Timing, according to bestselling author Daniel Pink, is a crucial element of productivity and performance. In fact, research shows that our performance on cognitive tests is affected by up to 20 percent by the time of day alone. So how can we use this information to increase our own performance? In this exciting episode of The TalentGrow Show, Daniel Pink explains the big ideas behind his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and shares very actionable advice for arranging your own schedule – and your team’s – in a way that takes advantage of your peak-performance times. Our lives are a never-ending stream of “when”-decisions, and Daniel shows us how to base these decisions on science rather than intuition or guesswork. Learn about the three performance stages we each experience in any given day, the different chronotypes we all fall into, and how to use all of this information to help us flourish at work -- especially as current or aspiring leaders. Listen and share with others!
About Daniel Pink:
Daniel H. Pink is the author of six provocative books — including his newest, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. His other books include the long-running New York Times bestseller A Whole New Mind and the #1 New York Times bestsellers Drive and To Sell is Human. His books have won multiple awards and have been translated into 37 languages. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife and their three children.
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN:
- Halelly introduces a fun twist she has planned for this episode! (5:02)
- Daniel explains the big idea behind his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (5:32)
- Why these ideas are relevant and valuable to you (6:20)
- Daniel elaborates on some research he shares in his book, namely that there can be a twenty-percent variance in performance on cognitive tests, and what determines that variance (7:09)
- Daniel shares one big takeaway from his book that you can take action on (9:09)
- Daniel explains what he means by a ‘natural unit of time,’ and why it’s an important concept (9:33)
- The three broad stages that we move through in any given day: peak, trough, and recovery (10:00)
- The types of activities we should intentionally be doing during each stage of the day (10:42)
- Finding out what ‘chronotype’ you are, according to Daniel’s model (13:00)
- Daniel guides Halelly to find out which type she is! (14:09)
- How and why people’s types tend to change throughout the course of their life (15:07)
- Determining patterns of the stages of the day, according to what type you are (17:10)
- Twenty percent of us fall into the “owl” type, which tends to be more complicated and interesting (18:15)
- Daniel dives into an example of timing: when we as managers should get worried if a project is seemingly taking too long to be completed (19:40)
- Interesting research results related to productivity and timing (20:15)
- What’s new and exciting on Daniel’s horizon? (24:01)
- How Daniel chooses which new projects on his timeline to prioritize (24:27)
- One specific action you can take based on Daniel’s ideas to optimize your productivity (62:02)
Episode 83 Dan Pink
TEASER CLIP: Dan: We tend to think that timing is an art when we make our “when” decisions. We make them based on intuition and guesswork. That’s the wrong way to make them, because there’s this rich, pretty spectacular body of science out there that allows us to make better, smarter, shrewder decisions about “when.” So we think timing is an art, but it’s really a science.
Halelly: And why do you think our listeners, since they mostly work within larger organizations, are developing their own leadership skills, why should they care?
Dan: They should care because they’re making huge numbers of “when” decisions in their own life. When should I start a project? When should I abandon a project that’s not working? When should I get worried that a project isn’t going the way it should be? Our lives are awash in decisions about timing and when to do things, and we can make them in a better way.
[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.
Halelly: Hey, hey, TalentGrowers. Welcome back to another episode of the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and this week I have one of my favorite authors, Daniel Pink. I’m so excited that he has come on the show to share with us about his latest book titled When. And he talks about the science of timing, and how you can leverage it to make yourself a more productive employee, a more effective leader and to help your team thrive. Lots of really interesting insights from all of the scientific research that he has dug into for us. And Dan makes it actionable and also fun to listen to. I can’t wait to share it with you, and I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it, so without further ado, here’s Daniel Pink on episode 83 of the TalentGrow Show.
Welcome back TalentGrowers. I am so excited to have Dan Pink on with me. Dan changes the way we live by changing how we think. From books like To Sell is Human, to Drive to A Whole New Mind, his enormously influential New York Times bestselling books, Illuminate, the hidden forces that affect our lives in major ways, his highly-anticipated new book which was released earlier this year, When, the scientific secret to perfect timing, shows us the essential keys to timing our decisions and actions so that we can thrive both personally and professionally. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family, which is where I met Dan originally. I actually had the pleasure of seeing him speak live several times in intimate settings, which of course gave me the opportunity to make a beeline and speak to him afterwards, and we have been in touch over the years. In fact, Dan was generous and gracious enough to offer an endorsement for my book, Employee Development on a Shoestring, and Dan, thank you again for that. And thank you for coming on to the TalentGrow Show. Welcome.
Dan: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
Halelly: Well, it’s so super to have you on. Before we get started with the meat and potatoes of your message, I always have my guests introduce their professional journey in a very brief way. Where did you start and how did you get to where you are today?
Dan: Well, I’ll try to be brief on that. I grew up in Central Ohio, went to college because I was a middle class kid from Central Ohio. I went to law school but didn’t really enjoy law school. I graduated law school, started working in politics. In a haphazard way found myself a speechwriter. Worked as a speechwriter for several years until I realized I didn’t want to spend my life working in politics. Throughout my, basically from the time I was 16 until the time I was in my early 30s, I was always “writing on the side.” Writing magazine articles, newspaper articles, columns, whatever. And, I finally realized in my early 30s that what I was doing on the side – writing – is probably what I should be doing in the center. So, about 20 years ago I went out on my own to try to write my own stuff. And in that time, I’ve written a lot of articles, a lot more articles, and then six books including the book that you just mentioned, When, which came out a short time ago.
Halelly: Yeah, and I’ve really enjoyed all of your books. I’ve found them, I really like what you do because in many ways I see you as a curator, a very thoughtful curator and a great articulator of ideas. And, you bring tons of value to the world by helping us collect interesting facts from science and research and then making them easily digestible and putting them in quirky and interesting ways for us to learn. So I’m really glad that we’re able to talk today, and I don’t know if you all know, but Dan also has recently launched a podcast, and if you’re listening to this podcast, you probably are a podcast listener, so you should definitely check out his podcast. It’s called One-Three-Twenty, and that’s because in every show, he talks with a guest about one interesting or important book – often theirs – and asks them three key questions, and then that takes about 20 minutes. I thought perhaps, perhaps, I should just turn the tables on Dan, and use his format for this interview.
Dan: Oh man, okay. I’m ready! I can handle this.
Halelly: A twist! You know we’re talking about your new book. We’ve got the one. We’ll talk about When, which is going to be the one, and your new book is very interesting. It’s full of examples and lots of facts and things that we can use, but what is the big idea?
Dan: The big idea is that we tend to think that timing is an art when we make our “when” decisions. We make them based on intuition and guesswork. That’s the wrong way to make them, because there’s this rich, pretty spectacular body of science out there that allows us to make better, smarter, shrewder decisions about “when.” So we think timing is an art, but it’s really a science.
Halelly: And why do you think our listeners, since they mostly work within larger organizations, are developing their own leadership skills, why should they care?
Dan: They should care because they’re making huge numbers of “when” decisions in their own life. That is, the people listening to your podcast probably have made a few “when” decisions already today. They had to decide, when should I do this kind of work? When should I do that kind of work? When should I schedule a meeting? Things like when in the day should I exercise? But even more broadly than that, there are other kinds of when decisions that we all make. When should I start a project? When should I abandon a project that’s not working? And I think it’s very germane to your listeners who are leaders, when should I get worried that a project isn’t going the way it should be? When should I really try to get my team in gear? When should I bring a project to a close? I think we should care, because our lives are awash in decisions about timing and when to do things, and as I said earlier, we tend to make these decisions in a pretty sloppy way. We can make them in a better way.
Halelly: It was amazing to see that one of the key learnings that you had from the research that you did was that there can be a 20-percent variance in performance on cognitive tasks. That’s the difference between getting an A and getting a C, right?
Dan: Yeah, when you think about variance, it’s 20-percent of the variance, and how people perform, is time of day. Which is pretty remarkable. So if you look at it like why is Fred better than Ed? Why is Fred a higher performer than Ed? Some of it could be because Fred is smarter than Ed. Some of it could be that Fred is harder working than Ed. But 20 percent of it is Fred is doing stuff at the right time of day and Ed is not. Which is pretty remarkable. The good news about that is that we can do something about that dimension of our lives.
Halelly: Well, speaking of we can do something, that brings me to your third question of your guests, which is what should we do? First of all, you have to get this book guys, and I’m going to link to it in the show notes. It is so full of information, really, really interesting and useful information. But it’s actually really challenging to bring some kind of a nutshell version of that here. So, I’m going to challenge you, Dan, to think about what are some of those hidden secrets, maybe, that other people aren’t seeing and picking up in other podcasts where you’ve been a guest, or just what do you think are the biggest takeaways that our listeners actually can take action on that relate to the studies and the findings that you’ve brought together in your book?
Dan: I’m glad you asked this question, because the way that I’ve structured the book, as you know, is that I write about the science. But then at the end of every chapter I have what I call a time hacker’s handbook, which is full of the “what should I do,” answers to that question. Time hacker’s handbook that has all kinds of tools and tips and takeaways to put some of these ideas into action. And so there are literally dozens of things that people can do. Let me just mention one big one. So, I start out by talking about the day, and the reason I start talking about the day is that a lot of things that we think of as natural units of time, really, are not. So a second is not a natural unit of time. A minute is not a natural unit of time. A month, a week, those are not natural units of time. But a day is a natural unit of time, because we’re on a planet.
Halelly: What do you mean natural unit of time?
Dan: A second is something that human beings have made up. It doesn’t exist as a force in the physical world, whereas a day is not something human beings have made up. Because we’re on a planet that turns, right? So the sun goes up, the sun goes down. It’s a predictable cycle there of a day. A day is actually a real thing, so I have a whole chapter on the day. It turns out there’s this hidden pattern of the day. It shows that we move through the day in three broad stages – a peak, a trough and a recovery. Most of us move through the day in that order. People who are strong night owls move through in the reverse order. But what we should do, and what we know very clearly from the science is this – we should be doing, as you said earlier Halelly, our cognitive abilities do not remain the same over the course of the day. That’s a very important concept. Our brainpower is not the same over the course of the day, period, full stop. It changes in predictable ways. It can change in dramatic ways. The time of day we should be doing things depends on what we’re doing. All of which answers your original question – what we should be doing is the follow. During our peak, which for most of us is the morning, and for owls is the late afternoon and early evening, we should be doing our analytic work. Work that requires heads down, focused and attention. That’s the time we’re most vigilant, we can bat away distractions. So, if you are a leader going over meticulously a strategy, that’s a good time to do that. If you’re a leader who is writing a report or your team, that’s when you should be doing that kind of heads down work during your peak period.
During the next stage is the tough. That’s for most or all of us, basically, the mid to early afternoon. That’s not very good for very much. That can be actually a very dangerous time of day. In health care we see big problems in health care during that time of day. We see drop-offs in standardized test scores for students in that time of day. We see a deterioration in certain kinds of corporate performance that time of day. What we should be doing in that trough period, which is not really good for anything – it’s when our brainpower is the most compromised – we should be doing our administrative work. Filling out stupid reports. Answering routine email. That’s what we should be doing in the trough.
And then during the recovery, which is for most of us late in the afternoon or early evening, that’s an interesting time. Because we’re less vigilant than we are during our peak. Also, our mood recovers from its depth of the trough. And so the combination of elevated mood and a little more looseness makes it a good time for certain kinds of, dealing with what social psychologists call inside problems. Problems with non-obvious solutions. Problems that don’t require that kind of intense mathematical focus, but instead require iterative thinking, brainstorming, expansive thinking. What we should do, essentially, is we should be as intentional about when we do our work as we are about what we actually do. We should move our analytic work to the peak, our administrative work to the trough, and our insight creative work to the recovery. And if we do those things, if we’re intentional about that, it can make a huge difference in our lives and for your listeners, if you give your teams some running room, if you allow your teams to be intentional about that, you’re going to see your teams performing at a higher level.
Halelly: You describe three chronotypes in the book. The owl, the lark and the third bird, which I’d love for you to explain, because I think you came up with that name, so this is important because even though the majority of people tend to be third birds, according to the research you found, helping people move work to their personal peak, their personal trough and their personal recovery is going to be key, right?
Dan: Exactly. So the starting point for figuring out the right time of day to do something is to really start with your type, your chronotype, which is essentially just … are you the kind of person who gets up early and goes to sleep early, or the kind of person who gets up late and goes to sleep late, or are you in between? What we know from the distribution – and there’s a whole field called chronobiology that studies our rhythms including this – and so what we know from the distribution is that about 15 percent of us are pretty strong early people, larks as you say, about 20 percent of us are very strong evening people, owls, and then most of us, two-thirds of us, are kind of in the middle. But that ends up being a really important part of figuring things out. What we can do, there’s actually a back-of-the-envelope way to figure out one’s chronotype. I could actually do it with you if you wanted to?
Halelly: Let’s do it, yes.
Dan: There’s a more systematic way to do it. There’s an assessment created by a couple of German scholars called the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire. You can google that and find the assessment. But the back-of-the-envelope way of doing it is, and it’s about as accurate and much simpler, is this. I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions about your sleep. I want you to think about a free day. Not a day when you have to wake up to an alarm clock. Not a day when you’re necessarily, a weekend when you’re catching up on sleep, but you’re on the fifth day of a vacation and you can go to sleep when you want and wake up when you want. When would you typically go to sleep? What time would you typically go to sleep?
Halelly: Hmm. Well, I think this varies based on how zonked I am from the day, because I’ve been going to sleep earlier and earlier in my life.
Dan: Which is very common.
Halelly: I’m losing steam, I don’t know!
Dan: No, it’s not a matter of steam. Actually, people’s chronotypes change over the course of a lifetime. And in very predictable ways. So when little kids are very larky, when human beings get to be in their teens, around puberty, between the mid-teens to the mid-20s, they actually have a marked move toward lateness, greater and greater owl-ness. And then after that, in general, people will return to larky-ness as they age. Women start out less owl-y than men in general, and they return to larky-ness faster than men. So totally expected that you would be getting larky-er as the years go by.
Halelly: Okay, good. So I guess in general, I do like to stay up later, because there is so much I’m curious to learn more about and to read more about or to do, so I probably would stay up too late.
Dan: So tell me what time would you typically go to sleep? When you have control of your schedule, you don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock, what time would you typically go to sleep?
Halelly: Probably 11:30 or 12.
Dan: Okay, let’s say 12. And when would you typically wake up? You don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock.
Halelly: I hate alarm clocks and I don’t like early morning at all. So I probably would just sleep for 9-10 hours.
Dan: Let’s say you wake up at 9. You go to sleep at 12, wake up and 9. What we’re trying to do is figure out your mid point of sleep, and so in that case your mid point of sleep would be 4:30 a.m. Okay, so this is it. You are almost like dead center. What we know from the distribution is if your mid point of sleep is 3:30 or earlier, you’re generally a lark, a morning person. If it’s 5:30 or later, you’re generally almost certainly an owl. And if you’re in between, and you’re basically at that exact mid-point of in between, you’re a third bird. So you’d probably be, you’re probably in the middle. You’re not strongly a lark, you’re not strongly an owl. The reason this is significant is as follows. Remember these three stages – peak, trough, recovery. For most of us, for 80 percent of us, the 80 percent of people who are not owls, that’s the pattern. Peak, trough, recovery. For people who are owls, it’s recovery, trough, peak. So for you, you’re peak, trough, recovery, except that you’re not going to … you’re probably not going to want to begin your workday at 7 a.m. Some people do. You’re probably not going to begin it a little earlier. Your peak is going to be in the morning. It’s probably going to be a tad later in the morning than for some people. Your trough is probably going to begin a tad later than for some people. Your recovery is going to be a tad later. So you’re peak, trough, recovery, so you should be doing your analytic work in the morning, your administrative work during the early to mid afternoon, and your insight work during the late afternoon and early evening recovery.
Now, if you were an owl, it would be the recovery would come first, the trough would come second and you would be better off doing your analytic, heads down focused work late in the afternoon and early evening.
Halelly: It’s interesting to have a trough following a recovery. That kind of goes against the logic, but I guess that’s how they are. I saw that you found some statistics about owls being more creative, but also having maybe a few more problems with other stuff?
Dan: You know what it is really? Another way to look at this, if we zoom out just a little bit, the way to think about it is basically owls and everybody else. So 20 percent of us are owls. Owls are much more complicated on so many different dimensions. So even the way that … there are some people that are just extreme owls, so even the distributions of owls themselves, if you just forget about everybody, the other 80 percent, and just look at the distribution of owls, there’s a lot of variance in how owls are distributed, too. You have this long tail of these incredibly crazy, extreme owls. And as you say, there’s evidence for certain kinds of maladies, from depression to addiction, but you also see among owls they’re better at creativity, score higher on intelligence tests. So, owls are kind of a very complicated one-fifth of us, and then four-fifths of us are less interesting. I say that as someone who is in the middle but leaning more toward lark. I’m not that interesting. Owls are very interesting and complicated. The rest of us are not.
Halelly: Maybe that will be your next book, something about the owls. Interesting. Well, they are the ones that probably bring us all of the creative ideas because they are so non-typical. Interesting. So, earlier you said that when should you get worried? You said something, as an example, you rattled off a lot of examples and I’m trying to recall how you said it, but like if you’re a manager, at what point should you start getting worried if a project isn’t going according to the timeline? Let’s talk about that one for example.
Dan: Sure. One of the things about projects is that our notion of how they actually unfold is a little bit off. We tend to think that many projects have to follow this kind of linear progression, and it’s really not the case. Some interesting research from Connie Gersick who was at UCLA and is now at Yale, showing that if you give a team a certain amount of time for a project, during the first part of the project, teams do very little. Now, what we think is teams get ready and there’s sort of a steady curve, a steady march upward, and what Gersick found by going into looking at teams that were doing real projects and videotaping what they were doing and audiotaping what they were doing is at the beginning, teams do very little. It’s only at, there’s a certain moment in the progression of the project, in which they discard old ways of doing things and in this concentrated burst of activity – boom! They get going. What she found is that that moment of that burst of activity invariably occurs at the midpoint of the project. It was really weird, some of the stuff she found. So you give a team 34 days to do a project. They really get going in earnest on day 17. You give a team 11 days to do a project, they get going in earnest on day six. There is something about hitting that midpoint and when she looked at the transcripts and the videos of how these teams were operating, it was that midpoint became a moment where someone, people would say, literally, something like, “Oh my God, we’re halfway through and we’ve squandered half of our time. We’ve got to get going.” The other thing we know about midpoints, which is useful for leaders, is midpoint has a galvanizing effect.
If we take that, just take that piece of research and put it on the shelf for a second, and next to that we can put another piece of research which is quite interesting, which is a big data analysis from Jonah Berger and Devin Pope about basketball halftime scores, and what they did is they looked at the National Basketball Association, the NBA, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NCAA, looking at scores at halftime. And what they found is not surprisingly that a team leading at halftime is more likely to win the game. Not a shocker. They have more points and the game is half over. But there’s an exception to that. The exception is, teams that are trailing by one point are more likely to win the game than teams that are ahead by one point. That being behind by one point is as advantageous as being ahead by two points. Very weird. So they started looking at other kinds of research, conducting experiments rather than just this analysis of big data which gives us correlations. They start conducting randomized controlled experiments that can give us some insight into what’s causing all of this, and they found over and over again that being slightly behind at the mid point is extremely motivating. And so you put people into experimental settings and they play a game against an opponent, an invisible opponent, and you tell them at the midpoint of the game, essentially the halftime of the game, “You’re way behind,” people give up. You tell them, “You’re way ahead,” people get complacent. You tell them, “You’re a little bit behind,” and people just bring it during the second half. And so for your leaders, one thing to think about in the course of a project, to think about what we know is that in general, many teams don’t get going until the midpoint. So make sure that you make that midpoint salient. And then what you can also do is you can convey to your team, hey, we’re doing okay but we’re a little bit behind, and that can be a way to motivate your team to really do great work and bring it home in the second half.
Halelly: That’s super actionable. I like it. All right, well, we need to start wrapping up, so there’s a couple of things I always ask at the end. The first one is, before we take a moment for you to share a very specific action beyond the ones you’ve shared, what’s something that’s new and exciting on your horizon, Dan?
Dan: I’m at the point in my work where I am starting to go through ideas for new projects and I always like that part of the process. So, what I have is a bunch of interesting ideas that are percolating there and I get to play around with them starting relatively soon. That’s what’s new and exciting on mine. It’s a general new and exciting rather than a specific new and exciting.
Halelly: Wow. Can you share – I’m very curious and we don’t have a lot of time – but can you share some kind of a short description of how you choose what to work on next?
Dan: What I do, I’ll try to be as short as possible, what I do is I keep files of ideas, just shards of things that I throw into paper files and into Dropbox and Evernote, and I haven’t done it for a while because I’ve been in the throws of working on this book. But I’ll go through those ideas and what I’ll discover in those ideas is that 85 percent of them are horrible ideas. They’re embarrassing. I throw them away, I rip up the papers, I delete the documents and hope no one will ever hear about them. Then I take the minority that actually survive and I start doing more research on them. Research both in terms of reading about the stuff, but also just bouncing ideas off of people – “Hey, what would you think about this? What would you think about that?” And then I end up, for books, I’ll end up narrowing it to maybe two or three, and then I’ll start writing. I’ll pick the one I think is most promising and I’ll start writing a proposal, make a 40-page document, saying this is what the book is, this is who will read it, this is how I’m going to structure it. That ends up being a really important moment for me in figuring out what the next big project is going to be, because just the way that I work, I tend to often figure stuff out by writing about it. That is, it’s not so much, “Hey, I figured it out, now I’m going to write it down,” but like in this particular stage in what I’m doing, the only way I can figure it out is by writing it down.
Halelly: Yeah, you’re thinking by writing out.
Halelly: Thank you for sharing that. Congratulations, it does sound exciting. That’s my favorite part. I really don’t like the details part. I like the new ideas part.
Dan: Me too.
Halelly: What’s one specific action that listeners can take that’s based on your insights from this book, or anything else, that you think can help them ratchet up their own leadership effectiveness? What’s something they can do this afternoon, this week, to change something?
Dan: There’s a great one for that, and it’s basically this: to make a break list. I have a whole chapter in the book about breaks and basically the science of breaks is where the science of sleep was 15 years ago. That while we’re learning a lot more about breaks, why they’re so important, and what we need to do is be very intentional about our breaks. So the best way to do that is to write down two breaks each day you’re going to take. Those breaks, you’re better off making those breaks moving rather than stationary. You’re better off having them be outside rather than inside. You’re better off having them be social rather than solo, and they’re better off being fully, fully, fully detached. Make a break list, take two breaks – every afternoon, short 10-15 minute breaks, and I think you’ll see a difference in your performance.
Halelly: Great. So how can people stay in touch, learn more from you and about you? I will link to the book, of course, in the show notes. What else should they do? Follow you on social media?
Dan: The best thing to do is go to my website, DanPink.com. I have a newsletter that I send out every two weeks.
Halelly: Highly recommend it.
Dan: I try to put all kinds of interesting, actionable stuff in there. And, updates on kind of the things that I’m working on.
Halelly: I’ve been a subscriber for many years, and I do enjoy it.
Dan: Thank you.
Halelly: Thank you for everything you do, Dan. Thank you for taking time to share your insights with the TalentGrowers.
Dan: Thanks for having me.
Halelly: My pleasure. I hope that you enjoyed that TalentGrowers. I think Dan Pink is one of those really smart, interesting people that I love to learn from. So, I’m really happy that I was able to bring him to you as well. And I hope that you will go and take action on the suggestions that he made, especially that break list. As you’re thinking about making a list, I hope that you will add to your to-do list to make sure to download my free guide which is called 10 Mistakes that Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them, because if you don’t, you might be making those mistakes and not avoiding them. I hope that you find that useful, and of course that will allow you to stay in touch with me via my weekly newsletter and never miss an episode or my helpful tips. I am so grateful that you took the time to listen to my show. I hope that it is your show in that it brings you value and as you know, you telling me what you want to hear on my show will help me bring that to you. So, keep in touch, let me know. In the meantime, thank you for listening. Make today great.
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