’s what it is. So: if we know our brain power is going to change over the course of the day, and we know that some times of day are better than others, depending on the task, how do we proceed? The synchrony effect is “how do we line up our chronotype – Our type – with what we are doing – our task. And that’s it – how do you bring those three things: type, task, and time, into alignment?


Andy Paul  5:45

That’s one interesting tidbit you had in the book: especially for old guys like me, some of these memory issues are really more a function of the synchrony, right?


Dan Pink  5:57

There’s very interesting research showing that. Particularly I mean, you’re not, you’re not that old!


Andy Paul  6:07

You’d be surprised.


Dan Pink  6:08

You’re not that much older than I am! Although I know a little bit about you, so I know that you are a little older than I am. But regardless, here’s the point: say, memory loss is often used as a proxy for cognitive decline, a proxy, or maybe a harbinger of dementia. However, when older people do memory tasks in the morning, they basically perform like younger people. When they’re doing the memory tasks in the afternoon, there’s a deterioration. That’s true of a lot of us in a lot of different domains. So if you look at performance over time, there’s so much evidence of this. If you look at healthcare, doctors make mistakes. Anesthesiologists are four times as likely to make a mistake at 3pm as they are at 9am.


Andy Paul  7:08

Yeah, whenever I read that section honestly, if I ever go in the hospital again, and I’m fortunate, I’ve had a couple surgeries, they were first thing in the morning – I thought, Oh, that’s good!


Dan Pink  7:16

Good! That’s how you do it! Colonoscopies, because everybody likes to talk about those… doctors find half as many polyps in afternoon exams as they do in morning exams. You see this in so many different domains. You see it and how people assess their mood, and you see it very, very clearly in performance, not only in one thing, but performance in a lot of things. We can identify differences in performance at the corporate level based on time of day, and some pretty dramatic differences in education performance over the course of a day.


Andy Paul  7:49

We’ve got all these conversations going on no in the news about start times for high schoolers.


Dan Pink  7:54

Amen. You see different performances by judges and juries based on time of day, health care providers based on time of day, essentially every domain of life. Again, our brainpower changes over the course of the day. So what you want to do is to do the right stuff at the right time. There is actually a fairly systematic way to get that done.


Dan Pink Discusses The Power of Chronotypes


Andy Paul  8:18

If people can picture this in their mind: you wake up and there is a peak until about 11 in the morning?


Dan Pink  8:30

Exactly. So let’s talk about chronotype first. It is basically a word out of the entire field of chronobiology, which is the study of time and study of life. So it’s a study of biological rhythms. Last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three Chronobiologists who helped understand our circadian and other kinds of rhythms, how they affect who we are and how we do things. What we know is this: some of us are morning people, some of us are evening people most of us are in between. So, about 15% of us are very strong “larks” – morning people – about 20% of us are very strong “owls” – evening people – and about two thirds of those are in between. What you have to do is identify where you are in that spectrum. Are you an owl or not an owl? Owls are much more complicated than the rest of us. But 80% of us, as you say, move through the day in that order: peak, trough, recovery. Peak early in the day, trough in the middle of the day, recovery later in the day.


Andy Paul  9:40

By looking at the graphs in your book, though, it seemed like that peak was sort of like right before noon.


Dan Pink  9:46

Yeah, it’s gonna vary by person. A lot of those charts represent basically a large population. There is going to be some variance for how it operates for each individual. But what we know is this is: like a design principle, most of us peak early in the day, generally in the morning. I don’t want someone who’s in their peak to stop working at 12:15 because Andy told them to! We peak early in the day, have this trough period in the middle of the day, and then have a recovery later. Now owls, those of us with late chronotypes, the most important thing for them is they go (kind of sort of) in the reverse order: recovery trough peak. But the main thing for them is is their peak is much later in the day, late, afternoon, late afternoon, early evening, mid evening, even late evening.


Andy Paul  10:47

You gave the example of an author who basically starts work at like midnight and then wrote through the night.


Dan Pink  10:51

I don’t know how anybody does that, I’m not an Owl.


Andy Paul  10:53

I’m not either! I think I’m the three bird.


Dan Pink  10:58

Yeah, you probably are! The odds are that you are because two thirds of us are that way. We can figure out your chronotype right now, do you want to do that?


Andy Paul

Sure! Let’s do it.


Dan Pink

There’s a very back of the envelope way to do this. Now for your listeners, you can go online and find something called the MCTQ, the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire, you can find something called the MEQ, the Morningness Eveningness questionnaire. Those are classic psychological instruments where you answer a number of questions and they give you a number. There’s actually a very accurate back of the envelope way we can do with you. I want you to think about this: think about what chronobiologists call a “free day.” That’s important. A free day is a day where you don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock. Like this morning, I had to wake up to an alarm clock because I had to take my 15 year old son somewhere by eight o’clock. So I had to get up when I didn’t really want to get up. A free day is also not when you’re massively sleep deprived and you’re trying to catch up on sleep. You just like go to sleep or when you want, you can wake up when you want, just answering whatever your body is basically telling you to do. So Andy, on those free days, sure what time typically go to sleep?


Andy: Eleven.


Dan: Okay, and what time would you typically wake up?


Andy: between five and six, five and six, let’s say six just to make it easier.


Dan: So what we’re doing here is we’re figuring out your midpoint of sleep. So if you go to sleep at 11pm and wake up at 6am, your midpoint of sleep is 2:30am. Here’s what we know: if your midpoint of sleep is earlier than 3:30am, you’re probably a lark, so you’re pretty lucky! If your midpoint of sleep is between 3:30am and 5:30am, you’re probably a “thirdbird” and your midpoint of sleep is after 5:30 you’re probably an owl.


Andy Paul  13:17

Yeah. Makes sense.


Dan Pink  13:18

What this means is that you, Andy, are going to go through the day as peak / trough / recovery, and for you, your peak is probably going to begin a little earlier than my peak. So I’m, I’m in the middle, but lean a little bit towards the dark side. What time do you typically get to work? Like start working?



About eight.



Hey, okay, see, for me, I’m like closer to nine. We got our type. To review: if you’re a lark or a thirdbird: peak / trough / recovery. If you’re an owl, much more complicated, your peak is later in the day.


Here’s what we know about each of those three stages.

  1. The peak: for most of us, the peak is early in the day. The key thing about the peak is that’s when we’re highest in vigilance. When we’re vigilant, we’re able to bat away distractions. We’re able to lock down focus. So the peak is the best time for analytic work, work that requires heads down focus, attention, analyzing data, preparing a spreadsheet, writing, those kinds of things that require that intense, undistracted focus. So it’s going to drop


Andy Paul  14:33

Is it focus more than analytical? Would creative work as well?


Dan Pink  14:38

Well – it’s both, but it’s actually more analytical. Very good question! Things that require focused thinking: when you’re trying to brainstorm, for instance, you don’t want focused thinking, right? “Hey, what if we did this? What if we did that?” That’s not focused thinking, that’s much more expansive thinking. At the border between what’s an analytics task and what’s an insight task, that’s not a perfectly demarcated border, there is no, like demilitarized zone, you know, right in between, to say, “here’s this, and here’s this.” Things are mushier than that. For instance, I’ll give you an example of writing. We think of writing as a “creative task” and at some level it is. But you know, and I’m a writer, a lot of writing is basically about making the words marching order. Any writer knows the greatest enemy of writing is distraction. Anybody who writes are easily distracted at some level. Somehow the whole world is organizing itself to distract you when you’re trying to write something. So you want to do your writing when you are highest in vigilance, when you’re able to bat away distractions most easily. So that is during our peak, which for most of us is early in the day.


  1. The Trough: During the trough, which for most of us is, you know, early afternoon, mid afternoon, that’s a very bad time of day. There are all kinds of drops in performance during that time and so you’re better off than doing your administrative work. The work that doesn’t require massive focus thinking or massive creative thinking. You know, answering your routine emails or…


Andy Paul  16:25

Doing your expense reports, updating the CRM.


Dan Pink  16:28

Exactly! Those exactly those kinds of things. For me, I had a bunch of receipts, I gotta send in some receipts, right, reimbursement stuff. I had a few contracts to sign, I had some email that I hadn’t gotten back to – that kind of stuff.


  1. Recovery: Recovery is a very interesting time of day, for the 80% of us who are not owls. During the recovery period, our mood goes back up. Our mood is pretty high, but we’re less vigilant. And this is going to your earlier point. So that combination of enhanced mood and less vigilance makes it a good time for that more purely creative stuff. So instead of saying, “boy, I have to write 500 words,” you can say, “Hmm, what would be a cool title for this headline?” “What would be a groovy thing that we could do in marketing? Let me get Andy and three cool people on the line. And let’s brainstorm ideas for a new name of this product that we’re launching.” That kind of thing that requires some kind of looseness. Again, not to beat this horse too severely. But you know, when you’re brainstorming, you don’t want people being hyper vigilant. To have people analyzing the ideas and saying “That’s a crappy idea, That’s a bad idea.” is not useful brainstorming. You want people who are a little bit looser.


And that’s basically it in this extraordinarily long and tortured explanation. You want to do your analytic work – the heads down focus work – during the peak. You want to do your administrative work during the trough, and you want to do your insight, creative insight work during the recovery. That’s it!


Those are the design guidelines, design principles, but people have to experiment, you know, day by day about what’s going to work for them. For me, I don’t I don’t do very good work after 8pm. So you want to invite me to a brainstorm session at 8:30. I’m not going to be very good. I’m not going to be very useful. If you want to invite me to a brainstorming session at 6pm. I’ll probably be in pretty good shape.


Andy Paul  18:54

When I think about sales, I’ve only done it for four decades, so I’m still learning, but it almost seems like if you want to have the best sales conversations, you want to do that in the rebound period. You’re being open minded or listening, maybe your curiosity is a little more piqued than it is in the morning when you’re more analytic, yet, I can guarantee you that 99.9% of sales organizations force their salespeople do their calls between nine and 11 in the morning.


Dan Pink  19:24

Yeah, that’s not always a terrible idea. Okay, and I’ll explain why. You actually raise an even more important point, right there. Probably like one of the biggest points I think, going on in business today. So let me bracket that for now. And we’ll move to the specifics.


What we know from a lot of research, especially research from certain kinds of judicial decision-making, is this: when people make decisions, particularly when their decisions are reasonably binary, yes/no, like a sales call, I’m coming to you. Are you in? Or are you out? Do you want to buy or do you not? Do you want to sign in the line that is dotted or kick me out of the office?  When people come into a transaction, a decision like that, when they have to make a decision, in their back pocket is a default. They have a default, and the default is usually no.  So the question is: when are people more likely to overcome the default? What some of the research shows is that people are slightly more likely to overcome the default early in the day and immediately after breaks. Some of the earliness has to do with people’s mood. Their willingness to move through things quickly and be in a good mood sometimes leads to answers like “Okay, that sounds good, go!”


I don’t want to overstate this. What it means – I think salespeople can understand this very well – let’s say that I have a 7% chance of getting a yes from you. Let’s say I pick the right time of day, maybe I could notch that up to a 9% chance. I still have a 91% chance of failing! So it doesn’t lock it down. But here’s the thing, any good salesperson knows, if you can get that two percentage point increase in your take up rate, over time, that’s going to work out to your advantage. And so that’s what it shows here.


Let’s talk about things that are less transactional. Give me your feedback on that.


Andy Paul  22:11

Yeah, I mean anything with more complexity, right? Where it’s not just a transactional sale, in and out. A cold call on the beginning of a complex sale, that is more of a yes/no transation initially, but once you’re past that point, and you’re in the process of communicating and trying to serve the buyer and and help them get a better understanding what their problems and challenges are and how you can help them. To me, that’s a really creative pursuit.


Dan Pink  22:38

Yep. Now, it’s interesting, it could be creative for you. But you have to make sure that the buyer is also on a creative path that is right for them. One of the things that you probably don’t want to do is do a sales call at 2pm, because we know that that’s basically the bottom of people’s mood, they’re not focused, they’re distracted. Here’s the thing, don’t make a sales call at two in the afternoon, don’t have surgery in the afternoon. I mean, to some extent, don’t get in your car two in the afternoon. If you look at the data on auto accidents, obviously, the more auto accidents, more cars are on the road because there’s exponentially more possibilities for collisions. But if you control for that, if you can show, for cars on the road, the most dangerous time to be on the road in America is 4am to 6am. Second most dangerous time to be on the road in America is 2pm to 4pm.


Andy Paul  23:40

Why the first one? As an avid bike rider that’s sometimes on the road at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning…


Dan Pink  23:47

Someone on the road at 4am might be drunk. Someone on the road at 4am can’t see very well because it’s dark. What we have here are correlations, so I can’t say exactly exactly why this is happening. But that would be my speculation. I mean, I mean, the easiest simplest explanation for why it’s dangerous to be on the road at 4am is that it’s blindingly dark. And most people aren’t fully awake yet. So let’s face it, it’s sub-optimal.


Andy Paul  24:25

Two to four in the afternoon. Absolutely. I stay off the road.


Why Salespeople Should Act Like Scientists and Embrace A/B Testing


Dan Pink  24:31

Yeah, I mean, for sure. Yet again, this we’re talking about. We’re talking about probabilities here. But here’s the point that I wanted to make, because baked into your questions, and your point of view, is the most important point: We should be asking these questions, and we don’t know for certain in every individual case what the right answer is. So, what we need to be doing, whether we’re salespeople, no matter what our job is, is we should be acting a lot more like scientists. What do scientists do? Scientists have hypotheses, and they test hypotheses, right? That’s the way to go. What I want people to do is take these principles, (which are true in the aggregate, they’re not going to be true in every instance for every person at every moment) and say, Hey, wait a second. I’m this kind of salesperson. Maybe I’m better off talking to my prospects in this consultative sale at four in the afternoon rather than first thing in the morning when they’re a little bit more expansive. The science is telling me that’s probably the case, so you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to talk to one portion of my clients if thought is consultative, this particular stage of the sales process, let’s say a fairly consultative, I don’t have the deal yet, but I’m still in this kind of a consultative sale. It’s a longer term more complex sale at this particular stage. I’m going to do this stage at four o’clock with some prospects. This stage at nine o’clock with other prospects, and I’m going to pay attention, And I’m going to see if there’s a difference. If there’s no difference, I’m not going to sweat it. But if there is a difference, if I feel like I’m doing better, and we’re getting better work done at four, I’m going to keep doing that.


Then I’m going to have another hypothesis. And the hypothesis is going to be that, hey, in a cold call, or something like that, or in the first encounter, people are more likely to overcome the default immediately, immediately, early in the morning, immediately after breaks. So what I’m going to do is I’m actually going to get my assistant to try to figure out some of the break times for some of these prospects. And I’m going to try to reach out to them immediately after their breaks and see if that makes a difference. That’s what you do. You take the science you take the principle and then you act like a scientist yourself and test it.


Andy Paul  26:50

Yeah, I can’t tell you how much I agree with that. One of my great frustrations and sales in general these days is over the last 5-10 years, the sales process has become so rigid. And you know, it’s all about metrics, because now we have technology. It’s all this data and, and we don’t give people this freedom to test and to find what works best for them. I keep talking about how we get people to enable others to become the best version of themselves. And this is an example of, because the best version as you’ve talked about early on, and I am a huge believer in this and sales is that the margin of victory should be assumed to be 1%. Yeah, between you and somebody you beat for a deal, and there’s no way to quantify it right? You can’t say I’m 5% better and 10% better, so assume it’s 1%. So one of the 1% things you can work on, the aggregation of marginal gains. Our chronotype and paying attention to that is one of these things that could make us 1% better, and we just need to pay attention to it.


Dan Pink  28:14

Absolutely. I also think that you actually have the accumulative effect. Because if you’re always testing, you’re getting, you’re getting that 1% improvement over and over again. It’s not a one-off because there are all kinds of things you can do. Our friends in the marketing department actually are pretty good at this because especially in the digital side. They do a lot of A/B tests, and that’s what I’m talking about. I’m talking about that A/B tests are a powerful way to understand what’s really going on. You talked about the oral tradition and storytelling and folklore. Yeah, at some level folklore is a way to understand how things work and how things go along. For many kinds of professional endeavors, folklore can offer some guidance, but I’m not going to rely on it. I’m not going to rely on it. I’m going to rely less on a doctor steeped heavily in folklore than I am and a doctor knowing that she’s read the latest medical journals, which are full of randomized controlled trials about the particular ailment that I’m, that I’m that I’m facing. So our friends and marketing do A/B tests. We should be doing A/B tests whatever our function is.


Andy Paul  29:22

Yeah, well, I thought and to that point about marketing, as is when I was reading your book, then I stopped and went online and googled, okay, what was what’s the optimal time of day? Or when what what time of day? Do emails get opened most frequently? At 11am.


Dan Pink  29:37

Yeah, it depends though. That’s all over the place. What kind of email? Emails from whom? That’s a very, very easy thing to test. I have a I have an email newsletter, we A/B test, all kinds of stuff, maybe test subject lines because I want to Serve my readers as best as I possibly can and I’m putting out good content so you know we can we we once a be tested on we want a be tested on on length: am I overwhelming people with too much information? Am I giving people to little? We tested this versions of it and it turned out it made no difference at all – people just want good stuff. They’ll take they’ll they like good stuff when short. They like good stuff, but as long as it’s okay, I’m not gonna sweat it.