Tuesday, November 19, 2013

It's about time

My last blog post concluded with the statement that the two things you need to be a great speaker are trust and preparation. And preparation takes two forms: delivery prep, which I teach my clients and students; and content prep, which many of these same people tell me they have under control. But do they?

Not really. Most don't allow enough time to fully prepare a speech, let alone talking points for a panel discussion or office meeting. It's not that they don't want to, or don't know that they need to. It's just that, well, time slips away. . .Time is one of our most valuable resources. And yet, it is the most elusive.

Two very interesting articles about time came to my attention this week. Drake Baers' blog in Fast Company focuses on traps we fall into at the workplace due to poor time usage. But what really jumped out at me was the reference to research by neuroscientists that asserts: ". . .there are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time. It is an almost uniquely intangible sensation: we cannot see time in the way that we see color, shape, or even location." We are time blind.

When I read this I thought, of course! I can see (and possibly hear) the clock, but my internal sense of time is not consistent (hence the need to watch the clock). In situations where I am actively leading others (rehearsals, trainings, workshops) I have a good grasp of time. And when I am being purely creative, deeply engaged in writing a scene for a play, for example, I experience time stretching, compressing and bending. But when I have a linear task to complete, like answering e-mail, writing a proposal, or putting together a presentation, I lose track of time.

Sunday's New York Times contained another article, not about the subject of time per se, but with some fascinating implications about our use and misuse of time. "You're So Self-Controlling" by Marina Konnikova examines why we fail at self-control. According to studies done by University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire, it's not because we lack willpower or moral fiber, but because we are uncertain. We often don't know how long it will take to reach our goal. Kable and McGuire's studies reference examples of delayed gratification when getting edible treats, playing games for money, even waiting for a subway. “The basic idea,” McGuire said, “is that while a decision maker is waiting, he is constantly re-evaluating the thing he’s waiting for. You’re waiting for the same reward, but your assessment of it changes as a function of the passage of time.”

Uncertainly about when a reward will come, or even if it will come, can make us give up before we achieve what we set out to do. The studies cited don't deal with workplace tasks, but I have seen the same thing happen to clients."I started to prepare that speech but ran out of time; this will be good enough." Or "I meant to jot down some ideas before that meeting. . . but I'm sure it will be alright." The clock is ticking and the writing isn't getting any better, or those 17 main points just cannot be condensed into the requisite three. And so we run out of time to do our tasks as well as we wish we could. Time just slithers away. We may quit just before we strike rhetorical gold. It could be a matter of seconds before inspiration hits and clarity is achieved. But we never find out.

As Ms. Konnikova summed up her article, "Investing upfront in realistic time frames — and learning to adjust those time frames as new information becomes available — may help us resist the pull of rewards that come too soon. Controlling our sense of the future, in other words, may help us control our behavior in the present."

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