Setting days up to maximize Problem Solving versus Insights

Dan Pink’s new book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing” has some fascinating insights on how we can set our days up for problem solving versus insights. First up, let’s consider 2 puzzles.


The Linda Problem – a test of problem solving

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The Ernesto coin problem – a test of insight

Ernesto is a dealer in antique coins. One day, someone brings a beautiful bronze coin. The coin has an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 BC stamped on the other. Ernesto examines it – but instead of buying it, he calls the police. Why?


The Linda problem is a test of logic and requires vigilance. The common mistake that people make is to say that the description makes it more likely that Linda is both a bank teller and active in the feminist movement. But, of course, it is more likely that Linda is a bank teller as the second option is a subset of the first.

The Ernesto coin problem is one of those where you have to let the insight hit you. Once you notice let the fact that the date of 544 BC could not have been legitimate (how did they know Christ would be born 544 years laterthe problem is solved. Solving insight problems actually requires less vigilance.

Researchers who’ve tested people on their ability to solve Linda and Ernesto problems have uncovered some fascinating insights on timing-

  1. The morning is best for tests of vigilance – problem solving and detail work. The late afternoon is best for solving insight problems as we let insights come to us during a period of less vigilance.
  2. Why? Researchers found that, for 75% of us, our energy over the course of the day, regardless of where we are from, spikes in the morning, goes down in the afternoon and rebounds in the evening. For the 25% of us who are “owls” by nature, the highest spike happens in the evening. So, the pattern of solving Linda problems versus Ernesto problems was reversed for owls versus larks and everyone in between.
  3. An interesting note – high school and college years tend to convert more folks into owls (this happened to me). And, men tend to be more likely to be owls than women.

We all know that timing plays a big role in our external success. But, few realize how important timing is to our day-to-day productivity. It is important we understand it and design for it.