Lack of time is good for you

Feb 07, 2021

Time limits tighten focus, propel you over challenging hurdles, and maximize your chances of success.

Time. Somehow there is never enough of it. No matter how fast you go, time goes faster, leaving you anxiously behind. And yet, scarcity of time provides an invaluable asset that forces you to work quicker, better, and smarter.

A formative lesson on time. I discovered the value of time pressure after surviving a graduate school rite of passage called the “Hebb Seminar.” Led by Donald O. Hebb, a premier psychologist and exacting professor, the course tested students for grit, tenacity, and ability to learn, quickly.

The seminar required us to make three presentations on complex topics within assigned time limits of five, 10, or 15 minutes. Professor Hebb offered no forgiveness on the time. If you were tempted to stray past your limit, he’d wordlessly tap his pencil on the table when 30 seconds remained. No one dared to run over.

For one assignment, I had 10 minutes to discuss the work of William James, a 19th century philosopher who wrote about practically everything. Even the sound of the topic triggered panic, but with only two weeks to digest acres of material, I couldn’t afford to freeze in fear. Instead, I nervously armed myself with a pen, buried my head in the books, and went to work. Two weeks later, I stood in front of the seminar and delivered my speech in nine minutes and 45 seconds. I also learned a lot about William James.

The gift of time pressure. A leadership program colleague asked, “Which is most critical to business growth? Time, money, people, or strategy?” Answer: Time. After all, if you had an infinite amount of it, you could always achieve something. However, because you will never have infinite time, you have to manage it as your most precious resource.

Limited time means focusing on what is essential to your mission, ignoring white noise, and keeping your eye on the prize. That is what I experienced in my graduate school seminar and in countless examples since.

  • Deal deadlines. In my first financing transaction, the investment banker opened by announcing an aggressive filing date with the SEC. It struck me as arbitrary, as it wasn’t tied to anything real such as a company running out of money. Nevertheless, the date was nonnegotiable, causing a tight, stressful schedule. We achieved it. With that lesson behind me, I noticed what happened to transactions without firm deadlines. When people or things became difficult, instead of working out the kinks, team members escaped into other priorities, leaving the transaction to founder.
  • Leading engineers and designers. The information age needs the creativity of designers and engineers to develop new concepts. That’s the good part. The hard part is they love their work and will relentlessly pursue developing something better. As a result, the end never arrives. Because competitive business pressures need projects to be “done,” leaders of creative talent must establish a due date, and short of a disaster, not waiver from it.
  • Audience engagement. In our impatient world, you must decide what matters most in each moment. Newscasters routinely preface their questions with “quickly” to prompt interviewees to get to the point. Executives in leadership seminars learn that summarizing their key career lessons and future dreams in five minutes raises audience engagement. A racing digital timer in front of a public speaker reminds them to land their message.

Make the most of time. Here are five practices for leveraging time:

  1. Establish a nonnegotiable time limit. Whether it is a date or number of minutes, make sure your initiative has a nonnegotiable time limit, and strictly enforce it.
  2. Advertise the limit. When you make a deadline public, the public will enforce it. It establishes their expectations and your accountability.
  3. Clear off your desktop. More than 50 years of research has shown that our brains don’t do well with multitasking. It decreases efficiency by as much as 40 percent and causes loss of vital information. A deadline forces you to eliminate distractions and concentrate on the primary task.
  4. Solicit feedback. While preparing, ask others for feedback. It will check your direction, generate new ideas, and sharpen your thinking.
  5. When it’s time to deliver, give it your all. Whether it is a speech, project, or transaction, when the time comes to deliver, give it all you got. You’ve worked hard to get there, and you want your effort to show.

Time limits, however painful, tighten focus, propel you over challenging hurdles, and maximize your chances of success.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 18 years has coached, taught and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the scariness of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, provides a self-guided discovery mission to navigate the adventure of pursuing one’s dreams based on the Journey principles. She can be reached at

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