The Art And Science Of Perfect Timing

Timing is everything. A lot of success depends not only on hard work but also on timing. People would call it luck. But as the saying goes, you can make your own luck. Work hard and strategically plan when it is the right time to do things. Daniel Pink in When suggests that sometimes it pays to be the first to take action, sometimes it is best to wait.

When you are in a competitive situation with others, like on job interviews or just being evaluated as part of a bigger group, like during tests, you may consider whether you have a bigger chance trying to be the first or the last to go through the ordeal. So when is it good to be fast and be the first on the line?

When you are not the obvious choice – if the decision-makers are not yet in love with someone else and haven’t seen too many candidates with the strengths you may not have. Being first allows you to show your strengths and qualities. The decision-makers can look at things from a different perspective. More importantly, being the first during a given day means that the decision-makers still have fresh minds and are more likely to make favorable decisions.

When there are only a few people competing with you – if there are less than five people, you get the advantage of the primacy effect. Those evaluating you will recall the first candidates better. If the number of competition rises, then the recency effect occurs, and being first is a disadvantage. The recency effect causes the evaluators to remember better the most recent, last, candidates.

When there are several strong candidates – if the decision-makers talk to several strong candidates, they assume that everyone is strong. To select someone, they start looking for flaws and issues. If you were the first being interviewed, you would benefit from the decision-makers not looking for the flaws yet. If you were to come later, they would focus on what’s wrong with you.

The last shall be first

Since we now know when to push to being first, what about situations when it is better to come later in the game? It is the opposite of what we have discussed so far.

When you are the obvious choice – if there are several candidates but you are the default choice, it is better to come later as the decision-makers are tired and default to the safe bet. This, of course, requires that you know you are the obvious choice. It often happens when you are being groomed for a higher position at the company, and the management decides to invite external candidates, in an effort to pick the best. Yet, chances are, you will get the job anyway.

When there are many competitors – in the case of many candidates, the decision-makers may have entered the process with really high expectations. As they talk to candidates, they become more realistic and slowly lower the bar. If you are the last candidate, they will have the mindset that you are good enough and will even try to find reasons why you are the best. Lionel and Katie Page studied biases in sequential performance evaluation on the Idol series and concluded that both primacy and recency effects play an important role. Regardless of skills and ability, contestants who performed first were more likely to be positively evaluated than those who performed second or third. And contestants who performed last had a significantly bigger advantage and were again evaluated positively. Another interesting finding of the study is that we tend to judge performance based on similarities with previous candidates or contestants, not differences. So if you go after a weak candidate, you will be seen as weak. If you go after a strong candidate, you will be judged as being strong.

When the environment is unknown or uncertain – decision-makers may not know who they are looking for. When they talk to the first several candidates, they essentially try to figure out what they want and calibrate their expectations. If you are one of those candidates, you are not really in the running. You are just a test subject. Coming later, when it is clear what the expectations are, can help. Double so if you know what the new criteria are. In short, if you are a judge or a decision-maker, you don’t want to give the very first candidate the ten score. Even if you like them, you give them maybe eight, worrying about having some room in case someone better shows up. When you get to the last candidate, you know that no one else is coming, so you dispense with the best ratings more freely.

When the competition is weak – when there is not much of a competition being the last allows you to show how different and therefore significantly better you are. And vice versa. If you are coming after a string of strong candidates, you may have a much tougher time. It’s called the gambler’s fallacy. Imagine you toss a coin, and it comes heads several times in a row. If I ask you what will come next time you toss it, you will likely say tails. Why? Because you will have a strong intuition that the chain needs to break at some point. You don’t consider that the coin will always have a fifty-fifty chance as the previous tosses do not influence it—the same with candidates. Even though the earlier candidates do not influence my skills, if you talked to a bunch of weak ones, when I come in the end, your intuition will tell you that all the candidates can’t be that bad, and you will see me more favorably.

Putting it all together

Perfect timing is a real thing. You can increase your chances of getting through many types of evaluations based on subjective criteria by merely showing up at the right time. It is tricky, though. In most situations, you don’t see the big picture. You don’t know who the other candidates are or how many. You may also not have the freedom to pick when you get your chance. Not to mention that other timing things come to play, like time of the day. People’s cognitive abilities are at its peak early in the day, so the later you come, the less likely you will be treated fairly. Evaluators will succumb to various biases more easily.

This topic is significantly more useful if you are in a role that requires you to evaluate others. In those situations, you see the big picture, and you can decide in which order you will evaluate the candidates. You should consider the points of this article carefully. There are many biases at play here. Understanding what’s going on in your brain behind the scenes will improve your chance of being fair. You will then pick those who are genuinely best, not those who showed up at the right time.


What is your take on the topic? What activities are best done at what times a day? When you can choose, do you prefer to be the first to be interviewed, in the middle, or last?

Photo: geralt / Pixabay.com

Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader



Categories: Life

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